DRACUT -- In a Town Meeting that nearly didn't happen due to low turnout, a vocal majority of the 210 residents who came to the Dracut High School auditorium Monday night approved the use of about $900,000 of Community Preservation Committee funds to purchase 17 acres off Bridge Street for an affordable senior-housing project.

A similarly overwhelming voice vote at Town Meeting also advanced the question of whether Dracut should pay its $3.4 million share of a proposed $65 million renovation of Greater Lowell Technical High School to a Dec. 11 special election.

That election will ask residents to approve a debt exclusion to spread $3.4 million in new taxes over their tax bills for the next 20 years.

The vote in favor of the Dec. 11 special election followed presentations by GLTHS Superintendent of Schools Mary Jo Santoro and administrators who described various "critical needs" the project aims to address, including $21 million worth of repairs to the 40-year-old building's roof, heating ventilation, cooling and electrical and fire-alarm systems.

Also before the vote, several Greater Lowell Technical High School grads and parents and grandparents of current students spoke in glowing terms of what the school did for their professional careers and its importance to their family members' chance for future success.

Resident Rich Cowan, speaking in favor of the project, noted the state plans to cover 76 percent of the cost of the $65 million project.

"That is a great benefit for the town," said Cowan.

The majority voice approval to permit the Preservation panel to purchase 17 acres, including six acres of wetlands at 144 Greenmont Ave. followed a contentious debate over an amendment authored by selectmen and the Town Manager Dennis Piendak that would have made the purchase contingent on completing a $100,000 engineering study to verify that at least 60 affordable-housing units can be built there.

The selectmen's amendment failed decisively after several speakers noted there are more than 200 seniors on a waiting list for affordable housing, and that calling for a study, or insisting on "60 units or none at all" would unfairly delay the much-needed project.

"We are desperately in need of senior housing in Dracut," said Deborah DeWitt Ahern, one of several speakers who opposed the selectmen's amendment. "And this is the perfect land, near the pharmacies and grocery stores, easily accessible."

Scheduled as Town Meeting was, the day before one of the most highly anticipated general elections in decades, and with eight articles on this year's warrant, Town Clerk Kathy Graham and Moderator Leo Gaudette had expressed concern in the days leading up to the meeting about not reaching the legally required 200-resident quorum (about 1 percent of the town's 21,000 residents) to allow Town Meeting to take place. Gaudette, the town's former fire chief, said he double checked with Graham before the meeting began to be certain there were more than 200 residents registered for the meeting in the auditorium.

"I was prepared, if necessary, to put everything off until the next Town Meeting in June," said Gaudette.

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