Salem referendum on land purchase planned Wednesday

Salem - Voters will decide Wednesday whether the town should spend $450,000 to acquire a 14.5-acre parcel on the former Zemko Sawmill property.

About 70 residents attended a town meeting Wednesday night at the Salem School and voted to send the sale to referendum. Due to the size of the purchase price, voters have the final say.

Those who attended the hourlong meeting asked various questions on the condition of buildings on the property and the town's future plans for it. Some said the purchase was attractive because of the bargain price. The town said the former owner of the property asked $1 million for it in 2010.

The land, at 228 and 230 Hartford Road, is assessed at $906,800.

"I think we could look back on this 20 years from now, and I think we could say we made a mistake if we didn't buy it," resident George Householder III said.

The property is located between the Salem School, the town offices and the Round Hill Road Recreation Complex. Its acquisition would allow for the town to control contiguous land off Hartford Road as it aims to develop a new "town center" in its historic district.

First Selectman Kevin Lyden said residents have expressed a desire for a more walkable area around the Town Green. The town also plans to use the land to address its lack of storage space, specifically for public works. The land has five buildings with a combined storage space of 15,162 square feet.

Town officials said purchase of the land and the additional storage space would alleviate the need for the town to later build its own storage, possibly a costly endeavor.

There are also two other buildings on the land, which could be leased.

Much of the discussion on the sale revolved around how the town plans to finance it. Board of Finance Chairman William Weinschenker said the sale could effectively mean a one-time increase of 1 mill in the tax rate. For a homeowner with property assessed at $200,000, that would be an additional $200 in taxes.

But the town has other options to fund the sale. It could use about $106,000 in local capital improvement money it has acquired from the state. About $200,000 coming in from the Salem Country Gardens foreclosure sale could also be an option.

It will ultimately be the finance board's decision, although the uncertainty of the town's plans to cover the sale clearly unsettled some.

"I just wish that was more defined," said resident Matthew Darling, who favored the sale. "I think we should know where that money is coming from."

Some supported the sale simply to improve an unattractive piece of property in town. One man described it as being in "derelict" condition.

"We have this eyesore in the heart of our historic district," Lyden said. "We have the chance to eliminate that."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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