Pierson Planning Remains Complicated; Timeline Still Uncertain
Finding a future use for the abandoned Pierson School is still a long way away and may require legal action, according to an update provided by Town Manager Karl Kilduff.
At a Town Council meeting on Jan. 6, Kilduff briefly gave an update concerning the Pierson School to the council during his biweekly report. Kilduff said that “several months ago” he and former town attorney John Bennet had a meeting with staff from the State Attorney General’s Office to discuss the property, at which point it was determined that cy pres action would be required on the property.
Cy pres is a legal concept that allows courts to interpret the language of trust or wills if the intended original wishes cannot be carried out. The issue is relevant to the Pierson School because the deed for the sale of the building from the trustees of The Morgan Fund to the Town of Clinton in 1953 states that the premises must always be used for the education interests of the residents.
During the council meeting, Kilduff explained that there had been some speculation that cy pres action may not be needed after all ahead of the meeting with the attorney general’s staff. However, during that meeting, Kilduff said he was told the property would indeed need cy pres action.
An additional headache is the fact that the town actually owns only 37 percent of the property, a percentage that doesn’t include the land under the building itself. The Morgan Fund trustees own the rest.
“The school actually sits on three different pieces of property. A cy pres action would be used to address deed restrictions on one of the three parcels. It would be part of a process to determine the future use of the site. If the use of the site is in harmony with the deed restriction, then the cy pres is not needed,” Kilduff explained to the Harbor News.
Kilduff said that the council will have to have a private meeting to discuss the next move and the available actions the town can take regarding the property.
“My recommendation would be for the council to meet in a workshop and discuss their goals and objectives for the property. A decision should be made regarding both the use of the property and the gatekeeper of it too. This would move the decision-making process forward from the charrette process that identified potential uses,” Kilduff said.
Since June 2019 when the school’s doors closed, the future of the building, which sits in the heart of Clinton’s downtown, has drawn significant interest from townsfolk. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much progress to show for that interest. In spring 2019, then-first selectman Christine Goupil, who is now a Town Council member, estimated that the cy pres process may take six months. More than 18 months later, there is still not a concrete plan for the site or even a timetable for when there will be one.
“This will not be a simple nor quick process. There is a lot of history and community relationships at play in the property which need to be acknowledged. The general economy comes into play, too, for either a private use of the site or continued public ownership. Being located in the heart of Clinton gives the decision significance and consequence. As such, we should be thoughtful. While challenging, this is a good problem to have,” Kilduff said.
The Pierson School had close to 90 years of history in Clinton and was most recently home to Clinton’s 4th- and 5th graders. Due to rising operating costs and declining enrollment in the school system, the Board of Education voted in November 2018 to close the school after being presented the results of a facility needs study that recommended the move. As a result of the move, grade 4 moved to the Lewin Joel School and grade 5 moved to the Jared Eliot Middle School starting in the 2019-’20 school year.
The town convened a study committee that helped conduct a charette (a public workshop) in November 2019 to survey residents for that they thought the next use for the school should be. Three prevailing ideas came out of the meeting: moving the Henry Carter Hull Library to the Pierson site, turning the building into a multi-generational and multi–use site, and using a portion of the building as a senior center. That was the last major update regarding the property.
In summer 2019, Goupil said that the town wanted to avoid having what happened at the old Morgan School—which was vacant for four years as plans for its redevelopment were delayed then dropped then finally approved again before progress was made—happen at the Pierson School. In fall 2020, Town Council Chair Chris Aniskovich had said that once council had more information from Kilduff and the state the council would discuss the next course of action and possibly appoint a committee to help determine the future use.