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School upgrades, land purchase
highlight Scituate Town Meeting

Posted by dinouye  May 15, 2010 04:22 PM

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Residents will have an eye on the calendar when they vote on the two items on the Town Meeting warrant Monday: Renovations at Wampatuck Elementary School that need to begin before fall, and a $1.8 million purchase of waterfront property.

The Pier 44 property, the site of a restaurant that has been closed for several years, has been at the eye of a legal storm involving three lawsuits since 2006.

In the debate running up to Town Meeting, some have suggested that the town wants to buy the property simply to settle the lawsuits, while proponents argue that this is a rare opportunity to acquire a prime parcel on Scituate Harbor.

Through an agreement in the US Bankruptcy Court for Massachusetts, the town has until mid-June — 30 days after tomorrow’s Special Town Meeting — to purchase the property, located at the intersection of Hatherly and Jericho roads.

The legal wrangling began in May 2006, when Pier 44’s owner, David Pallotta, through his company Dichrisda LLC, applied to put a condominium development on the one-acre site and was denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Since then, ‘‘matters have been drawn out and extremely contentious,’’ said the Bankruptcy Court, which took over the matter after Dichrisda filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2008.

As of April 2, when Scituate officials signed the Bankruptcy Court agreement, Dichrisda owed the town $68,974.34 in water and sewer fees and real estate taxes. In a 2008 court document, Dichrisda said it had spent $336,729.87 on architects, engineers, and attorneys for the property.

If the purchase is approved at Town Meeting, all legal proceedings will be dropped, including the lawsuits against Selectman John Danehey, whose legal fees are covered by the town’s insurance, but who, if he lost at trial and subsequent appeals, would have had to pay damages from his own pocket, according to his attorney, Adam Simms.

Town officials bristle at the notion that they would purchase the property because of those lawsuits, and Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi said she has been ‘‘disheartened’’ by the misinformation swirling on the blogosphere about the lawsuits, which she said have cost the town about $29,000 since 2008.

‘‘There’s been a real misperception out there that the town is buying the land to settle the lawsuits,’’ said Vinchesi, who described Pier 44 as an ‘‘absolutely fabulous’’ piece of property.

Board of Selectman Chairman Joe Norton calls the land a ‘‘gem of all gems,’’ and by purchasing the site, which the Bankruptcy Court values at $2.6 million, Scituate residents will have access to ever-shrinking waterfront property.

‘‘All one has to do is go down and stand in the parking lot of Pier 44 and look out at the lighthouse and see that view to see why it is important’’ to buy the property, Norton said.

It is not clear how the town would use the property. The bankruptcy agreement stipulates that townspeople need to approve both the purchase and its use, and the warrant article would give the selectmen the final say over the use of the land.

‘‘I’ve had my phone ringing off the hook,’’ said Selectman Rick Murraycq in a recent interview. ‘‘Everybody’s got their own opinion as to what to do with it.’’

The purchase would be funded through the ‘‘mitigation’’ funds from the MBTA. The 2002 agreement, which gave the town about $7 million for such uses as recreation and historical preservation, stipulated that $3 million of the funds be used to acquire open space.

Because the town would be acquiring property that has been developed, however, officials need another formal agreement from the MBTA allowing this purchase.

Officials said they have an oral agreement with the MBTA blessing the purchase and will formalize that understanding if Town Meeting approves the sale.

Scituate has until October 2010 to spend the balance of its mitigation funds, and officials haven’t decided how to use the roughly $1 million that would remain for open space if Pier 44 is purchased, Norton said.

The other big-ticket item at tomorrow night’s Town Meeting will ask residents to raise their taxes, enabling the town to borrow a total of $2.33 million to renovate Wampatuck Elementary School.

Under the state law Proposition 2 1/2, towns cannot increase overall property tax revenue by more than 2.5 percent a year unless voters agree to exceed the limits. Monday's vote would exclude the cost of repaying the money from these limits.

Renovating Wampatuck Elementary, which officials say was built in 1957, would cost taxpayers approximately $3.4 million over 20 years, according to the town’s projections. Of that, almost $1.1 million would be interest payments.

The building needs roof repairs, new tiles, updated fire safety systems and electrical systems, a new heating system, and a new boiler.

‘‘The boiler system is basically the real main culprit,’’ said Paul Donlan, director of business and finance for the Scituate schools.

The town asked the Massachusetts School Building Authority for state assistance with the renovations in 2008, officials said, and was approved this spring.

Vinchesi said the schools had to time the repairs around the assistance program, which will reimburse Scituate 42 percent of the costs. It was, ‘‘Wait ... wait ... wait ... Go! Go now!’’ Vinchesi said.

Officials need to begin the work soon, Donlan said, to have the new boiler and heating systems in place before the weather turns cold.

Based on Scituate’s average single-home value of about $505,800, officials say they expect the long-term impact to be about $434.58 per household, or about $21.73 a year over the 20-year bond, which carries a 4.5 percent interest rate.

If the debt-exclusion measures passes, residents would vote on it at a June 19 townwide vote, officials said.

Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at mollyakconnors@gmail.com.

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