The Town of Derry will not proceed with its plans to purchase a second piece of downtown property, after strong community opposition was expressed. While the $500,000 needed to purchase the property and demolish the building on that parcel and another town-owned property would have come from funds already established, community members commenting in the May 21 public hearing questioned not only the appropriations, but whether the purchase would benefit the downtown area.
Town Administrator John Anderson wrote in a memo that the Council had authorized him to enter into a purchase and sale agreement for a parcel earlier this year at Sawyer Court and Central Street. The first property was purchased from Everett Jabour. The proposed appropriation of $500,000 would pay for the purchase of the second parcel and for demolishing the buildings on both parcels.
This second parcel, owned by Rob Varney and located at 1 Sawyer Court, would join the first piece as a parcel to be marketed to developers, with the hope of improved economic development in the downtown.
The project was intended to be paid for with an appropriation of $500,000, with $180,000 from the Land and Building Capital Reserve fund, $270,000 from Assigned General Fund Balance, and a $50,000 budget transfer from “Economic Development, Other Professional Services,” a line item in the Executive Department budget.
The proposed action would reduce the Land and Buildings Capital Reserve Fund by $180,000, leaving a balance of $2,959.23, Anderson wrote in the memo. The project would improve access to the town-owned parking lot at Abbott Court, Anderson said, and would contribute to economic revitalization for downtown. Because the money was already in the budget and fund balance, it would have no tax impact, he said.
But in the subsequent public hearing, residents had strong arguments for and against the project.
Resident Michael Gendron said he had dedicated his volunteer hours to “promoting the things that are positive and good” about Derry. He helped found the Derry Downtown Committee and co-directs Derryfest and the Derry’s Got Talent showcase.
“We want to make downtown a social hub and a destination for out-of-town visitors to spend their disposable income,” Gendron said. But the only way that can happen, he said, is to market the downtown effectively, especially the parcels adjacent to Abbott Court. Abbott Court could become a medical facility, office building, small college or retail center, Gendron said, but only if the “gateway” parcels are acquired and marketed successfully.
“This is the exact time to invest in Derry’s future,” Gendron said. Steve Trefethen, a local commercial Realtor, had a different take. “To spend $375,000 for a piece of land and knock down the building, that sounds like a lot of money,” he said. The numbers didn’t work for Trefethen, who noted that with this project and the previous purchase of the Jabour parcel, the town would be spending close to $1 million for “a piece of land that doesn’t front on anything.”
He said no parcels in Southern New Hampshire were going for that price. David Choate, a Realtor with Grubb and Ellis who has worked with the town on the purchase of the two properties, disagreed. He said there are properties in New Hampshire selling for that amount, primarily in Portsmouth and on Route 101A near Nashua.
For a multi-unit building, the formula would be $60,000 per unit, making the eight-unit building up for sale at $480,000, Choate said. The town’s purchase and sales agreement was for $375,000, considerably less. Choate said a contract was signed in November and the due diligence was done in January. Varney was instructed to evict all the tenants by May 15, before the closing date, and all eventually left except for one, who was evicted through the court.
Varney said, “Several months ago, you people came to me and laid out the terms. One was that the building needed to be free of all tenants.” He had 10 renters at the time, seven women and three men, he said. “They were all handicapped in some way, most were 50 or older, and some had lived there 20 years,” Varney said.
None had cars, and one, he said, was “on his deathbed.” But they all found other homes, and he followed the town’s directive. The power is off, the building is cleaned out, and even the laundry room has been dismantled, Varney said.
“I’ve kept my end of the agreement,” he said. “I do feel some concern about the evictions,” Choate said. But the facility was also home to some of the darker side of Derry, with the police called to one unit while Choate was doing an inspection. Regardless, Choate said, “We have proceeded in good faith and good conscience.”
And, he said, “This is the only time the town will have the opportunity to acquire this property.” Former Councilor Kevin Coyle made several points during the public hearing. He first asked Anderson how much Choate was being paid, and when Anderson said, “Seven percent of the sales price, or $26,000,” Coyle noted that Choate had a “vested interest” in seeing the project proceed.
Coyle also noted, “If the deal is already done, why have a public hearing?” He questioned the “no tax impact” statement, noting that Varney pays taxes on the building now, and if the town buys it, that revenue will be taken away.
But Coyle was most concerned about what he called the “speculative” nature of the project.
Coyle, along with others, criticized the Council for not having a plan. “You are speculating – with my money,” he said. Kelly Martin and former Councilor Janet Fairbanks agreed, with Fairbanks saying, “Don’t invest in a ‘maybe.’”
“The plan,” Chairman Michael Fairbanks, Janet Fairbanks’ husband, said, “is to put out an RFP (Request for Proposals).” Like Trefethen, Coyle didn’t think a project off the main road could revitalize downtown.
“I’ve lived here 40 years, and the downtown has not changed in all that time,” he said. “It’s not going to change. If this was a good idea, a private developer would have come in and done it by now.” A private home, the Paradis residence at 3 Sawyer Court, will be affected by the sale, family members said. Michael Iannuzzi, who is engaged to Cheryl Paradis, said no one had approached the family about the project. Also, he said, “I don’t find the Abbott Court parking lot ‘under-utilized.’”
Iannuzzi and other family members were concerned about what the town project would do to their property value, and about the traffic it would generate if developed.
While David Choate said he had attempted to contact the Paradis family, with no response, Donna Paradis Lato differed.
“We did receive your correspondence,” she said. But her father died a year ago in March, and he left the house to his three children. It is still in probate, Lato said, and she didn’t think she could sell it under those conditions. She called the Grubb and Ellis office and left a message saying she wasn’t interested, she said.
The Council took a brief recess, and after coming back, voted twice to extend the meeting by 10 minutes. The Council took a roll call vote, with Tom Cardon, Mark Osborne, Albert Dimmock and Fairbanks voting against the purchase and Brad Benson, Neil Wetherbee and Phyllis Katsakiores voting for it. “It was not an easy decision, and it had a lot of ramifications,” Fairbanks said before adjournment.