Island Ave. Committee Holds Public Hearing with Bulk of Work Still Ahead
The Ad-Hoc Island Avenue Future Use Committee, charged with researching and recommending options for a use or sale of the elementary school building that closed as part of school district restructuring in 2019, held its first public hearing last week to present preliminary assessments and listen to resident comments.
Though only a handful of people attended the virtual meeting and only two offered comments, Committee Chair Graham Curtis said he appreciated the engagement, and hoped to solicit more feedback as the committee continues carrying out its charge.
Much of the work the committee is tasked with is still ongoing or in the planning stages, with a scientific survey and RFP process likely to take place sometime early next year, according to Curtis. The committee is also working on financial and risk assessment of the property, Curtis said.
Currently, the town is leasing the building to Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory Academy (OLMPA), a private Catholic-based K-8 school, which has expressed the desire to purchase the property as a permanent location for the school.
The town has also received responses from three people identifying as heirs of the original owner of the property, according to Selectman Al Goldberg. The town has been searching for heirs of the original property owner since early this summer.
According to the deed under which the town accepted the property, any “legitimate heir” has the right to purchase the property for the same price it is offered to any other entity, though the legal onus falls on the individual to prove he or she is an heir, according to Goldberg.
Lawyers have determined that those are the only effective restrictions on the deed, Goldberg said, though some in the community have raised questions about whether the property’s original owner requested or required it remain a school in perpetuity.
Committee member Barbara Resnick said she is hoping to hear from the town’s legal counsel as to the specifics of the issue, which could potentially complicate any sale of the Island property, especially when the town sends out the RFP.
“Whether or not there are heirs, and there is this deed restriction that...in effect, [it] guides everything we really do on this committee, or a lot of it,” Resnick said.
At the public hearing, Curtis laid out the basic results of septic feasibility study and an overview of a “non-statistically significant” survey sent out to residents over the summer, with a broad overview of potential options for the building based on resident feedback. Options for the building include a school, use as affordable housing, or for municipal use such as a pool, rec center, or art center.
Curtis offered some basic pros and cons for these options, with multi-family housing likely generating the highest tax revenue. The septic study that the committee solicited determined Island could hold a maximum of 25, two-bedroom housing units priced at around $750,000.
Other options might generate less taxes, but likely could serve other community needs. Affordable housing is extremely scarce in Madison, though Curtis warned that use would likely meet opposition from residents.
OLMPA has offered to present to the committee in the next few weeks or months, according to Curtis, in order to discuss its current operations, though Goldberg warned that once the RFP process officially begins, the town must be careful to treat “all potential bidders exactly equally.”
OLMPA Chair John Picard, who also serves on the town’s Board of Finance, said the school is still very interested in the property and is looking forward to the opportunity to speak to town leadership and residents about how OLMPA is a positive addition to the community.
“We’ve already demonstrated the ability to be there and to act successfully as a very good part of the community,” Picard said. “Some people may come in and say, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.’ We already demonstrated it.”
Besides employing around a dozen Madison residents, the Picard cited school-sponsored fundraisers, as well as other outside groups like the Girl Scouts or even just neighborhood families using playground and gym facilities as evidence that Madison will continue to benefit from the school’s presence.
He also emphasized that OLMPA is able to pay effectively the same taxes as a for-profit entity would, purchasing the land using a for-profit company set up for that purpose and leasing it to the non-profit OLMPA, which is something the school already did at one of its previous temporary locations in Madison.
“It would be full tax revenue,” Picard said.
Graham estimated the highest tax-revenue generating use for the property would be high-density market value multi-family homes, though he warned that the town was likely to see some pushback on a project like that.
OLMPA has also had some preliminary conversations about the town regarding a one-year lease extension, according to Picard, which is specifically allowed by an addendum in the current agreement between the school and the town. That request must be approved by a vote of the Board of Selectmen, and would then allow the school to occupy Island until July 31, 2022.
OLMPA is required to request that extension by Monday, Nov. 30.