Stonington approves lease of school to St. Michael

Stonington — The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve a controversial three-year contract to lease the vacant West Broad Street School to St. Michael School in Pawcatuck.

Before voting, First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough and Selectwomen June Strunk and Deborah Downie agreed the lease is a short-term solution while the town develops a long-term plan for the 120-year-old building.

Meanwhile, they said, the town-owned building will be occupied and not subject to deterioration and vandalism.

Chesebrough added that the town will save between $77,000 and $128,000 in utility and maintenance costs because St. Michael will pay for those. As for an estimated $550,000 in needed structural repairs, Chesebrough said the town would have to pay for these even if St. Michael was not using the school.

As they did at public hearing two weeks ago, residents on Wednesday night again debated the lease.

The former school was vacated last year after the renovation and expansion of West Vine Street School. Since then, the town’s Facilities Committee has been looking at ways to reuse the structure, as well as the former School Administration Building in Old Mystic.

Facilities Committee Chairman Paul Sartor told selectwomen that the lease accomplishes two goals: it puts a good steward in the building while getting the town out of paying for maintenance costs.

St. Michael attorney Nick Kepple said the No. 1 concern of the neighborhood around West Broad is that the building not be left vacant. He pointed out the lease does not forbid the town from pursuing other options, such as housing, a community center or change in zoning to allow a commercial use.

Economic Development Commission member Jim Lathrop, a downtown Pawcatuck businessman who opposed the lease, pointed out there is no plan in place for where St. Michael students would go if the town were to pursue a new use for West Broad at the end of the lease.

“The town will have a problem if they have nowhere to go after three years,” he said, adding the school has never been marketed for sale.

Supporters of the lease also have pointed out that a conversion to housing would impact the neighborhood and generate traffic, while neighbors prefer the structure to be used as it has been for more than a century.

Opponents, though, have questioned the low lease — $300 a month — and said the town should take more time to market the property to a developer who could turn it into condominiums and apartments and generate tax revenue.

The proposed contract calls for the school to pay the town $300 a month in rent and pay for all utilities such as gas, electric, water and sewer usage. St Michael School also would be responsible for general maintenance and repairs to the aging building and its grounds, including snow removal, landscaping and garbage removal. The town, however, would be responsible for major capital repairs such as those to the roof, heating system, exterior walls, heating, fire suppression, below-ground water and sewer systems and windows, unless the action or inaction of St. Michael School created the need for the repairs.

The lease also calls for a two-year renewal at the end of three years, if the town and school were to agree.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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