EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 15, 2013

Chester residents asked to weigh campus purchase

By John Toole

---- — CHESTER — Voters will consider a $1.8 million bond issue Saturday for purchasing the former Chester College property, but passage appears unlikely.

Besides the hurdle of the required two-thirds voter approval, the Budget Committee opposes the special warrant article, selectmen have abstained from a recommendation and college trustees did not respond favorably when approached by selectmen.

But the warrant article will provide for discussion about the future of the property.

Stuart Arnett, consulting for town officials over the future of the property, said he will lay out options for townspeople that range from letting the market determine what happens to more active involvement by the town through zoning or acquisition.

“It’s unlikely the warrant article will pass as is,” Arnett said, conceding amendments may be offered at Town Meeting.

Chester College of New England closed a year ago amid financial difficulties.

The 70-acre campus has been marketed for $2.65 million.

Town planning coordinator Cynthia Robinson said college representatives are expected before the Planning Board next week to discuss subdivision.

Chester resident Peter Smith met with planners earlier this year for preliminary discussion of a possible senior housing proposal.

A subdivision of the campus to accommodate Smith’s plan would leave land in front that includes the former administrative offices, Nutting Hall and the Dalrymple Student Center.

Arnett said the land abutting Route 121 is what officials and townspeople have indicated is most important to them as they try to preserve the character of the town.

“It’s the first 10 to 20 percent of the site that is important,” he said.

Following his meetings with residents and officials, Arnett has recommended mixed-use development — offices, shops, restaurants.

“A reason to stop and get out of your car,” he said. “Everybody has said your suggestions are ensuring the look and feel of the village will continue.”

Smith’s housing development would be compatible with that vision, Arnett said.

The question for the town at this point is whether to leave the outcome to the market or try to influence what happens with the land through zoning or active financial involvement.

Arnett plans to discuss the scenarios with voters Saturday.

“We will kind of walk them through the options, from minimum effort to maximum effort,” he said.

Residents have expressed concern about the future of the campus since the college closed.

Operators of Granite House, a sober house in Derry, last year briefly explored expansion to the campus, but backed off in the face of opposition from residents.

But people welcomed another business.

Michelle Stein has said her business picked up when she acquired the former Douglas Hall and relocated her Bittersweet Blessings shop there from nearby Derry Road.

Town Meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday in the town multipurpose room, 84 Chester St.