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Groton - Noank Fire District taxpayers decided Thursday night to negotiate with the town over a long-term lease for the former Noank Elementary School on Smith Avenue.
Last fall, the town gave the district six months to exercise a first right of refusal for use of the building, which needs work, mostly on its roof and on a heating and cooling system that does not work. The building includes an auditorium, two classrooms and possibly a kitchen that could be used in tolerable weather.
The school sits on six acres that the town's School Reuse Committee noted is valuable as outdoor open space that, like the interior, could be used for community or private functions.
District Chairman Frank Socha said a serious discussion among the 55 residents who attended Thursday night's meeting preceded a 46-9 vote to acquire the property.
"I gave an overview of how we got to this point," said Socha, who was part of the committee. "And then, without a motion on the floor, we had a two-hour discussion. It was good. A lot of people were involved in the conversation."
Socha said there were strong opinions on both sides of the debate on issues ranging from the potential uses of the building and property to the expenses it might generate for taxpayers. Initially, it is expected to cost about $30,000 annually to maintain the building and grounds as is. Further investment will be necessary to expand into a five-room wing that's currently unusable because of damage caused by a leaky roof.
"It was a big vote," Socha said. "I'm encouraged that they feel we're going in right direction. It was definitely a show of support."
Another member of the committee, Dr. Ray Johnson, also was impressed with the turnout and the outcome. He said Socha started with an informal discussion to be sure that everyone had a chance to voice an opinion.
"No one could go away saying they didn't have a chance to express their thoughts," Johnson said. "I think every voice was heard. That's what Frank wanted and ... he achieved that."
Johnson said the vote protects the district's ability to manage what happens to the property.
"I think the people who voted in favor realized that once it's gone, it's gone. This was an opportunity to maintain control and develop the building and the property in the context of the landscape of the community."
Socha said he expects to meet with Town Manager Mark Oefinger next week and get the matter on the agenda later this month.
"With our budget coming up, we'll put something in it to bring in some professional analysis," Socha said.