By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — Three years after the School District central office vacated the aging Tarbell School on Pepperell Road, the town finally has an interested buyer for the historic school building. And if things move along smoothly, it would remain a place to educate area children while generating property taxes for the town.
With an overwhelming majority vote, fall Town Meeting agreed last night to allow the Board of Selectmen to enter negotiations for sale of the Tarbell School property to Country Kids Preschool. The preschool is offering $35,000 for the property while planning to spend a minimum of $400,000 to renovate the dilapidated structure, built in 1912.
In addition, Town Meeting unanimously approved $25,000 in free cash to supplement a $90,000 state grant for the repair of the West Groton dam.
Saying that potential contamination of drinking water from failed septic systems in the Lost Lake neighborhood is a serious issue, Town Meeting also approved a series of spending articles for studies for the potential project to construct a sewer system for the lake area.
The town will spend $10,000 in free cash to prepare paperwork for a low-interest loan for the project from the state, $40,000 in free cash for an engineering review for the idea to ship wastewater from Lost Lake to the town of Ayer and $350,000 to prepare an environmental-impact report with the state for the “interbasin transfer of water.”
The funding request came from the Lost Lake Sewer Study Committee, which selectmen appointed some years ago out of concern that aging septic systems in the old neighborhood could fail in the near future, affecting private wells as well as Whitney Pond that supplies public drinking water. The committee has been talking with the town of Ayer about the possibility of sending wastewater there via the Four Corners neighborhood.
Russell Burke of the Economic Development Committee, as well as Mike Rasmussen from the Groton Board of Trade, expressed their support for the spending, saying a sewer system would help business development in Four Corners, which has some empty storefronts and undeveloped commercial land.
But the $12.5 million price tag for the Groton-Ayer sewer connection — which is lower than the projected cost of up to $20.6 million if the town were to construct its own sewer-treatment facility — sparked debate about whether the spending would be worth it. The anticipated betterment fee and user fees also prompted some residents to question how realistic the projected fees and cost burden per user are. The numbers are based on the number of households that could hook up to the system. But Bob Rafferty, an engineer from Woodward and Curran hired by the study committee, said residents have the option not to connect to the sewer system as long as their septic systems are working.
Resident Mike Manugian asked if any of the $400,000 already spent by the study committee would be recouped once the system is up and running. The answer is none, said committee member Carol Quinn.
Resident John Giger noted that there are too many unanswered questions for people to vote on a project that would cost more than $12 million.
“Homework hasn’t been done,” Giger said, calling the cost projections too vague and weak. He added the state could reject the town’s proposal after spending so much money, but the town has no backup plan.
“Plan B is water,” said Lost Lake resident Susan Nordberg. Many properties in the neighborhood are too small to fit in a well and a septic system, she said. But if a public water system is extended into the area, many homeowners could get rid of their wells and have enough space to install a new septic system.
But other residents noted that protecting the environment is important and is worth the investment.
Regarding the Tarbell School, some residents questioned how the deal with Country Kids Preschool would benefit the town financially. Resident Doug Browne suggested the town hand over the property to the preschool for $1, as the town plans to spend the same amount to upgrade the septic system at the school before selling it.
But Selectmen Chairman Anna Eliot said state law requires septic upgrades to sell the property.
Town Manager Mark Haddad said the town issued a request for proposals for Tarbell School three times over the past three years, and the preschool is the first and only one to respond. Currently operating out of the RiverCourt Residences, an assisted-living facility in West Groton Center, the preschool has operated for 25 years.
Owner Robin Kanei said she and the staff members are excited about the prospect of remaining in West Groton and are hoping to add community service components. Because the preschool is a for-profit business, it does not qualify for tax-exempt status, and is expected to bring in $8,000 to $10,000 into the town in property tax revenue, according to selectmen.