Four issues facing the town boards

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The New Year started off with a big bang in Granby with at least four important issues working their way through Town Hall and various municipal Boards and Commissions. While meeting minutes are published in this issue, and detailed information is available on the town websites, here’s my Cliff Notes version of what’s up in Granby, including:

Termination of the Solar Project at Wells Road School 

This time last year, the Board of Education (BOE) brought forward a proposal to build a seven-acre solar array on Wells Road school property, which was ultimately approved by voters in June. Now the project has been terminated, along with the potential for $4.3 million in energy savings over 25 years. What happened? Quite simply, Granby placed a bet (perhaps against the odds) hoping several key factors would go our way, and they didn’t. 

In particular, an engineering study found wetlands at the site, including vernal pools, shrinking the allowable solar array size to one-third of the original proposal, and reducing the maximum savings to less than $1 million. Further, several regulatory approvals were still pending, which required significant spending but no sure outcome except for a drastically smaller project than presented to residents.

Consistent with its original explanation to taxpayers, the Board of Education recommended that the much-reduced project not go forward. The Board of Selectmen (BOS) also concluded the project no longer met the description approved by voters, and unanimously decided to terminate it on Jan. 6. While this specific good faith effort to reduce costs and move to solar energy did not prove out, both boards indicated that alternative energy projects will continue to be investigated and pursued.

Commercial broker sought to market the former Kearns School

On another front, at the same meeting, the Selectmen directed the Town Manager to release an RFP to select a commercial broker to market the former Kearns School. It is expected to take at least a month to obtain and review responses to the RFP, and applicants will be requested to submit a marketing plan for the property. The Kearns school was closed in the summer of 2016, and several options have since been explored for town or community use but none have proven financially viable yet. 

An appraisal completed in May 2019 indicated a market value as high as $2.6 million, but estimated 24 months to find a potential buyer. While this means the Town will now seek buyers for the Kearns property, it’s important to note that a Town Meeting must approve the sale of any town-owned real estate, including a school. So stay tuned.

Developers seek approval of a 235-unit apartment project just north of the town center

While we are on property…on Jan. 13 and 14, Roswell Development LLC presented plans to the Economic Development Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission for a 235-unit apartment project at 276-280 Salmon Brook Street, just north of Granby Center. This would be the second largest apartment development in Granby, and reflects housing construction trends across the region: more high-density housing, fewer new single-family homes on two-acre lots. Roswell states that one-, two-, and three-bedroom layouts will target millennials and those downsizing, creating a walkable community with easy access to local businesses, adding to the town’s tax revenue base and generating over $500k in building permits. 

The proposal includes seven apartment buildings, six garage buildings, 451 parking spaces, a pool, a pavilion, and a dog park. Several residents expressed concerns about size, density, accessibility, traffic, trash and sidewalks. One key difference from the first apartments under construction at The Grand, this proposal does not require any Special Permits because apartments are a permitted use “by right” in the Center Commons Zone. It does need an approved Site Plan that complies with those zoning regulations, and review by the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission and the Town Engineer. The applicant’s only special request is a 10-foot reduction of the required front yard, to 40 feet from 50, to accommodate parking. The continued P&Z Public Hearing on Jan. 28 may be the last opportunity to learn more and express your opinions to the developer and the commissioners.

Budgeting 2021 starts with a Three-Board meeting

As always at this time of year, budgeting for next year is in process and the Boards of Finance, Selectmen and Education met on Jan. 21 to share preliminary information on operating cost increases for next year’s budget.  The BOS and BOE chairs, Scott Kuhnly and Melissa Migliaccio, informed the BOF that they are looking at increases of 4.65 percent and 3.23 percent, respectively, to continue at current service levels or “steady state.” After some adjustments reflecting changes in student populations and other needs, the “Plus One” operating cost projections are 5.22 percent and 3.69 percent respectively with increases driven by labor contracts, trash-tipping fees and special education costs. BOF Chair Mike Guarco noted that changes in operating costs are not directly related to changes in tax rates. Tax rates are also affected by changes in the tax base, income from the state and other sources, and capital or debt payments. Those additional factors will become better known by early February, and BOF will seek to keep the overall change to taxpayers under 2 percent, as reflected in the long-term budget plan. As stated by BOF member Al Wilke, it will require “sharp pencils” once more to keep the budget within the means of taxpayers, who ultimately vote on the budget in April.

So, where does the process go from here and how do you find out more? The BOF meeting on Jan. 27 will review operating budget guidelines and discuss the other non-operating factors. On Monday Feb. 10 the BOF plans to meet to review the impact of the Governor’s state budget and the updated Grand List, and to set the final budget guidelines. The BOS and BOE will hold budget workshops in February and March, open to the public, culminating in transmission of final budgets to the BOF at the end of March.

The Public Hearing on the budget will be held April 13 and the Budget Referendum (vote) will be on April 27. So watch the town websites for more details and meeting schedules. All meetings are open to the public and there are opportunities for public comment, and you can send in written communications.

As a relative newcomer to Granby (only 15 wonderful years!), I know it takes work to stay informed. Engagement is how communities thrive, and Granby has a tremendous number of people volunteering in town roles and service organizations that contribute to our community wellbeing. Join me in thanking them all for their service (you know who you are!), and please … seek your own opportunities to contribute. It does take a village.—Jim