GROTON -- In a narrow victory for naysayers, residents at the second session of town meeting Monday night voted against supporting a plan by the town's administration to sell the former Prescott School building to a private developer.
In order to pass, the measure needed a two-thirds vote of those present, which at one point totaled 161.
But by the time voting was conducted on the Prescott issue, only 137 remained with 53 of those voting against; enough to stymie the simple 84 majority who decided in favor of the sale.
Technically, the measure that was before town meeting only gave the Board of Selectmen the authority to negotiate for the sale or lease of the historic building. But with business owner Gregg Yanchenko prepared to buy the Main Street property, it seemed to many present a foregone conclusion that the sale of the building was more than likely.
In fact, Yanchenko had replied to an RFP (Request For Proposal) issued by the town seeking buyers for the Prescott building offering to pay $35,000 for the site to use as office space.
Wording in a purchase and sales agreement with the town also included a guarantee by Yanchenko to lease space outside the building to the town for $1 per year for use as municipal parking.
Although the developer planned to spend $65,000 to prepare the land for use as parking, the town would maintain it afterwards and pay liability insurance as it does for a similarly leased lot adjacent to Town Hall.
In addition, Yanchenko planned to provide a walkway from the Prescott property to the rail trail and allow the town use of the old schoolyard for at least four public events each year.
Finally, wording in the purchase and sales agreement would have given the town an option to buy back the Prescott property if it was sold for the buying price of $35,000 and the cost of upgrading the parking lot and renovations.
On the floor of town meeting, Yanchenko told residents that he planned to invest an estimated $1.7 million in renovation work in the building, which he characterized as virtually uninhabitable as it now stands despite current occupancy by the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District central offices.
A separate warrant article not addressed at the May 5 town meeting would, if passed, have given Yanchenko a break on potential property taxes for the former school building by graduating them slowly upward over a 7-year period.
All of which proved too much for many voters at town meeting who complained that the $35,000 selling price was far below market value for the property.
"Thirty-five thousand is too law," declared resident Randy Baron. "We're giving it away."
Others had strong sentimental attachments to the school that at different times was a high school and elementary school. For them, keeping the property in municipal hands for community use was paramount.
Prescott Reuse Committee member Berta Erickson defended the notion of retaining ownership of the building based on the intentions of the original donators of the land who restricted it for educational use.
"On that premise," said Erickson, "it should remain for community use. Once we sell it, it'll be gone forever."
At one point, Planning Board member Russell Burke, citing many unanswered questions about the building and its potential sale, motioned that the measure be postponed. That action was defeated on a narrow 71-76 vote.
From there, debate continued with residents calling for other uses for Prescott including as a new Town Hall or community center and more questions about its market value.
One resident akinned Yanchenko's whole redevelopment plan to "a round peg in a square hole."
"It does not fit," he insisted.
As it turned out, enough residents at town meeting agreed with him and voted against the article sending the future of the Prescott building back to the drawing board.
Other business was also conducted at the night's second session including consideration of more spending items presented by the Community Preservation Committee.
With little debate, voters approved the appropriation of $109,590 to pay for erosion control efforts and shore restoration at Sargisson Beach.
Not so simple was a request by the Board of Selectmen of $47,000 for the Country Club to pay for improvements to its driving range. Recommended by both the board and the Finance Committee, the appropriation was characterized as part of ongoing efforts to make the club more attractive to customers and to eventually become self-sustaining.
Some residents were skeptical, however, especially when it was said that the club cost the town $30,000 a year in addition to other expenditures such as golf carts, mowers and other maintenance items.
"We're working very hard to generate more revenue for the club," explained town manager Mark Haddad. "This (refurbishing the driving range) is one way to do that."
Selectman Joshua Degen, never a strong supporter of the Country Club, reminded residents that taxpayers paid for more than the $30,000 in direct financial aid to the club and that only 3 percent of the town's population actually used its facilities. By contrast, Sargisson Beach, he noted, was free and open to everyone.
Degen finished by urging residents to vote on the issue not on how they felt about the Country Club, but by using their heads and pocketbooks.
In the end, however, residents chose to support the appropriation, as they did $47,618 to cover increased hours for the town's housing coordinator from 19 per week to 25.
Finally, voters had time to consider a pair of amendments to the code of Groton including one governing wetlands.
The proposed changes to the wetlands bylaw came about following difficulties the Groton Electric Light Department had with the Conservation Commission over its plan to build a new headquarters off Station Avenue.
At the time, there were feelings expressed that the ConsCom took too literal an interpretation of the bylaw regarding encroachment into wetlands.
The new language approved by voters at town meeting will increase the clarity of the law, better align the bylaw with state regulations, and clarify standards for previously disturbed areas.
A second change to the code met with more spirited opposition as some residents objected to amendments to the bylaw regarding storage of unregistered vehicles on private property.
The proposed language, explained Town Clerk Michael Bouchard, was intended to "better define the conditions of permissible storage for unregistered vehicles and the process for obtaining a permit."
Although the new language clarified such issues as concealment, who was authorized to issue violation notices and fines and when they would take effect, some residents wanted to know if vehicles owned by teenagers prior to receiving their drivers' licenses would require a $25 permit? And what about antique cars being worked on? What about vehicles trapped on "landlocked" property?
Others claimed that the fines to be issued were simply a way for the town to bleed residents of more money.
In the end, however, a majority of voters approved the amendment, 102-59.
With a dozen more warrant articles yet to be considered, residents voted to continue town meeting until May 12.