Hearing Continued on Variances for Chester College Property

CHESTER – Representatives for the defunct Chester College of New England again came before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) in search of four variances to enable the property to be sold and again put to use.

The former college is looking to subdivide a 1.1 acre parcel from a larger acreage sale it has nearly finalized with resident Peter Smith. He is looking to use a portion of the remaining 69 acres of the property for elderly housing. The 1.1 acre piece holds the Lane and Powers buildings, and would require four variances to fit town codes.

The variances are: permission to have a lot under two acres and with less than 290 feet of frontage, a higher percentage (54 percent) of impervious surface than is allowed (15 percent) and the need to have a 200-foot-diameter circle within the parcel.

The variances sought, engineers from TF Moran Inc. argue, don’t change anything physically on site. They are primarily lot line changes on paper, and changes, they say, that allow the property to keep its same roadside appearance.

That aesthetic has been important to residents who have spoken on what they’d like to see happen on the property, and it’s one that Karl Norwood of the NAI Norwood Group emphasized during the Tuesday, July 16 meeting. The NAI Norwood Group is marketing the property.

When the ZBA received the plans last month, the overarching sentiment expressed by board members was a reluctance to grant so many variances. Some members, especially Cass Buckley, argued that the point of the variances was to help the property sell, and that wasn’t the job of the ZBA.

The board withheld a vote on the variances to wait for a site walk. After the site walk, member Kevin Scott said he had a change of heart. Scott said the key to his new frame of mind is the fact that nothing on the ground will change because of the variances. He added that the property was unique in its set-up, and noted it had been vacant for over a year. It made sense to help the property move forward, he said.

Norwood said four colleges had reviewed the property and found it lacking for their needs. It had been difficult to find a buyer, but the company was excited about the deal with Smith.
Norwood added that while there were numerous variances being sought, at heart what they did was allow the physical property to go unchanged. It allows for a shared driveway, rather than two, and keeps the large green area that fronts on Chester Street untouched.

Norwood spoke about the importance of keeping the site’s current “flavor.”
Buckley said it would aid his decision to know what the plans were for the large parcel, a suggestion agreed to by some of the other members. Buckley said he thinks that without those plans, the cart was being put before the horse.

Scott said it wasn’t in the purview of the ZBA to suggest plans for the property, and the board should be making the decision on the facts in front of it, not future plans. Scott added that there was no guarantee that such plans would remain the same, and as such it was unwise to make a zoning decision on them.

Member Bob Packard echoed those statements. After a long discussion about the potential future use of the property, Packard said the ZBA was getting in over its head and should focus on the requests and information presented.

Norwood said it was Smith’s intention to come before the town with a “master plan” of the property, but that it wasn’t available at last week’s meeting. He suggested that if the view of the ZBA was that the master plan would help them understand the property and inform their decision, he would look to make it available at the next meeting.

“I understand that this is a leap of faith for you because you don’t know the use of the Lane Powers building,” said Norwood. Norwood said Smith is also set to meet with the planning board to discuss his plans for the property. ZBA members said it may be wise for them to attend that meeting.
The board voted to continue the hearing.

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