Don't let land issue tank Groton school project

Some astonishing costs are associated with Groton’s plan to build a new middle school on Fort Hill just below Fitch High School. The town has already spent $800,000 on the middle school plans, for example. The total cost of the school building project, which encompasses both the new school and renovation of three elementary schools, is $184 million. Probably most important is this figure: the state has committed to reimburse the town $100 million.

Groton officials, school supporters, parents and residents worked for years to devise a school renovation and building plan acceptable to the town’s voters. Several plans were defeated and the hefty reimbursement the town now stands to get was no small contributing factor to the current plan’s ultimate passage.

Yet even in light of these facts and the knowledge that the state’s dismal financial condition would make it highly unlikely, if not impossible, to duplicate such a generous state reimbursement should the current school plans fall apart, the plan, indeed, could be in jeopardy.

The public learned last week that the state’s Office of the Attorney General told Groton officials the town must gain court approval before it can change use of the property slated for middle school development – the so-called Merritt property that is deed restricted for open space and recreational use. As a substitute for the Merritt property, the town intends to preserve as open space another parcel of land, a 20-acre site called Boulder Heights off the end of Colver Avenue.

The Town Council delayed a vote on the land swap until March 27 in light of this new information.

While town officials openly discussed this land swap plan for years while the school project was debated, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection approved the plan, the Office of the Attorney General says that is not enough.

“This particular property was purchased by Groton on a referendum for open space conservation, largely with bond funds intended for open space conservation,” Jaclyn Severance, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Attorney General told a reporter early this week. “Under the law, neither a municipality nor a legislature can alter a restricted purpose; that authority rests only with the court.”

Given the amount of time the school project has been in the works, along with the copious number of meetings and discussions completed among school, state and local officials on this subject, it seems outrageous this potential roadblock was not recognized and fully addressed much earlier in this process. It also is puzzling that so many conservation advocates have waited until this late date to come forward with their reservations about the swap. More than 70 people recently packed into a Town Council public hearing on the land exchange.

Local officials for years contended the Colver Avenue property holds equivalent value to the Merritt land in terms of open space preservation. It’s now imperative the town’s attorney quickly gather and divulge the evidence they have to prove this.

While the big price tag for this project gave the editorial board pause, once voters gave their backing we saw it as time to move forward. And while sometimes editorially disagreeing with the particulars, this board never doubted the need to renovate schools for Groton students.

This need still exists. If the project falls apart, the town is unlikely to get such a large state contribution any time in the foreseeable future. We urge Groton officials to move quickly and effectively to make the case that this land swap be approved by the court to allow this long-debated school project to move forward.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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