By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- Selectmen are weighing on the option to tear down Squannacook Hall on West Main Street after Town Meeting on Tuesday night rejected the board's proposal to sell the 75-year-old property to a local builder who hoped to convert it into four apartment units.
Letting the aging structure continue to decay creates liability issues for the town, Selectman Joshua Degen said.
"It can't sit vacant," Selectman Peter Cunningham also said about the building, which once served as the hub of West Groton neighborhood activities.
Halsey Platt, the builder who had an agreement with the town to buy it for $100, said selectmen first need to meet with the officials from Christian Union Church next door who vehemently opposed to his apartment project to resolve their concern about losing parking space. Selectmen say they are willing to sit down with the church leaders.
But, "If this doesn't go forward, we will be definitely looking at the demolition scenario," Cunningham said.
Selectmen plan to discuss the next steps for the Squannacook Hall at their meeting on Monday night. Selectmen and Platt had an agreement under which the town would spend $30,000 to install a septic system and sell it to Platt for $100. Selectmen have said the town would recoup the spending in a few years as the apartment complex would generate about $10,000 in tax revenues. Selectmen could not get a two-thirds vote required for such property sales transaction at Town Meeting, however. Selectman Stuart Schulman believes the nay votes mostly came from members of the Christian Union Church.
Church members argued at Town Meeting that the church had long shared a driveway with the town accessing the back of Squannacook Hall and use of the hall's rear area for church parking. Redevelopment of the hall would create hardship for church members to gather there, they said.
Degen said, however, that the town has long looked the other way on the use of the town property by the church and that it does not give the church the right to try to squander the town's opportunity to sell it for the benefit of all taxpayers. Though the town was going to sell it for $100, Platt, the owner of Platt Builders in Groton, was going to invest considerably into the building to put it back on the tax roll, some selectmen said.
Degen noted that the church members indicated on Tuesday night that the church was interested in acquiring the hall's lot once the building is demolished so that they could used it for parking. Cunningham said some church members cheered when selectmen mentioned the hall may be demolished. Cunningham called the church members' reaction "disturbing."
Schulman said he hopes Halsey will work with the church to hammer out a solution on the parking issue. But, Halsey said Wednesday that it's the Board of Selectmen that needs to discuss the issue with the church. A resident asked during Town Meeting if there is a way to make the development happen while providing some parking solutions to the church. The resident was right, Halsey said.
"Selectmen need to work it out with the church," Halsey said.