ANDOVER — The Planning Board was unable to take a stand on the Merrimack College dorm plans this week as two of the four board members deliberating on the controversial project declined to vote.
That left town staff, neighbors and college officials scratching their heads after Tuesday night's meeting, wondering what happens next.
"They didn't announce any concerns and they didn't ask any questions," said Merrimack College spokesman Jim Chiavelli, referring to board members as they neared the end of last night's meeting. "We asked if they needed anything more."
Then, after the deadlock vote, he said, "We walked away saying, 'What just happened?'"
About 50 neighbors of the college packed the third-floor conference room in the town offices. With the air-conditioning not working, planning staff members opened the windows in the steamy, crowded room, hoping to alleviate the heat. It didn't work.
Throughout the hearing residents could be heard grumbling that it appeared the college was getting all the breaks while the taxpayers were getting roughshod treatment. An attorney working for the opponents even issued a vague threat to sue if the process ended up with a positive recommendation from the Planning Board.
In the end, the public hearing remained open on the proposal to build four new dorms and a community center on open space off Rockridge Road.
Materazzo said he asked if there were any more questions from the board and called for a vote to close the hearing.
Voting in favor of closing it were acting Chairwoman Joan Duff along with Vincent Chiozzi. Abstaining from taking a vote were Jay Doherty and Ann Knowles, Materazzo said. That left the board deadlocked at 2-2. Normally, there would be five voting members out of the six present, he said. But the other two members, Zach Bergeron and Steve Pouliot, have recused themselves from the deliberation, citing a potential for conflict of interest. Bergeron attended Merrimack College and Pouliot has had past business dealings with the college.
Materazzo said the hearing will be continued to Sept. 16, at which point he is hopeful that board members can take a vote to close the hearing and then make its final recommendations to Building Inspector Chris Clemente on how the dormitory project should proceed.
He said failure by the board to vote on a recommendation would allow the college to go ahead and build the project any way it likes.
"Any concessions get lost if the board denies it or fails to vote on it," he said. "What's in the balance here is if the board chooses not to make a recommendation, the enhancements the college is offering could be compromised. That's the reality of it."
To date, he said, the college has agreed to move the community center back about 10 feet so that it lines up with the two dorms facing Rockridge Road. In addition, the college has agreed to erect a five-foot fence, along with a buffer of trees and bushes.
The college has also agreed to install a gate at the end of Rockridge Road so that delivery trucks would no longer use the road to access the college.
But residents were skeptical, noting that similar promises for past expansion projects have not been kept.
Jennifer Ross of 66 Rockridge Road said that in another part of the campus where new dorms have been built a fence was crumbling down and the buildings were spray-painted.
"They say we should be confident but there are broken lights and holes in the buildings," she added.
Materazzo said complaints about the campus should be directed to the college administrators.
Others said dozens of trucks go through the neighborhood daily on their way to the student cafeteria. Others complained about the internal traffic flow on the campus.
Materazzo and others asked if a gate would help and it was agreed that it likely would help in stemming the flow of truck traffic. They also noted that any comments or concerns regarding the flow of traffic on-campus would be dealt with by the college.