Lyme-Old Lyme school district discusses potential Lyme Arts Academy land purchase

Old Lyme — As part of its reinvention efforts over the past several months, Lyme Academy of Fine Arts officials recently approached the Lyme-Old Lyme Board of Education inquiring whether the district would be interested in purchasing academy-owned land abutting the public school campus off Lyme Street.

The academy owns approximately 39 acres of land across the street from its main campus, which is also on Lyme Street. Approximately 26 acres of that land has been listed for $5 million through the Lyman Real Estate group since September, academy Director Frank Burns said by phone Thursday. The land, irregular in shape, abuts Lyme Street, Interstate 95 and the public school district's campus, and is described as boggy, with wetlands and vernal pools across much of it, according to town records detailing the parcels.

An additional three-acre plot abutting the public school’s campus, near its tennis courts, also is available as part of the academy’s property, Burns said. Any of those parcels, or portions of those parcels, could be negotiated and sold to the school district, if it so desires, he said.

“This is just a series of initiatives we’ve undertaken to try and find partners, or partnerships, within the community to make Lyme Academy keep moving forward,” Burns said, explaining he recently approached the school district to gauge whether it would have interest in purchasing the land. He said he has not approached any other town groups about the land.

At a school board meeting Wednesday, Superintendent Ian Neviaser brought forward the idea to Board of Education members, who then discussed why obtaining land abutting school property could be beneficial, or why it would not be, and what it could be used for.

“One of the things we talked about are possible uses for this land,” Neviaser said, summarizing his conversation with Burns. “Everything from a solar farm area, to additional parking, to additional sports fields, to an educational area” could be considered, he said.

Though some board members were skeptical of using taxpayer money to purchase additional land, others opined that it could be a smart move for the district.

“I think in this town, and in any school district, having property immediately adjacent to the school’s property is a rare thing to come up, and I think it’s something we certainly wouldn’t want to overlook,” member Rick Goulding said. “... If it’s the kind of thing we can forward the conversation on, and see what (Lyme Academy officials) are interested in and what they are proposing, I’d say we would be crazy not to look at it as an opportunity, even if it’s not something we see will hold a building or a field. But this is the kind of thing that makes potential space for the future.”

Goulding added that the district in the past has looked into purchasing properties abutting its Lyme Street campus in an effort to consolidate its administration offices onto its own property to save money. The deal never went through but, previously, the district paid as much as $80,000 annually to rent offices off school property before the town’s Center School housed the district’s administrative offices, Neviaser said by phone Thursday.

“Obviously, our enrollment has changed, and 20, 30 or 40 years from now we could be looking for additional space,” Neviaser said. “... Generally, I think no one is opposed to us continuing to look into this and finding out more information. Certainly, we will continue the conversation.”

Member Suzanne Thompson said she felt such discussions were better suited to be brought forward to the town’s Open Space Commission or the Old Lyme Land Trust, as there is an endangered species of frogs living on the academy's land, as well an endangered grass species.

“It’s a delicate balance between protecting the space and getting the owner of the property as much (money) as they want,” Thompson said. “I understand the need for the Lyme Art Academy to get funding, but I don’t know if the school district needs to be the one acquiring the property. There are other entities that can do that.”

Adding in her opinion, member Martha Shoemaker said, “My feeling is that it doesn’t cost us a cent to have conversations. Any land that is flat ... could be used in the future for something else. I’ve seen school systems and towns let land go, and when they need something (in the future) there is nothing nearby. I don’t think we should cut off the conversation.”

Neviaser said he will continue speaking with Burns about details and options for a possible purchase and will report back to the board when such information is available.

m.biekert@theday.com

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