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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Infrastructure Committee weighs Nashua’s possibilities, priorities in land buys

NASHUA – Debate over the city’s planning and priorities has put two pieces of legislation to buy land at a standstill.

Members of the Board of Aldermen’s Infrastructure Committee voted 3-2 at a Wednesday meeting to hold a resolution to buy 25 Crown St. for $1.425 million for a future park and ride and rail station.

At the same meeting, members voted 3-2 to indefinitely postpone buying three West Hollis Street parcels fronting the city landfill for $650,000, which Mayor Donnalee Lozeau has said could be put toward altering the dump’s entrance and exit, and one day house a consolidated public works facility.

Aldermen-at-Large Jim Donchess and Mark Cookson and Ward 9 Alderman Dan Moriarty voted in the majority for each piece of legislation. Aldermen Rick Dowd, Ward 2, and Diane Sheehan, Ward 3, voted in the minority for both.

The decision to hold the Crown Street purchase piece largely revolved around Moriarty’s request to see more information surrounding the plans.

There also was back-and-forth between Sheehan, Moriarty and Alderman-at-Large David Deane about the speed at which legislation should move along.

If the Crown Street resolution ultimately passes, $1.425 million of a $6.5 million Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program grant would be put toward purchasing more than 8 acres of land once owned by Armstrong Cabinets to be used for a future park and ride and potential rail station in Nashua.

The Executive Council will have to approve the plans first, though.

The board also was split on whether Crown Street would be the best place for a future rail system to land.

“When was the last time somebody came knocking on the front door of City Hall asking about when we’re going to put a park and ride on Crown Street?” Deane said, citing the number of traffic lights between Route 3 and the location. “I don’t understand why we would put a park and ride there.”

Sheehan said residents, including groups such as Visualize Nashua, are excited about the plans, suggesting that the city should seize the opportunity of buying the property.

The site once housed a custom cabinet manufacturer and is the only possible downtown location, lying along 800 feet of straight railway, which would be required of the project.

“Look what happens in the city when we know we need something, and somebody buys it and owns it for a month,” Sheehan said.

With the legislation held, it will be taken up at the committee’s next meeting in two weeks before the full board sees it again for a final vote.

However, the full board soon will see the resolution to buy 36, 844 and 848 W. Hollis St.

The Board of Public Works and the Planning Board each have issued favorable recommendations on the purchase. But Lozeau could not sell her plans enough to sway the majority of committee members. The committee had tabled the plans twice before.

Combined, the three West Hollis Street parcels make up approximately 3.4 acres and are assessed at $889,500. The city would be buying the tracts for $650,000, split between Pennichuck Acquisition Funds and general contingency funds.

Lozeau has said the hope is to make maneuvering the landfill easier in the short term, and to create a landfill buffer for the neighborhood. Long-term, the city could combine four Public Works facilities in front of the landfill, a project Lozeau has estimated would cost about $15 million in bonding.

Urging aldermen to focus on the property’s immediate future, Lozeau said buying the parcels stood on its own merit, even if Public Works never was consolidated.

The resolution had aldermen again debating whether future possibilities were reason enough to complete the first step of buying land.

“Timing, as with any property transaction, once the city’s in the market, the market changes,” said Ward 5 Alderman Mike Tabacsko, who represents the West Hollis Street neighborhood. “This is an opportunity that’s not likely to repeat itself, and the downside is significant, in both impact to the landfill operations and the neighborhood, if this opportunity is missed.”

Others pointed to city needs that they felt would benefit better from the $650,000.

Donchess pointed to the Board of Public Works’ nonpublic meeting minutes from Jan. 5 to suggest that the purchase is presented clearly as the first step toward consolidating Public Works. He wanted to see a full plan for financing the project before agreeing to buy its first three pieces, he said, questioning why the proposal was not put before the Capital Improvements Committee to be included on the city’s list of future projects.

“I look at capital projects that were rejected just last year because there was not enough money,” Donchess said, citing street and sidewalk paving, as well as education needs. “There’s a lot of worthwhile things on here that should be undertaken, but because we went through a prioritization, they were not funded.”

Cookson looked at another aspect of the Public Works consolidation: allowing Conway Ice Arena to expand to two rinks by moving the city’s street garage out of Stadium Drive.

“I don’t know how the Conway Ice Arena, approaching the city, requesting a section sheet of ice, would at all impact our street department facility,” Cookson said.

Lozeau said she was unwilling to move the streets garage at an impact to the taxpayer, and that Conway knows it would have to cover any costs involved in changes to the street garage.

“I believe it stands on its own merits just for the ownership of the land,” Lozeau said, referring to the West Hollis Street parcels. “Whether we move forward or not, the opportunity is here at a reasonable price, and we’ll have to look at those other things as we move forward.”

In order for the resolution to pass, it will require 10 votes from the full board in favor.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).