GROTON -- A proposal by local developers to renovate Squannacook Hall in West Groton met unexpected resistance at a Planning Board meeting held to decide whether members should recommend the concept plan at Town Meeting.
Having been closed for months per selectmen, a request for proposals was issued for contractors interested in purchasing the historic building for renovation and re-use.
After a false start, a second RFP yielded a proposal by developers Halsey Platt and Chris Brown who believed that they could re-purpose Squannacook Hall as a rental property.
Appearing before the Planning Board Thursday, Platt said he and his partner intended to renovate the building to include three single bedroom apartments and one two bedroom unit.
One of the major problems with doing anything with the property was its small size, about a half-acre, which made it difficult to install an up-to-date septic system and provide adequate parking for its intended uses.
But Platt said providing an arrangement could be made with the church next door for sharing a driveway giving access to the rear of the West Main Street property, parking would not be an issue.
As for septic, space at the front of the building could be used for that.
Other improvements would be the removal of aluminum siding to restore the building's historic brick facade, addition of a new fire escape at the side of the building for use by second-floor tenants, and removal of a handicapped ramp.
"We think that this is a viable project," concluded Platt. "The frame of the building is in good shape. We both think that building is saveable."
"I think this a great project for the town," said board member Timothy Svarczkopf. "It presents so many great benefits."
"I think that this is a wonderful example of adaptive re-use and it provides some great affordable housing," said member Scott Wilson. "I think the concept is right on the money."
Members of the Christian Union Church next door to Squannacook Hall had objections to the plan.
"We'd like to be good neighbors," said church member Carl Rodrigues. "And we want to be fair. But so far, what we've seen, it's not fair."
Rodrigues pointed out that the assumption that the building property was a half-acre was wrong. It was only a quarter-acre.
Further, he claimed that the church's property line covered 75 percent of the width of the alley where the shared driveway was to go.
Rodrigues also questioned the assumption that nine parking spaces could be created at Squannacook Hall when the church was denied more parking at the rear of its own property due to wetlands.
Rodrigues said he doubted the buyers of the town's property could get an easement for a shared driveway.
Calling the use of the Squannacook property "somewhat symbiotic" in terms of access by the church and the town, Selectmen member Peter Cunningham said if nothing could be done with the property, then that would leave the town with no option but to demolish the hall.
That notion was supported by resident George Wheatley who thought Platt and Brown's plans placed too much of a burden on so small a piece of property. If the building were demolished, the empty lot could be sold to the church for parking.
The Planning Board raised other concerns including lighting, landscaping, the need for variances from the town's zoning bylaws, funding sources, and whether the units would be condominiums or rental.
The rest of the board agreed with member George Barringer that the applicants met the limited requirements of a concept plan and had the right to make their case at Town Meeting.
Members voted to recommend the plan to Town Meeting for approval.
A second vote also recommended that the Squannacook property be rezoned from public use to residential/agricultural. A change needed if the transition from public use to housing was to happen.
Also Thursday, members considered a proposal by Robert Kiley, under contract with the estate of Rita O'Connell, to build new homes on a 25-acre parcel off Lowell and Schoolhouse Roads.
According to Kiley attorney Robert Collins, the flexible development plan calls for a sub-division of nine lots, one of which includes an existing home.
To be constructed on the eight remaining 1-2 acre lots will be five-bedroom homes with the remaining 11 acres to be deeded to the town's Water Department to help in protecting a well site on adjacent property.
To be called Chamberlain Mills, the proposed subdivision consists of a single access to the road leading to a rotary off which separate driveways will radiate, including one that will be shared by a number of the new homes.
Collins ran through issues addressed in the plan that had drawn the concern of board members at a previous meeting before running into trouble on the question of the amount of disturbance construction would have on the heavily wooded acreage.
Member Russell Burke wanted to know how many of the larger trees on the property engineer Stan Dillis intended to cut to make way for the new homes.
Dillis said it was unknown until more concrete plans could be drawn up during the definitive plan-approval stage of the review process. Burke demanded to know how many trees over 12 inches in diameter were on the property.
"There are thousands of them," replied Dillis. Was Burke suggesting that all of them be marked for saving?
But Burke's demand was backed up by Town Planner Michelle Collette quoting from the bylaws which indicate that the marking of such trees was required.
Collins agreed that all trees more than 10 inches in diameter would be marked.
The public hearing was continued to a future meeting.