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Friday, October 14, 2011

Nashua mayor explains the need for private talks on land deal

NASHUA – For about a month now, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau has met privately with the people behind a controversial development on Pennichuck land.

With no one taking notes and no other elected officials present, Lozeau worked against a ticking clock.

The developer had an Oct. 21 closing date with Pennichuck Corp., and could have put a shovel to soil on the Concord Street parcel at any time after the deal was finalized.

North Concord Street Properties LLC has the green light from city planners to build 85 units of elderly housing on what is Pennichuck’s last untouched piece of developable land in Nashua’s watershed area. More than 100 residents have protested, claiming the project will harm the environment.

But Lozeau, in those closed-door chats, brokered a deal in which North Concord would delay its $2.2 million purchase of the land for as long as four months.

On Tuesday, Lozeau received aldermanic support for the delay – because the city needs approval for any changes to its merger agreement with Pennichuck – and announced her intention to keep negotiating with the two sides, in private.

Lozeau says she has no choice but to meet privately with Pennichuck officials and the developers behind North Concord, Bernie Plante and Kevin Slattery.

They requested to talk behind closed doors, Lozeau said. Because the city is not a partner in the real estate deal, Lozeau said she had to agree to their terms if another development option is to be reached.

“This is not my deal,” Lozeau said Thursday. “If you have two private entities having private conversations about a contract, and they have a willingness to have me at the table, that is their choice.”

The idea of Lozeau continuing her non-public conversations displeased two residents, Geoff Daly and Robert Sullivan, at an aldermen meeting Tuesday.

Daly has, since July, led the public charge against building the housing complex on the Pennichuck parcel, citing a long list of environmental concerns. And Sullivan last month joined the effort, voicing his opposition to city officials at meetings.

On Tuesday, Daly and Sullivan criticized Lozeau for talking with Pennichuck and North Concord in private, saying the city has a responsibility to keep residents informed.

Sullivan went as far as reminding Lozeau and aldermen of a non-public meeting between them and school board members in 2008 to discuss a teachers’ union contract proposal. A superior court judge ruled city officials broke the Right-to-Know Law when they held that private session.

But Lozeau on Thursday said her private discussions about the Pennichuck property can’t be compared with the private meeting about the teachers’ contract. That 2008 meeting was illegal because the boards of Aldermen and Education were there, she said.

Lozeau won’t reveal what options she, Pennichuck and North Concord are considering when they get together.

One option would presumably include the city compensating the developer for not building on the Concord Street parcel.

Daly has suggested Pennichuck and North Concord pursue a land swap. North Concord could build on a Pennichuck-owned parcel behind Harris Pond office park and shopping center and the Nashua parcel can be preserved, he said.

Lozeau said if a resolution is reached, then the public will learn the details because changes to Pennichuck’s merger agreement with the city need an aldermanic vote. (Nashua is in the process of buying Pennichuck Corp; regulatory meetings on the deal are scheduled for later this month.)

And if North Concord decides in the end to build on Concord Street, “maybe they won’t object to me talking about the options” that were discussed in private, she said.

Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy said he doesn’t object to Lozeau’s closed-door talks.

“You can’t play poker with your cards facing up and expect to win,” McCarthy said.

“There’s a need for confidentiality. In this case, we have no interest in the transaction at all. That is a private contract between two individuals who have no real need to talk about it at all.”

McCarthy echoed Lozeau in saying Plante and Slattery were “gracious” to stop the project and discuss alternatives with the city.

Alderman-at-Large Mark Cookson added: “I certainly respect her opinion, and, certainly, it would be difficult to negotiate anything publicly. I hope there’s some sort of record keeping: What was discussed in this process?”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or