Derry councilors say they were blindsided by and plan to investigate the pending sale of a former independent living facility to Rockingham County for transitional prisoner housing.
The property, owned by the Derry Housing and Redevelopment Authority, was put on the market for $675,000 after its tenant at 12 Peabody Road, the Vintage Grace retirement home, went bankrupt late last year.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, which most members joined by video call, Councilor Brian Chirichiello said in his capacity as a Rockingham County Executive Committee member he had learned the county planned to meet Friday to discuss the purchase.
“When I did some inquiry about why the county would want that property, I found out from a very reliable source that they’re looking to house transitional prisoners in that property,” Chirichiello said.
Councilors agreed to sign a letter opposing the move by the Derry Housing & Redevelopment Authority, with Councilor Richard Tripp referring to the county’s “clandestine” approach.
“Nobody from the county made mention to any of us councilors about this possibility,” said Chirichiello, who doesn’t think a halfway house should be located within 1,000 feet of Hood Middle School and Grinnell Elementary School.
Councilors expressed concerns that the county would not be required to pay local property taxes or adhere to any zoning regulations, with constituents having no say in the matter.
Chirichiello said he will try to get the Executive Committee to vote to remove the line item for the purchase from the county budget.
“I have a major issue with this. I only found out because I’m the executive board of the county. It looks like Commissioner Kevin Coyle actually signed the letter of intent. So, I’m a little bit troubled there,” Chirichiello said. “There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t smell right about this situation.”
Councilor Jim Morgan expressed frustration that there didn’t appear to be a bidding process for the sale of the property.
Rep. David Milz, who sits on the Derry Housing and Redevelopment Authority board, said Wednesday councilors went a little “overboard” with some accusations that were “totally false.”
“It was certainly an open process,” he said.
Milz said he had favored a plan to sell the property to the Salvation Army.
“Rockingham County actually approached us. We never approached Rockingham County to sell this,” Milz said. “We tried very much to bend over to sell it to the Salvation Army.”
He said the Derry Housing Authority was under pressure to sell the property quickly because it had limited resources to continue paying for utilities at the building.
The Salvation Army of Greater Derry is looking for a new home because its Folsom Road building is being acquired by the state via eminent domain to make room for a widened roadway off the new Exit 4A from Interstate 93.
According to Salvation Army Lt. Tyler Adcox, the organization was interested in buying the property initially but decided not to because the building would likely have required renovation and they hadn’t yet received an offer for its current building from the state. Given the Housing Authority’s push to sell the property quickly, the Salvation Army couldn’t make an offer in time, he said.
Adcox, who sits on the Derry Housing Authority board, was given an opportunity to vote on the decision to sell it to the county during nonpublic session. Adcox declined Wednesday to say how he voted because it was during a nonpublic session.
“The Salvation Army was interested in looking at this, which I thought was a great thing, because one, they need a location, and two, it’s off our tax rolls now, it would still be off our tax rolls. So, it’s a one-for-one trade off,” Councilor Morgan said at the meeting. “If the county moves on this, then they don’t pay property taxes and the Salvation Army still needs to find another facility in town, which means we’re going to lose two properties.”
The Executive Committee is due to discuss the building purchase during its Friday morning meeting, which is open to the public. In addition to Chirichiello, Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores also sits on the committee.
Town Administrator Dave Caron said he wasn’t sure what the rules and regulations for the Derry Housing Authority were in regards to the disposal of property.
Councilors agreed to launch the investigation into the sale with 91-A Right-to-Know requests.
“Just to make sure everything was done above board,” Councilor Josh Bourdon said. “We were blindsided by this.”
Milz said all of the requested 91-A documents will be made available to the council.
After the meeting, Morgan said Milz sits on both the Derry Housing Authority board and the Rockingham County Executive Committee. Morgan described it as representing both the buyer and the seller, which he said is an apparent conflict of interest. He also said it’s concerning that the Salvation Army wasn’t given enough time to negotiate a deal.
“It’s concerning that perhaps an elected official would not take into consideration his constituents best interests. The Salvation Army has been an anchor to this community helping our needy and provides tremendous value to Derry,” Morgan said. “I’m disappointed that David Milz or anyone doesn’t understand the value of that over what the county wants. It gravely calls into question what interests they would truly represent as none of this benefits the community.”
Milz called Morgan’s comments “spurious,” and said he has decided only to act on behalf of the Housing Authority in this matter, and will recuse himself from any votes regarding the purchase of the property at the Executive Committee meeting.
Ultimately, he said the letter of intent to purchase was added to the packet to put it on the record. There won’t be an actual vote on the purchase until June, he said.
Rockingham County Delegation Coordinator Cheryl Hurley said the purpose of Friday’s meeting is to bring the committee members up to speed on the proposed property sale and to discuss the the planned use of the property. While the county budget may not be finalized until June, Chirichiello told the Union Leader the language of the Letter of Intent, dated April 22, suggests to him that a preliminary decision will have to be reached on Friday that will put the county under contract.
He said the letter states, “This proposal is subject to the drawing of a formal purchase agreement (PSA) with the terms and conditions being acceptable to both parties and their counsel. From and after the effective date of this letter of intent to purchase, the parties shall use good faith efforts to negotiate and finalize the PSA by May 8, 2020.”
“So a formal contract has to be drawn by that date,” Chirichiello said.
“I’m very, very disappointed and upset and I’m going to do everything I can to fight this,” Chirichiello said.