Orford Voters Allow Renovation Plans for Former Academy to Move Forward

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/13/2018 9:07:01 PM
Modified: 3/13/2018 11:56:36 PM

Orford — Voters at Town Meeting on Tuesday night rejected an effort to derail the conversion of the former Orford Academy into apartments for seniors.

After a paper ballot vote of 110-63 against a warrant article transferring custody of the former academy from the Rivendell Interstate School District to the town, residents endorsed by a nonbinding voice vote the school district’s proposal to lease the structure to a Littleton, N.H.-based nonprofit that repurposes former institutional buildings and large homes.

The two votes at the Rivendell Academy gymnasium, following the debate-free passage of a $1.03 million municipal budget, ended months of wrangling over the extent of the plan’s benefits to the town, and over the process leading to the school district decision.

Littleton nonprofit Affordable Housing, Education and Development, or AHEAD, in Littleton aims to renovate the academy, which abuts Rivendell Academy, into 12 apartments for about $3.5 million, using grants, loans and tax credits to pay for it.

Town historian Carl Schmidt, who served on the task force considering uses of the 167-year-old building, observed that the project would meet a variety of objectives, including avoiding imposing any burden on Orford taxpayers and continuing the educational use of the building in the form of a Rivendell Academy program pairing students with residents.

“We always came back to the question, ‘Where is the money going to come from?’ ” Schmidt said. “We finally have the answer.”

Rivendell School Board member David Ricker, who also served on the task force for “more years than I would like to count,” said that “a lot of people looked at a lot of things,” including a potential Dartmouth-Hitchcock clinic, before settling on the senior housing proposal.

“If we don’t act upon this building the only thing that will happen is demolition,” Ricker said. “If we do not save it, we will be judged harshly. And I do not want to be judged harshly.

“It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s good enough.”

Opponents, including most of the Orford Planning Board, have been disagreeing since a majority of the Selectboard voted last July to sponsor a $500,000 federal Community Development Block Grant that AHEAD needed for the renovations to the academy. Objections included the fact that as a nonprofit, AHEAD would make payments in lieu of taxes instead of property taxes, unlike a business or a residential owner.

“We should be seeking to expand our tax base,” said Planning Board member Kelley Monahan, who had led the effort to have the town take custody of the building.

Another board member, Deborah McGoff, said that if such a project must go forward, “I would like to see senior housing in there for our seniors. It doesn’t necessarily mean it will be Orford residents.”

AHEAD officials have noted that because it would be using federal funds, the agency must consider residents based solely on age and income, not current place of residence.

Before the academy debate, which lasted more than an hour, voters approved a municipal budget that came in at about $57,000 more than voters agreed to raise from property taxes last year. The current tax rate for non-school municipal programs is $4.81 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Selectboard Chairman John Adams, a former town treasurer, said that almost half of the proposed budget increase comes in the form of $25,000 more for the police department, the better to offer higher pay to candidates for the position of police chief.

Christopher Kilmer, who had served as chief since 2008, resigned last year, and the town has seen several replacement candidates back out upon hearing of the $55,000 salary.

In one of several warrant articles separate from the operating budget, voters agreed to raise almost $226,000 to replenish seven different capital-reserve funds for maintenance and replacement of vehicles and heavy equipment, upkeep of buildings and equipment and road and bridge work.

And from the capital-reserve fund for highway department trucks, voters authorized the town to spend $97,000 to buy a 1.5-ton dump truck with plowing capacity, and to sell an existing one-ton truck in the fleet to raise money toward the purchase of the new vehicle. At Town Meeting in 2017, voters shot down a similar proposal at the end of a debate that took more than an hour.

Voters also approved gave the town the green light to spend:

$75,000 on paving of roads, with a particular emphasis on River Road.

$13,000 worth of contributions to social service agencies.

$5,000 for testing of the quality and amount of sand remaining in the town’s current sand pit.

As the gathering reached the 3 1/2-hour mark, the remaining voters rejected, after more than 20 minutes of debate, a petition to make the position of road agent an elective office.

In ballot voting for offices, Adams was re-elected to the Selectboard, 157-109 over Jim McGoff. For Planning Board, Harry Osmer (203 votes) and Terry Martin (152) were elected to the two available openings, while Monahan, an incumbent, fell short with 125 votes. Moderator Harrison Pease was re-elected, unopposed, with 259 votes. 

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and 603-727-3304.

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