College Property Could Take Six Months or Longer for Approval

CHESTER – While planning board members have said there is value to having elder care apartments in town, they also note concern that a plan to do just that is far outside their current regulations.
In a planning session Sept. 11 to review resident Peter Smith’s plans for the former Chester College of New England property, the planning board was dubious that it could get through his requests in the time frame he was seeking.

Smith has been working with NAI Norwood Group, which represents the college, to purchase approximately 70 acres in the center of town. But with an ambitious plan and a tentative Jan. 10 closing date, Smith has explained to the planning board that time constraints are a challenge in making the project fiscally viable.
Smith is looking to do a lot with the property to make it similar to a continuum care retirement community, minus skilled nursing. But to make the numbers work, he’s looking to put a lot of units into the acreage, 289 as presented. The one- and two-bedroom rental units would be spread out among numerous buildings clustered around the property.
The plan runs afoul of the town’s regulations in numerous areas, according to Smith’s engineer for the project, resident Bill Gregsak. He listed them at a previous meeting as follows:
• Density. The property would only allow for 85 units according to regulations.
• Construction of three-story buildings, not currently allowed in town.
• A plan to temporarily use the residentially zoned Wadleigh Library as commercial space.
• A desire to have more than six units per building.
• The likelihood of wetlands and property line setback encroachment.
The planning board began to tackle a few of these issues at its meeting last week, but the outcome was a general agreement that to get the plan through all of the many hurdles, at least six months were required.
Karl Norwood of the NAI Norwood Group asked if there were a way to phase the approval process so that Smith would know there was light at the end of the tunnel. Board members said each piece of the project was tied to the next piece, and everything had to be considered together.
Board members noted their willingness to work with Smith on his plan. Member Mike Weider suggested the town reach out to a planning consultant like the Better Future Alliance, which helped the town consider buying the property itself before Town Meeting last year.
Weider noted that even on top of town regulations, time was going to get eaten up with engineering review and myriad smaller matters. He conceded that the town doesn’t have the expertise to plan such a project as presented.
“If we want to see this develop out, maybe it’s worth it,” said Weider.
Members noted concern with setting precedents with the project. Weider noted that other local developments may wait until Smith has his approvals, then come to the town looking for changes to their own projects.
Conservation commission member Chuck Myette attended the meeting and said he wanted to tackle some of the conservation issues the property presented.
Myette said the project, though not officially labeled as such, was a cluster or conservation subdivision. That kind of project allows for greater density, as it clusters homes more closely together and leaves large portions of land untouched in conservation easements.
Complete wetland mapping has not been done on the site, so some of Myette’s questions could not be answered.
The crux of that conversation was whether a conservation easement would be sought for the 60 acres that will be left, once the subdivision is built out.
While Myette wanted the developer to consider what third party would monitor that easement and how its upkeep would be managed, paid for and enforced, Smith said he wasn’t looking for an easement.
Smith noted that he has plans to leave the land untouched, but wanted to avoid an easement.
Myette questioned that approach, saying the development was clearly intending to cluster homes and get a higher density than is typically allowed, and when that is done, the rule is to offset the increased density with open land.
Myette said the goal is to make development run-off neutral, and the plan for the property was already tinkering with a sensitive area around North Pond.
Smith wants to subdivide for three single-family homes along North Pond Road.
North Pond Road is prone to flooding, and those who know the area have been concerned with how development on the college piece would affect the road and the sensitive flora and fauna in the area, including the endangered Blanding’s Turtle and a rare cedar swamp.
Gregsak noted that while the proposed unit density is high, the units were small and located in a few buildings, and the college itself had 140 beds, and could have expanded if it so desired.
While the board was ready to set up a meeting with representation from relevant town boards to move along the process, Smith said he should first meet the players on his side of things.
Norwood noted in the meeting that while there was an extended January deadline for closing on the property, the bank is pleased with Smith’s plans and would likely extend that deadline.
“Rational thought will prevail if we’re all working on this,” said Norwood.

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