ANDOVER — Residents approved the budget for the town’s 2021 fiscal year at Town Meeting Saturday.
Gathered under a large tent months after they’d planned to, residents stayed six feet apart while approving a host of warrant articles, including the $197,825,031 budget and the sale of the Old Town Yard property.
Participants sat with their red-and-green sided voting paddles in paired-off, socially distant chairs outside the high school for the meeting, presided over by Town Moderator Sheila Doherty. A small section of the tent was cordoned off with caution tape for any attendees not wearing masks.
Opposed to the budget was Select Board Member Alex Vispoli, the only dissenting vote on the board when they approved the budget before it was presented for Saturday’s Town Meeting vote.
“The Select Board is the tax setting authority in the town of Andover,” Vispoli said at the meeting. “We had several years ago looked at trying to… keep the tax rate increase at the 10-year average. This budget reflects a 4.66% average increase in your average tax bill for the next year. That’s why I voted against it.”
The town voted to permit the sale of the Old Town Yard property and a portion of Lewis Street. The Old Town Yard is currently vacant and was most recently used by the Department of Public Works. The approval of this article allows the Select Board to sell the property for mixed-use development “in conformity with a community authored” request for proposal.
According to this year’s Finance Committee’s Report for the annual Town Meeting, “Drawing on five years of community input, the RFP seeks development that provides restaurants and retail, housing for seniors and young professionals, traffic improvements, adequate parking, ‘place-making’ opportunities for residents, community spaces…etc.”
While the proposal’s approval was met with applause, at least one resident was skeptical about the redevelopment.
“It’s a large project with a big impact on the town,” said John Murphy of Willard Circle. “If it’s done well it would be great, if not, it could be a disaster.”
Murphy voiced concern that a mix-use development could damage the character of the town.
“If we wound up with some large apartment complex in the heart of town, it could potentially change the feel of the center of town,” he said.
Joe Albuquerque, a former candidate for the Select Board, asked Town Manager Andrew Flanagan whether the mixed-use development would contribute to trains idling in town, which has been a concern raised by residents in the past.
Flanagan said that issue was largely resolved as of late. In the past his office used to get two to three complaints a week.
“We hadn’t got a single complaint about idling trains for three years and neither has the health division and that have been alleviated as an issue,” said Flanagan.
Residents also voted to allow the town to take by eminent domain the Town Yard property and a portion of Lewis Street. Flanagan said the article would allow the town to turn the two separate properties into one parcel that would make the conveyance of a plan to a developer easier.
Other notable articles that were approved were Article 24, which, according to the Finance Committee’s Annual Town Meeting Report, would transfer $3,660,000 to pay for the cost of purchasing capital equipment, infrastructure and other services related to capital improvements. One of the projects, worth $510,000, would create a Merrimack River Access point, which according to Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield would provide year-round emergency and public safety access to the Merrimack River.
“The town of Andover has the longest stretch of river shoreline than any other community in the Merrimack Valley and we don’t have a boat launch to launch marine units in an efficient way,” Mansfield said. “We basically have to drive the vehicle towing the boat into Lawrence or Methuen to get access to the river.”
Another capital project from free cash includes $625,000 for town office meeting room expansions and public access improvements to the town buildings in order to meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, which Flanagan said weren’t being met at the present time. The improvements include widening the entrance to town offices, installing ADA compliant counters and adding four conference rooms for public meetings.
“This project, if approved, will have no impact on the taxpayer but will allow us to avoid liability,” Flanagan said.
In addition, the winner of this year’s Virginia Cole Community Service Award, Charlie Kendrik, was announced about halfway through the voting on the 37 articles that made up this year’s Town Meeting.
Kendrik who was the chair of the Historic Mill District Taskforce, is moving out of town after living in the area with his wife for many years.
“He has touched the lives of untold number of Andover residents with his wisdom, vision, gentle manner and openness to all,” Doherty said.