Chester Selectmen Agree to Pay for Contracted Planner

CHESTER – Because the board of selectmen has agreed to pick up the tab, the planning board will be moving forward with hiring the Better Future Alliance to help it plan for the use of the former Chester College of New England property, a 70-acre parcel in the heart of town.
The selectmen agreed to cover the costs at their Oct. 3 meeting, attended by members of the planning board.

The suggestion that the town’s volunteers who sit on various land use boards could use some expertise when handling the valuable property was initially proposed by planning board alternate Mike Weider, but was soon agreed to by the planning board.
The need for the expert help was prompted from working with resident developer Peter Smith, who has presented plans to use the former college property for a senior living complex. Smith, who has had success with a similar venture in Peterborough, had plans that did not fit well with the town’s zoning ordinance, largely because Chester is set almost exclusively for single-family home development.
During a meeting with the planning board, Smith asked for direction on how quickly he could expect to get through the planning approval process, and it was then that members began to note how inundating the project would be. It wouldn’t be done soon, members explained, and estimated about a year of meetings with land use boards like themselves, the zoning board of adjustment and the conservation commission.
Smith’s plans include various items that have no precedent in Chester’s zoning regulations, or are outside the requirements, things like three-story buildings and a high unit count.
But planning members have said that Smith’s intended use could have great value to Chester.
When discussing whether to hire a planning consultant last week, planning board chair Brian Sullivan strove to make it clear that they were not looking to hire the Better Future Alliance to aid Smith in his work, but to help the town navigate a process with whoever might eventually purchase the land and develop it.
Smith is in negotiations for the land but does not own the deed. After a couple meetings with the planning board, the last one on Sept. 11, he has not reached out to it again.
“We’re not biased to any proposal,” said Sullivan. “There are some significant challenges, to say the least… and all of us have full-time jobs and know what it takes to coordinate something like this.”
Planning board members have expressed confidence in the plan presented by Smith at their meetings, lauding it for its ability to keep seniors in town and to create jobs and use the property for a worthwhile end.
Weider explained to the selectmen that the town needed to take a hand in the property’s development, and that it was clear from the start that it was going to cost the town some money to get the piece redeveloped. Weider explained that the Better Future Alliance would be used as a technical sounding board and as a central place for a developer to go, instead of waiting for meetings of the land use boards.
Selectman Jack Cannon sought more information as to how a consultant would work with the town, but agreed that the Better Future Alliance brought a lot to the table, especially as it had helped the town navigate whether to purchase the property earlier this year. That was an idea turned down by voters at Town Meeting. While many wanted a direct hand in the property’s future, the cost of the property ultimately led to the failure of the proposition.
Weider said the town was at risk with any developer of the property, and the more knowledge it had going into the work, the more rights the town could retain. It was important to put controls in place early, he explained.
“It would be easy if someone put a road down the middle and put houses up,” said Weider, because the town was geared for that kind of development. He pointed to the many impacts a development could have on the town and its services, and how an experienced planner could help the town navigate those impacts.
The selectmen unanimously agreed to accept the costs of the planning board’s hiring of the Better Future Alliance, the money to be taken out of the legal budget line. No definite figures for that work have been agreed to, or whether the cost will come by hourly increments or within a specific timeframe.
The selectmen, led by Cannon, wanted another meeting with the boards involved before approving a contract with the group.
The discussion on whether to accept the costs lasted for about an hour, the board delving into various related issues and opinions (See related story page 7 in this weeks edition).

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