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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

City officials argue about Pennichuck land before meeting privately

NASHUA – A few aldermen questioned the city’s handling of Pennichuck-owned property that could be commercially developed, but other officials defended the process.

The back-and-forth transpired Tuesday night shortly before the Board of Aldermen went into a non-public session with the Conservation Commission to discuss what the city can do about the Pennichuck property, with compensating the developer as a possible option.

The debate centered around a parcel off Concord Street for which the developer has city approval to build 85 units of elderly housing.

It is the last piece of untouched developable Pennichuck land in Nashua, and the developers – North Concord Street Properties LLC – can now start building at any time after closing a $2.2 million deal with Pennichuck Corp. on Monday.

Aldermen allowed the real estate deal when they approved the purchase of Pennichuck in November 2010. The city will officially acquire Pennichuck on Wednesday for $152 million, but it must honor the land deal.

It’s possible the city will compensate the developer by buying the property and keeping the land preserved. That would please more than a hundred residents who contend that the elderly housing complex would harm the watershed, a claim Pennichuck officials have denied.

Alderman-at-Large Jim Donchess, who started his term this month, criticized the city’s past handling of the land deal, saying officials weren’t transparent with residents. At two public hearings prior to the city entering the 2010 merger agreement with Pennichuck, Donchess said, there was no discussion about the property, known as “Parcel F.”

And Alderman-at-Large Barbara Pressly, who was serving when the board approved the merger agreement, said aldermen were offered few details about the parcel.

Pressly said she still would have supported buying Pennichuck Corp., but more public information about the Concord Street land could have made a difference.

Her comments led Ward 3 Alderman Diane Sheehan to say Pressly’s recollections were a mischaracterization of negotiations with Pennichuck. Pressly answered she would appreciate not being told she mischaracterizes things.

Responding to Donchess, Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy said the board couldn’t publicly discuss Parcel F until the merger was complete because of confidentiality reasons. He said he would have “loved” to have discussed the property sooner.

Details about the parcel were later made public in the unsealing of minutes recording the city’s negotiations with Pennichuck, McCarthy said. But Donchess asked how residents would have the wherewithal to blindly find information about the parcel in those meeting minutes without knowing the land deal had happened.

Residents didn’t know until the city Planning Board approved the elderly housing complex in July, Donchess said. He added that he had a problem with officials entering a non-public session at Tuesday’s meeting.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau addressed Donchess by saying she didn’t need to be reminded of the importance of Parcel F; she recognized its value early on.

Pennichuck has had a purchase-and-sales agreement with North Concord since 2005, and interest by the city in the land prior to that wasn’t equally received by the company, in large part because Nashua was trying to take over Pennichuck through eminent domain, she said.

Lozeau then asked the board to go into non-public session to discuss options the city has. All but two aldermen – Mark Cookson and Paul Chasse – agreed, and the Conservation Commission echoed the need to discuss it privately.

Lozeau said the developer asked for a possible city-offered solution to be discussed privately, and she cited a clause of the state’s open meetings law that allows public officials to meet behind closed doors to discuss the consideration of acquisition, sale or lease of property.

The mayor added she soon expects the minutes of the session to become public.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-6528 or