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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pennichuck deal raises tension and threat of police investigation

NASHUA – The development of Pennichuck-owned property continues to stir passions.

With the discovery that the city wanted to buy a controversial Pennichuck parcel eight years ago, one member of the Board of Aldermen now seeks a criminal inquiry, claiming that certain officials “buried” information about this possible purchase.

At a board meeting Tuesday night, Alderman-at-Large Barbara Pressly unveiled e-mails from 2003 showing how city officials had taken steps to buy land that is now slated for development and is the source of environmental concern for residents.

Pressly called for a police investigation into why aldermen didn’t know about the city’s prior attempt to buy the land, especially with decisions being made this year to acquire Pennichuck Corp. and to allow the controversial parcel to be developed for housing.

“I don’t know what to think,” Pressly said. “How come these things happen?”

Her charge elicited a strong rebuttal from Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy, who was part of the 2003 conversations. McCarthy said he had honestly forgotten about the city’s brief attempt to protect the parcel from development.

“There was no criminal involvement. That accusation is ridiculous,” he said.

Nashua Police Deputy Chief Scott Howe said Wednesday that the department was contacted to investigate the matter, but will not do anything at this time. Police, in turn, contacted the city’s legal department, and if corporate counsel at City Hall suspects anything criminal transpired, then police will step in, Howe said.

As The Telegraph reported Tuesday, e-mails from 2003 showed that a Conservation Commission member approached Pennichuck Corp. to buy a roughly 30-acre parcel off Concord Street. Conversations ensued about a possible sale price and the need to preserve the land.

But whether Pennichuck intended to sell the property or just kick tires is hard to discern from the communications. What the e-mails reveal is that a Pennichuck CEO eventually turned down negotiations because he was supposedly concerned about the city’s impending eminent domain action on the company.

Eight years later, Pennichuck is selling the parcel for $2.2 million to a local developer who intends to build an 85-unit elderly housing complex known as Hayden Green on 32 acres there.

Residents and many city officials object to the development, citing potential environmental risks to the Pennichuck watershed.

In July, the city Planning Board approved the housing project.

Despite reaching a deal to pay more than $200 million to buy the water utility and protect the watershed from further development, the city now has little recourse to block construction and is under threat of a lawsuit by the developer – North Concord Street Properties LLC – if any officials’ actions lead to the delay or halting of the project.

But eight years ago, the land was available for purchase, prompting the Conservation Commission to approach the company, as illustrated in the e-mails.

Pressly presented those communications to the board, saying she was disappointed she and other city officials didn’t learn about this possible purchase sooner. She didn’t say how she obtained the messages.

McCarthy, who was among the city officials mentioned in the communications, then stepped down from his elevated seat as board president. He asked Alderman-at-Large Ben Clemons to assume the duty of president and then spoke from Clemons’ seat.

McCarthy said he would “ignore the innuendo and threats” and added that Pressly’s actions were typical of a campaign season. McCarthy is running for re-election.

McCarthy mentioned how a few months ago he was “accused of being at a secret meeting” about the Pennichuck parcel. He said no such meeting happened, and that his statement this summer about having a recollection of the property apparently was because of this 2003 sale discussion.

McCarthy said that as the communications show, he walked the property eight years ago, and that the city discussed trying to buy the land, separate of Nashua’s larger goal of acquiring Pennichuck Corp.

“But frankly, (Pennichuck CEO Don) Correll was never interested,” McCarthy told aldermen.

The Conservation Commission created a list of 100 properties the city could purchase, and the Pennichuck parcel was one, he said.

McCarthy also explained why he had more reason to forget the possible deal. That year, his mother and brother died, and he lost his job.

The board accepted the communications to be placed on file, and McCarthy returned to his regular seat.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.