At Tuesday night’s Derry Town Council meeting, Councilor Brian Chirichiello announced he was told by a Rockingham County commissioner that the county is no longer pursuing the $600,000 purchase of the former Vintage Grace independent living facility at 12 Peabody Road.
Rockingham County Commissioner Kevin Coyle told the Union Leader it was the sellers — the Derry Housing and Redevelopment Authority — who backed out of the deal.
The news came as a relief to councilors who expressed frustration at the proposed deal when they learned about it two weeks ago. The county had plans to turn the facility into a transitional living facility for prisoners.
The seven-member council unanimously opposed the deal and agreed to write a letter expressing their dismay and investigate the deal’s origins. Chirichiello said he didn’t want a halfway house within 1,000 feet of two schools and close to senior housing.
“We would have fought that tooth and nail to prevent it,” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said.
Chirichiello told the Union Leader he believes the deal fell apart because there was too much political heat. After councilors first discussed it in a meeting and shared the information with the public, Chirchiello said the situation “blew up.”
“I had three days of phone calls. … I had more calls than I ever had in 15 years at the town,” Chirichiello said.
He first learned of the deal when the letter of intent was included in a packet for members of the county executive committee to review before its May 8 meeting.
Councilors said they felt blindsided by the news, but Coyle said that letter of intent was the normal channel for informing the public of a pending deal that was still in its infancy.
“Instead of picking up the phone, they grandstanded and had people all riled up,” Coyle said of the council.
Coyle said the matter was overblown for political reasons, and said he never got the chance to make the county’s case for why they needed a transitional living center.
He said he grew up in Derry and attended the elementary and middle schools near the building, as did his own kids. He had no concerns about putting a halfway house in the area.
Coyle said the people that facility would have served would have been mostly misdemeanor-level offenders, and they’re generally people who are “down on their luck” with mental illnesses and addictions.
But with transitional housing, they’re far less likely to commit crimes, Coyle said. Without it, they’re often homeless and driven to desperation.
“Nobody wants it in their town because they don’t understand what it is and the need for it,” he said. “You can pretend these people don’t exist, but they’re in your community.”
While the facility would have been close to schools, it would have also been half a mile away from the Center for Life Management, Derry’s community mental health center, Coyle said.
Councilors previously suspected the origin of the deal was fraught with conflicts of interest. But Coyle said the Housing Authority’s Realtor approached the county about the property in early April. Coyle said the Realtor knew the county was looking for something to meet their transitional living needs because he had previously shown them a similar property.
Coyle said the county will continue to search for a transitional living facility in a major population center with nearby resources.
The Salvation Army of Greater Derry was interested in the property as well. The nonprofit will need to move soon since the state acquired its current property via eminent domain.
But the Derry Housing Authority was in a rush to sell the property due to its ongoing utility costs, according to Rep. David Milz, who sits on the Housing Authority board.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor Jim Morgan said he wanted to look into those expenses with an eye toward saving the property for the Salvation Army.
“Perhaps we can pick up those minimal expenses, which I can’t imagine would be more than a couple thousand bucks over the next two or three months,” Morgan said.
Salvation Army Lt. Tyler Adcox told the Union Leader the organization will again explore purchasing the property.
“We are interested in the property and we are working with our higher ups on what our next steps will be,” Adcox said.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lague, the former chair of the Derry Housing Authority board, resigned from the board on April 23, one day after the letter of intent was signed during a non-public meeting. Lague declined to comment publicly about the decision.