Heath TM rejects selling closed school to pot farm
Published: 5/12/2019 3:46:01 PM
HEATH — The empty elementary school will not be sold to a marijuana company, after voters again opposed the article at Saturday’s Annual Town Meeting.
Of the town’s 541 registered voters, nearly half cast a ballot on Saturday, with 104 in favor and 118 against the article, which asked voters to permit the Selectboard to find a new use for the school building. Passage required a two-thirds majority.
This was the highest voter turnout in two decades, according to Town Clerk Hilma Sumner, who has worked for Heath for 20 years.
See Page A3 for more coverage of the Annual Town Meeting and election.
Selectboard Chair Brian DeVriese confirmed that this article would not come before Heath again, as it has now been voted down twice: on Saturday and at a Special Town Meeting in March. The article did not specifically ask the town to permit the school building be sold to a marijuana company, but rather asked voters to allow the Selectboard to make decisions about the building on Heath’s behalf.
Currently, the building is only allowed to be used as a school.
The school has remained vacant since its closure in 2017. Following this, a group formed to determine a new use for the school, though it did not reach a conclusion.
Early this year, the town put the building up for sale and received only one bid, $250,000 from Carnegie Arch LLC, which planned to use the site to cultivate, produce and possibly sell marijuana. While the school was built for roughly $3 million, as the building is remote and does not have a municipal sewer or water system, its has an assessed maximum value of $500,000.
While Carnegie made the only bid on Heath’s school, town officials said they would not sell the building if negotiations did not favor the town.
“We are under no obligation to sell the building,” Selectboard Gloria Cronin Fisher said.
After the building received an offer from Carnegie, residents became interested in finding a municipal use for the building. Some ideas raised in recent months have included moving town buildings to the school, such as the fire station, the town offices or the library. However, many town officials have said many of these options are inviable. For example, the town offices are one-third the size of the 25,000-square-foot school building and according to town officials, Heath doesn’t have the money to build a new fire station or safety complex. And moving municipal buildings to the school would alter Heath’s historic town center.
“What are our options? To hang onto something we can’t afford?” Planning Board Chair Calvin Carr said Saturday. “If we keep this building, our tax rate is going to go up. And those are the facts.”
Planning Board member Bob Vierango sat on a committee in 2011 tasked with looking at building a new safety complex, housing all emergency departments under one roof, he said. But the committee determined that the town could not afford to build such a facility.
Now, the town must find a new use for the building — otherwise it will continue to sit empty, using heat and electricity and costing the town thousands every year. The town spends $18,272 to maintain a temperature of 55 degrees between the period of July 2018 and April 2019. Meanwhile, costs to heat Sawyer and Community halls, which are about one-third of the size of the school, totaled $13,828 in the same period. And if the town keeps the school, several additional expenses will emerge. Estimates for these new expenses include a new custodian, $35,669; parking lot repaving, $50,800 to $137,767; roof repairs, $250,000; a generator, $50,000 to $80,000; plus a possible new sprinkler system, $386,469, Finance Committee Chair Ned Wolf said.
Next fiscal year, the town will be wholly responsible for maintaining the building. Maintenance costs until now have been covered by Mohawk Trail Regional School District, which pledged to give Heath three annual installments of $80,000 when the building closed in 2017. That ends In fiscal 2021.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Selectboard member Robyn Provost-Carlson said.
Provost-Carlson added that she hopes townspeople who looked into the impacts of this sale would show the same level of interest in finding a new use for the building.
Tax rate on the rise
Heath residents often groan about their hefty tax rate, which hovers around the 10th highest in the state. This will be no different in fiscal 2020, with the town’s operating budget rising 8.5 percent to $1.3 million. This translates to a tax rate of $22.31 per $1,000 of valuation, up 71 cents or 3.3 percent from the current year.
At Friday’s annual election, the town passed a Proposition 2 ½ override to raise taxes to pay for broadband installation.
Next year, the town’s tax rate is expected to exceed $24 due to the broadband installation costs, Wolf said.
Some elected officials have warned that if the rate increases any higher, the town is at risk of going into receivership, meaning the state will assume control of Heath’s budget.
Marijuana sparks concerns
While many townspeople who spoke Saturday avoided the topic of marijuana, focusing on how the building might better be used, a handful addressed concerns about the substance.
Vega Johnson-Bouchard, an 18-year-old student who once attended Heath Elementary, said she opposed allowing a marijuana company set up shop at her alma mater. She said Heath would become synonymous with marijuana if its only business was related to this substance.
Resident Dana Blackburn expressed skepticism about marijuana, saying the industry is “in its infancy.”
“For me, the risk is too great,” Blackburn said.
In Blackburn’s view, bringing a marijuana farm to the town would affect the “quality of life” in Heath. She said she moved to the town 33 years ago to raise children because of the “cultural and social identity of this area.”
“Therefore, I believe that having a marijuana facility on this land … is not an appropriate use of this land,” Blackburn said.
Resident Mary Holan, who has three children enrolled in area schools, had similar views, saying she is concerned Heath would become a “marijuana town” if the sale went through.
“We are marketing ourselves as pro-marijuana whether we like it or not,” Holan said. “I know many of you are intellectuals and do not encourage anyone to use this stuff. However that’s what you’re voting for. This will affect the schools. This will affect people … This could affect the value of homes. It’s not so simplistic.”
While opinions among residents were mixed, most town officials were unanimous in their view that the building should be sold. Bob Dane, a former Planning Board member, said state and municipal laws governing marijuana cultivation were sufficient to protect the town. He said the building would only become more expensive to run if it became a town building.
“I love this building too,” Dane said. “But my pocket-book cannot afford it and neither can yours.”
Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna also supported the sale, saying the town would benefit from having another source of revenue aside from property taxes. And as another plus, she said, the business would take care of the school building — something the town cannot afford to do.
“And I say that because I pay the bills,” Leistyna said.
On the marijuana farm’s impact on Heath’s culture, Leistyna was only optimistic. She said if Carnegie were to set up shop in Heath, the town would have a chance to forge a positive relationship with a business.
“I don’t think that a business coming into town is going to affect the quality of our town,” Leistyna said.
Reach Grace Bird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0621, ext. 280.