Weston’s first selectman was authorized last week to take the first step in pursuing the purchase of property adjacent to the town and school complex.
Despite some mixed feelings by the selectmen and members of the public, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously on Thursday, March 21, to allow First Selectman Gayle Weinstein to submit an 8-24 referral request to the Planning and Zoning Commission for the potential purchase of 48 Norfield Road. By state statute 8-24, P&Z is required to review leases and purchase agreements entered into by the town, as well as to determine whether potential projects on municipal property are an appropriate use of that property.
While no specific plans for the property are on the table yet, P&Z will be asked to give the OK to pursue the purchase.
The house on the northeast corner of Norfield and Weston roads is owned by Fairfield County Bank, which acquired it from former Weston First Selectman George Guidera. The one-acre piece of property on which the house sits borders the town hall/Norfield firehouse property to the east and the Onion Barn property to the north.
Several ideas were discussed for possible uses for the house during a special public comment session at the beginning of the selectmen’s March 21 meeting.
Town officials have said one possibility might be to move the municipal land use offices there. They are currently located in the Town Hall Annex, a portable building on School Road that is past its life expectancy.
Some members of the public suggested the town could take advantage of what most agreed is a reasonable asking price — $750,000 — then hold on to the property and “flip it” for a profit in the future when the housing market improves. Or, some said, maybe the town could make it usable for office space and lease it out.
Several people said they want to know the total costs involved before being asked to decide if the purchase is a good deal.
Namuk Cho of Walnut Lane asked the selectmen to figure out how much it would cost to renovate the building and to carry the house each year (heat, electricity, maintenance, etc.), and what the town would be giving up in revenue by taking it off the tax rolls.
It sounds like a good investment, Mr. Cho said, but it might be cheaper to build another pre-fabricated building.
Resident Bob Ferguson agreed, saying the town needs a master plan before purchasing. The plan should include cost estimates for things like meeting OSHA requirements, insulation, bringing the building up to code, parking requirements, and other improvements to the building and grounds.
Mr. Ferguson also echoed the sentiments of many who like the idea of the town owning the property but who worry about the cost. The town and school district are always being asked to weigh wants versus needs, and he said that “this would be at the top of my list for wants” — but is it really a need? he asked.
Jeff Mera of September Lane said he, too, agrees it is a good investment, but he is concerned the town has more pressing needs.
“Rather than spending three-quarter million dollars on office space, I’d much rather see that spent on” school security, Mr. Mera said.
Richard Frische expressed concern about what he believes to be the town’s past record of poor maintenance of its buildings. He said he is “ambivalent” about the purchase. “I like the property, but adding more to a budget that doesn’t seem to be able to handle what we already own is maybe the wrong thing to do,” Mr. Frische said.
Frank Billone said the “elephant in the room” is declining enrollment at the schools, which means school facilities that the town already owns can easily be made available for municipal office space.
Selectman Dennis Tracey pointed out the town has “too much space whether we buy this piece of property or not,” and the space is not “interchangeable.”
Several people spoke about the benefits of the town owning the property, not just the building that might be used for office space.
Margaret Wirtenberg, a land use planner by training, said completing the “superblock” of town-owned property in the center of town gives the town desired control over the area, improves safety, and makes it easier to implement portions of the town plan.
Mark Harper, who has lived in Weston his whole life, said he supports taking advantage of the opportunity to “complete” the 90-acre block of land owned by the town. “We need a town center that connects, and that’s the last piece of the pie.”
Julie Sidhu of Georgetown Road said while she is not often in favor of the town spending money, she is in favor of this purchase, in large part because she wants sidewalks in the center of town.
The town has applied for a grant to have sidewalks run from School Road all the way through the center of town. That corner of Norfield and Weston roads is the only section the town doesn’t own, and it would be easier to put sidewalks around the corner and up Norfield Road to town hall if it did, Ms. Sidhu said.
Ray Rauth, who serves on the town Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee with Ms. Sidhu, said he, too, would like to see the town own the property.
“It’s a natural extension of the town green” and an opportunity to create “soft trails,” to encourage more walking and biking, Mr. Rauth said. “We’re not spending money, we’re acquiring an asset,” he said.
Resident Helen de Keijzer agreed, saying she has seen the town allow other properties like this slip through its fingers due to a lack of long-range vision and planning. “It’s very important to take advantage of this opportunity. … I’d hate to see us lose this,” Ms. de Keijzer said.
Lucy Bowden agreed. “This is the core and the history of our town and we should get it,” she said. But, she acknowledged, “I’m not wild about the price.”
The selectmen said they, too, are wrestling with the same issues expressed by the public — there are definite advantages to owning the property, but they are hesitant to spend the money.
Selectman Tracey said he doesn’t like the idea of “buying it just because it’s available,” especially without having a plan and knowing all the costs involved. But, he said, in taking a long-term view, he believes it’s a good opportunity.
Selectman David Muller said he doesn’t doubt the town can “optimize the use of the space,” and he “strongly support[s] moving forward with the 8-24” referral process.
Ms. Weinstein pointed out they were not making the decision whether to purchase the property now, just whether to start the ball rolling by asking P&Z for a positive 8-24 referral.
That process includes gathering more information, like cost estimates for basic renovations. P&Z will hold a public hearing, she said, and then, if it gives a favorable report, the question of how the town will pay for the purchase would go to a Town Meeting vote.
The town has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the bank, which gives the town about five months to pursue buying the property at the negotiated price of $750,000 before the bank will start to look for other buyers.