Ayer town meeting tables plan for new senior center

Residents table plans for new senior center and deny water extension

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AYER – Though it had a short warrant, this year’s special fall town meeting featured lengthy discussions and negative responses on two proposed town projects.

This year’s meeting took place on Monday, Oct. 26 in the auditorium of Ayer Shirley Regional High School, with a noticeably smaller turnout than usual. Attendees were spaced out between each other and wearing face masks.

Of the nine articles up for debate, two were rejected

The first was Article Four, which asked permission for the Select Board to acquire the property at 211 West Main St. and turn it into a new senior center for the town.

Town Manager Robert Pontbriand gave a presentation on the proposed center, noting how the current Council on Aging headquarters on Pond Street is only about 2,000 square feet with no room for expansion and “not adequate” for the future of the town. Through a Senior Center Feasibility Study approved at the 2018 Town Meeting, the town noted that the West Main Street property has enough land to construct a 12,00 square foot building and 75 parking spaces for the center.

A motion to table the article was approved in a 69-32 vote after multiple residents stressed concerns about contaminating the land by developing on it. One of them was Laurie Nehring, president of the People of Ayer Concerned About the Environment group, who said she was in favor of developing a new senior center for the town but noted that the chosen site has a history of contamination reports throughout its previous owners. Nehring noted that the location has been home to a restaurant, a dry-cleaning business and a video store over the years. According to Nehring’s research, reports of contamination in the soil of the property started happening after the dry-cleaning business went bankrupt around 1994. It wasn’t until 2002, when an environmental assessment was performed on the property next door where a gas station was set to be built, that contaminants were found in the soil that had originated from the property of the dry-cleaning business.

“Can we clean it up? Yes, we can clean it up,” Nehring said at the meeting. “Should we be paying for it, is my question.”

The other article left cold at the town meeting was Article Nine, which asked permission to extend Ayer’s water and sewer lines from the town line on Harvard Road and the end of Markham Circle  to 320 Ayer Road in Harvard. This extension was designed to cater to a proposed senior residential housing project on Ayer Road, which is set to contain 45 units in its initial incarnation. Mark Wetzel, Ayer’s Department of Public Works superintendent, noted that the developer of the project would also need to obtain approval and permits from the Town of Harvard, along with all construction costs, inspection fees and connection fees.

Meetings attendees had questions about the long-term effects of this extension on the town’s water supply and why this was not discussed at length at a public Select Board meeting. Other residents wanted to hear how the Town of Harvard felt about the proposed extension before going forward with approving the project. With all of those questions and comments from the audience, a motion was approved to move the question to a vote for an approval, followed by a public vote denying approval for the extension.