Would require Special Town Meeting approval in April

Published December 20, 2018


NORTH READING — The town’s offer of $3,533,000 for the former site of New England Spring Water at 217 Main St. has been accepted by the seller.

Following nearly two months of executive sessions to evaluate all the angles involved in such a large real estate purchase, plus a few brief public sessions to facilitate the process, Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto announced the news at Monday’s Select Board meeting. He then outlined the steps that will be necessary for the town to take between now and a Special Town Meeting slated for Tuesday, April 2, 2019 to complete the deal.

According to Gilleberto, the town was approached by the owner of 217 Main Street in October, stating that the property was for sale and inquired whether the town would be interested in the property.

“An administrative review and evaluation of the property, and the town’s needs, was conducted between October and November 29,” he said. “This review identified potential public safety operations, public works operations, and office space as possible uses. The specific identified potential uses were as a Fire Station, public safety or combined public safety/public works vehicle maintenance facility, and DPW/Code Enforcement/Health administrative office space,” he said.

Subsequently, the Select Board voted on November 29 “that the property would uniquely meet the town’s needs,” he said.

Gilleberto explained that the sale is “contingent upon the parties agreeing to a purchase and sale agreement by January 16, 2019,” noting that the amount accepted by the seller was the town’s offer of $3,533,000.

Additionally, he said the purchase remains “contingent on the town completing inspections of the property and evaluation of all factors necessary to determine suitability of the property for the town’s use.”

The next step required of the Select Board is to request a reserve fund transfer of $40,000 from the Finance Committee. These funds would be used to complete an “evaluation of the condition of the property (and) identify any improvements required for the property to meet the town’s needs – including the projected cost of those improvements, and any incidental expenses associated with this proposed transaction,” Gilleberto stated.

In addition, the town is conducting an “overall analysis of public safety response times, including potential response times from this building,” he said. This is being done because of its potential use as a fire station to serve the west side of town.

Tight timeline

The timeline to complete this process is very tight. The T.A. said the town has “55 days from the signing of the purchase and sale agreement to complete these inspections and make a determination regarding the property’s suitability.”

Concurrently, the town has just 80 days “from the signing of the purchase and sale agreement to obtain funding for the acquisition, alteration, and outfitting of the property.”

Therefore, in order to meet such a timeline the Select Board is “tentatively anticipating calling a Special Town Meeting to be held on April 2, 2019 to request funding to acquire, alter, and outfit the property,” Gilleberto said.

Saying he was wearing his hat as a newly reappointed associate member of the Economic Development Committee, CPC member Chris Hayden questioned the need to remove from the town’s tax rolls a “big beautiful property for redevelopment” that has potential for other valuable commercial uses, on top of spending $3.5M to do so.

Select Board Chairman Michael Prisco responded that “from a distance I can see why it looks that way… but we have known for a long time that we (need) another location for our Fire Department. Based on the structure of this building it could fit the need very nicely for $3.5M.” If that is the case, that would potentially make it “worth losing some economic development” to acquire a centralized location with a usable structure in place, he said.

Prisco asked for the “latitude” to enable the town to do its “due diligence” over the next 55 days to justify the need for such an expense to the townspeople and he predicted that Hayden “may feel differently when we are done.”

Stating that this is an opportunity that would be “very hard to pass up,” Prisco promised that the board would hold workshops in advance of the Special Town Meeting to make sure they are prepared for all of these questions and more on April 2. “We will not do it in a vacuum,” he promised.

Warren Pearce, another longtime Community Planning Commission member, added that “every Master Plan since I have been on the CPC has included a fire station on the west side of town…It is not something that just came up.”

Select Board member Stephen O’Leary agreed. “I was a skeptic, but it is an opportunity for us to go fishing. We have a responsibility to do our due diligence before we pass on this opportunity,” he said, describing it as a “low risk” exercise for the town to evaluate how this property would fit into the its Master Plan.