GROTON -- A proposal by developers to renovate Squannacook Hall in West Groton met unexpected resistance at a Planning Board meeting held to decide whether it should recommend the plan to town meeting.
Having been closed for months per order of the Board of Selectmen, an RFP (Request for Proposal) was issued for contractors interested in purchasing the historic building for renovation and re-use.
After a false start, a second RFP yielded a proposal by developers Halsey Platt and Chris Brown who believed that they could re-purpose Squannacook Hall as rental property.
Appearing before the Planning Board Sept. 26, Platt said he and his partner intend to renovate the building to include three single-bedroom apartments and one two-bedroom unit.
One of the major problems with doing anything with the property is its small size, about half an acre. The size makes it difficult to install an up-to-date septic system and provide adequate parking for its intended uses.
But Platt said providing an arrangement could be made with the church next door for sharing a driveway giving access to the rear of the West Main Street property, parking would not be an issue.
As for septic, space at the front of the building could be used for that.
Other improvements would be removal of aluminum siding to restore the building's historic brick facade, addition of a new fire escape at the side of the building for use by second floor tenants and removal of a handicapped-accessible ramp.
"We think that this is a viable project," concluded Platt. "The frame of the building is in good shape. We both think that building is save-able."
"I think this a great project for the town," said board member Timothy Svarczkopf. "It presents so many great benefits."
"I think this is a wonderful example of adaptive re-use and it provides some great affordable housing," agreed fellow board member Scott Wilson. "I think the concept is right on the money."
But both Svarczkopf and Scott were premature in their praises.
When it came time for input from the public, members of the Christian Union Church next door to Squannacook Hall had objections to the plan.
"We'd like to be good neighbors," assured church member Carl Rodrigues, "And we want to be fair. But so far, what we've seen, it's not fair."
Rodrigues pointed out that the assumption that the building property is half an acre is wrong. It's only a quarter of an acre.
Furthermore, he claimed that the church's property line covers 75 percent of the width of the alley where the shared driveway was to go.
Rodrigues also questioned the assumption that nine parking spaces could be created at Squannacook Hall when the church was denied creating more parking at the rear of its own property due to wetlands.
Rodrigues concluded by stating that he doubted the buyers of the town's property could get an easement for a shared driveway.
Calling the use of the Squannacook property "somewhat symbiotic" in terms of access by both the church and the town, Selectman Peter Cunningham said if nothing can be done with the property, then that would leave the town with no other option but to demolish the hall.
That notion was supported by resident George Wheatley, who thought Platt and Brown's plans placed too much of a burden on so small a piece of property. If the building were demolished, the empty lot could be sold to the church for parking.
For its part, the Planning Board raised other concerns including lighting, landscaping, the need for variances from the town's zoning bylaws, funding sources and whether the units would be condominiums or rental.
In the end, the rest of the board agreed with member George Barringer that the applicants met the limited requirements of a concept plan and had the right to make their case before Town Meeting.
On that basis, board members voted to recommend the plan to Town Meeting.
A second vote recommended that the Squannacook property be rezoned from public use to residential/agricultural: A change needed if the transition from public use to housing was to happen.
Also at their meeting of Sept. 26, board members considered a proposal by Robert Kiley, under contract with the estate of Rita O'Connell, to build new homes on a 25-acre parcel located off Lowell and Schoolhouse roads.
According to Kiley attorney Robert Collins, the flexible development plan calls for a subdivision of nine lots, one of which includes an existing home.
To be constructed on the eight remaining 1- to 2-acre lots will be five-bedroom homes, with the remaining 11 acres to be deeded to the town's Water Department to help in protecting a well site on adjacent property.
To be called Chamberlain Mills, the proposed subdivision consists of a single access to the road leading to a rotary off of which separate driveways will radiate, including one that will be shared by a number of the new homes.
Collins ran through a series of issues addressed in the plan that had drawn the concern of board members at a previous meeting. He then ran into trouble on the question of the amount of disturbance construction would have on the heavily wooded acreage.
More specifically, board member Russell Burke wanted to know how many of the larger trees on the property engineer Stan Dillis intended to cut to make way for the new homes.
Dillis said it's unknown until more concrete plans can be drawn up during the definitive plan approval stage of the review process. But that was not good enough for Burke who demanded to know how many trees over 12 inches in diameter were on the property.
"There are thousands of them," replied Dillis. Was Burke suggesting that all of them be marked for saving?
But Burke's demand was backed up by town planner Michelle Collette quoting from the bylaws saying that the marking of such trees is required.
In the end, Collins agreed that all trees over 10 inches in diameter would be marked.
With the issue settled, the public hearing was continued to a future meeting.