Selectboard set to discuss land transfer with district

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Selectwoman Irene Wrenner explains her request to meet with the Essex Town School District to discuss potential land transfers before the unified school district’s July 1 start date. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

The Essex Selectboard will approach the Essex Town School District to discuss possible land transfers before the unified district’s July 1 start date after a narrow vote Monday night.

Selectwoman Irene Wrenner requested the meeting after considering recent voter-approved purchases by the Essex Westford School District’s two other two communities. She urged the town to consider doing the same.

“Knowing that we as elected officials are only temporary custodians of other people’s assets made me think … we could do nothing less than stand up for our voters, have this conversation and warn a meeting as soon as possible,” she said.

By a 3-2 count, the board agreed to contact the ETSD board and request a joint meeting. Andy Watts and chairman Max Levy dissented.

The town currently maintains the Prairie Fields at Essex Middle School and the Foster Road Park fields. It also leases 90 acres in the Saxon Hill area from the Essex Jct. School District on a 25-year lease that ends in 2029 and lets the mountain biking group Fellowship of the Wheel to maintain trails on the property, according to a memo from Essex Parks and Recreation director Ally Vile and town planner Greg Duggan.

Duggan said school officials told staff they hadn’t discussed potential transfers, but EWSD policy recognizes the facilities as a valuable community resource. Vile added the rec department has maintained a positive relationship with the school district, which consistently provides free space for the town’s programs.

Yet Wrenner thinks the town needed to ensure “decision-making equity” by allowing town residents to have the same conversation as village residents.

She was referring to the village’s recent purchase of Park Street School from its school district and the town of Westford’s purchase last year of two parcels around its school building.

ETSD chairwoman Kim Gleason explained those were exceptional circumstances exclusive to those communities.

The trustees sought Park Street School because it’s assuming oversight of Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks and wanted any facilities it uses under their purview, village president George Tyler said.

Plus, owning the building is helpful if repairs are necessary and may put the village in a better position to negotiate with developers for improvements around it, Tyler added.

Meanwhile, Westford’s purchase was an effort to detangle some school-town relationships and alleviate residents’ concerns over use and ownership of school land, Gleason said.

“This is not something that we’ve been blind to or haven’t thought about; it’s just not an issue in our town,” Gleason said.

Levy agreed, saying Wrenner’s proposal was a solution searching for a problem.

He wondered if the July 1 starting date is a misconstrued deadline. He pointed to the district’s articles of agreement, which state if the district wants to sell land after five years, municipalities get first dibs to purchase it for $1.

Wrenner said she’d prefer voters to have more control over the properties.

“I would rather see it done before July 1 so that we don’t become tenants rather than the landlord of the land that we own,” she said.

Purchasing the land when the district isn’t planning to sell will likely require a compelling reason, however, Gleason said, one she’s yet to hear.

Watts said that’s why he saw no reason to have an immediate discussion on the topic and viewed the vote to unify the school districts as an affirmation of the school owning the land.

“Unless there’s a mutually beneficial reason to transfer a piece of property from the school district to the town, it’s not going to happen anyway,” Watts said.

The majority favored starting the discussion, however, directing staff to contact the ETSD board, which has its last regularly scheduled meeting June 12. Gleason requested the selectboard clearly define its scope prior to the meeting.