In Norwich, A Push for Route 5 Site

Norwich — Town officials on Friday published an open letter recommending that the fire and police departments move to the ABC Dairy property on Route 5, despite the Selectboard’s decision earlier this month not to investigate the site further.

“It appears to me that they have decided to ignore the vote taken by the Selectboard to essentially take ABC off the table, which I find really surprising,” Selectboard member Keith Moran said on Monday.

Moran was one of three Selectmen who voted down a motion to gather more information about the property at the Selectboard’s last meeting, on July 9.

“I don’t know what they (the officials) expect us to do. The vote’s already been taken. I think the decision’s been made,” Moran said.

The letter, addressed from the fire chief, police chief, public works director and town manager to the Capital Facilities Planning Committee, outlined two plans. The plan it called the “phased program” would relocate the police department to the ABC Dairy site for $3 million, with the option of later moving in the fire department. The “full-program option” would do both at once for roughly double the price.

Either way, the property would be less expensive to develop than the existing facilities in the center of town, the letter said.

But opponents of the plan disagreed. The only improvements Moran considered necessary were to the police department, which has a leaky roof and lacks private interview rooms.

For just the projected purchase price of ABC Dairy — $950,000 — the town could build a perfectly adequate facility at the existing site in the center of town, Moran said, instead of “some massive institutional building.”

“If you gave me $950,000 and I already had land to put it on, I think I could build a really great property,” he said.

The $950,000 figure comes from a conversation in 2011 between the site’s owner, David Clem, of Lyme Properties in Hanover, and Town Manager Neil Fulton, who said that Clem had offered to take a loss of a quarter million dollars in selling the property.

The motion that the Selectboard voted down this month would have authorized Fulton to ask Clem for an updated price and to investigate environmental concerns about the site.

Fulton said that Moran underestimated the expense of building municipal facilities, which, compared to residential structures, have a separate, more stringent set of standards that drive up costs.

As part of the planning process, the town conducted a survey of about 300 residents’ opinions.

While 40 percent of respondents were against any rise in property taxes to finance the new facilities, the remainder were willing to pay at least $10 per $100,000 of valuation. In comparison, Fulton noted, his phased plan called for $12.50.

Moran pointed out another question, one that he had asked to include. It read, “How likely is the level of taxation in Norwich to cause you to move away, someday?”

About 57 percent said they were either “likely” or “very likely” to leave town because of the tax burden.

Former Selectwoman Sue Lupien brought up similar concerns in a letter that she read aloud at the Selectboard meeting.

“Year by year, this board has veered away from protecting the town — the townspeople — by relentless and unceasing expenditures which achieve the precise opposite of protection, a steady trend of endangerment and disintegration of the town, pushing one high priced action after another on the population and driving numbers of our community with modest means away,” she said.

Fulton countered that the school system was responsible for the growth in tax rates in recent years. While the town and school budgets appear on the same bill, the Selectboard only approves the town tax rate, which has remained essentially level, he said.

Yet it may be difficult to convince the Selectboard that a multimillion-dollar expenditure is necessary.

“Even at $950,000, it’s not a viable option,” Selectman Dan Goulet, who voted no, said.

Selectwoman Linda Cook, who was also opposed, could not be reached for comment.

Although Selectboard Chairman Christopher Ashley voted to obtain a price check on the property, he said he would respect the opinions of his fellow board members.

“It ought to be clear that it would not be wise to spend time exploring that site further,” he said.

Selectman Steve Flanders, also in favor, wasn’t so sure.

“It probably is the end of it, but one never knows. Members have changed their opinions before,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.