ORLEANS — The expectation remains that the owners of the Governor Prence Inn will sign a letter of interest allowing the town to explore potential reuses of the hilltop site, including housing. An update in executive session was on the select board’s agenda last night (Oct. 21).
As attorneys hammer out final details of the letter that could lead to an agreement for the town to purchase the property (with voter approval), the planning board is signaling that it wants a significant role in helping to sort through the variety of possible uses. That review has to be on a fast track to meet an early April deadline to get on the May 10 town meeting warrant.
“The planning board voted to request they be included in the process of the planning analysis for Governor Prence should funds be passed,” Mefford Runyon told his select board colleagues Oct. 14. “They know that affordable housing is gonna be involved in that. They would like to be the ones to have public hearings to try to get some sense of what people in town think about how that property should be used.”
Runyon, his board’s liaison to the planning board, said the latter recognizes that a consultant will have to be retained as part of the process. The planning board, he said, is “the most logical group” to address gathering public input. The Oct. 31 special town meeting warrant includes a $15,000 request for funds for a study, and the affordable housing trust is expected to chip in up to $25,000 more.
The select board member’s news came fresh from the planning board’s Oct. 13 meeting, at which members continued a recent discussion about their role in fostering economic development.
“Part of our charge is to make recommendations to town meeting, the select board, and the town administrator on all matters regarding the physical, economic, and environmental development of the town,” planning board vice chair Dick Hartmann said. “I think this is in our bailiwick. I’d like us to understand the types of things that could be done (at Governor Prence), to insert ourselves into that process a little bit for the benefit of the entire town.”
At the planning board’s meeting, Runyon said it was “unfortunate that the newspapers really represented it to the townspeople as an affordable housing initiative… I feel it’s a five-acre parcel in the middle of downtown and it’s really important that the town be able to control what happens there. Affordable housing is a partial use, but on five acres there are so many other possibilities.
“I think it’s really important for the town to be able to take control of the property and ultimately determine how it will be used. Ultimately, maybe the town doesn’t own it at all, (but) it’s an opportunity to shape it rather than let the vagaries of the free market take place. My fear is, with sewers going through there, you would end up with the condo development on Cove Road times 100. A huge residential development of $800,000 condos might do some people some good, but that’s not personally how I would like to see our downtown develop.”
Planning board member Debra Oakes said she doesn’t want the review to be consultant-driven and top-down. “I think it has to be grassroots-up,” she said. “It’s a magnificent parcel in a great location. We just can’t separate looking at it from getting some sense of what the town really thinks they like.”
George Meservey, director of planning and community development, stressed that the proposed review “is a future uses study, not a feasibility study. The purpose is to be able to know what the reasonable uses are that the town may wish to encourage there, or do some itself.”
“To add more confusion to what we’ve generated so far,” chairman Chip Bechtold said with a smile, “I have been talking with an old visionary you all know – I won’t give his name because I don’t have permission. Snow Library is looking for some space. The Academy theater operation is looking for space. There are a lot of needs in the town that haven’t really been addressed and need to be if you’re talking about five acres of land that might go for something to benefit the town and help the economy.”
Member Chet Crabtree proposed asking the select board “to authorize us to hold public hearings and work closely with the affordable housing trust to consider alternative uses of this land and report back on the findings by April 1… This might take precedence over other things on our agenda.” His colleagues agreed, and Runyon carried their message to his board the following night.