PEPPERELL -- Selectmen and the Planning Board are re-opening dialogue about the Peter Fitzpatrick School rezoning.
Along with planning Board Chairman Richard McHugh, the board discussed the parcel and buildings Monday. An article at spring Town Meeting sought to rezone the area as commercial in hopes of attracting outside interest because the land, currently being used and maintained by the North Middlesex Regional School District, is coming back under the town's control in 2013.
"We are dealing with a vacant building in the heart of our downtown," Selectmen Chair Joseph Sergi said.
The cost of maintaining those buildings next year is the main issue, he said. It could range from between $50,000 to $100,000 annually, plus repair costs.
Housing developers could potentially build on the parcel as it is zoned now, but Sergi said that houses "means additional costs. With commercial we don't have additional services with it."
Because of the financial issues, Sergi said a new article for the October Town Meeting would be ideal, but McHugh said that would be difficult with the Planning Board's summer schedule.
At Town Meeting, both the Planning Board and selectmen were questioned about the rezoning.
"I am uninformed. I support a move to commercial, but I need to be able to answer questions that are asked," McHugh said.
One of the main concerns residents had was the type of businesses that could possibly come in, how it would affect rural
According to Town Administrator John Moak, any developer "you talk to would rather have the zoning set up beforehand rather than link themselves to it. The town needs to make decision on it before they consider."
"People who come to the mill site have been very inquisitive to the Peter Fitz parcel," Moak said.
Selectman Stephen Themelis called the parcel "an anchor," because of its location. The board agreed it is one of Pepperell's greatest assets.
"The pushback was a little more than what I thought. We need to educate folks," Sergi said. "Under the existing zoning, this is what you can do, and under commercial zoning, this is what you can do: That should be the discussion."
The Planning Board is attempting to get input from Pepperell residents and considering a survey, McHugh said, but the nature and perspective of that study was still in question.
Sergi cautioned that a survey could fashion expectations for people.
More hard facts, according to McHugh, are what is needed, and the board is in the process of researching.
If his board can better inform the public, he said, they will be better off standing behind a recommendation for the article at a future Town Meeting.
Financial costs and developer interests are difficult to project, but another challenge, Sergi said, has been to get information from the schools about their future with the building.
"It's unfortunate that we supported the building of a new building, but we have a building that is there and we are the landlords," he said. "We cannot continue polices and procedures that perpetuate the deficit."