Athol town manager urges Bigelow/Riverbend project zoning relief

  • SUHOSKI Contributed photo

  • From the common playground area located on Park Avenue, the Riverbend School is visible on the left (rear), and the Ellen Bigelow School is on the right. Staff file photo

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 4/26/2021 2:42:44 PM
Modified: 4/26/2021 2:42:43 PM

ATHOL — Town Manager Shaun Suhoski has sent a letter to the Athol’s Zoning Board of Appeals, urging its members to support “zoning relief to facilitate the renovation of the historic Ellen Bigelow and Riverbend former elementary schools.”

While rare for the town manager to urge that matters before independent municipal boards or committees be decided a certain way, Suhoski explained, whatever the ZBA decides will affect the future of property owned by the town.

“In this case, the town is a partner,” he told the Athol Daily News. “The town owns the property. The town, under the policy direction of the Board of Selectmen and the vote of the town meeting to dispose of these sites, I was merely following the will and the policy of my supervisor, which is an elected board, and the voters of Athol.”

The zoning board will, at its next meeting on May 26, continue a public hearing on a special permit and several variances sought by NewVue Affordable Housing, which has a plan to transform the former schools into 53 units of intergenerational, mixed-income housing.

Suhoski pointed out that, despite occasional changes in membership, the town’s Selectboard has consistently supported the redevelopment project over the past four years.

“We have the ability, right before us, right before this entire community,” Suhoski continued, “to preserve history, to provide housing that is indisputably needed, we need quality affordable housing – you can’t get an apartment in town right now – and with an elderly component to make it financially feasible.

“What I did in my document dated March 31, said, in my opinion, the zoning board has the ability to, however they deem, to issue their approvals – or to ‘grant the relief’ would be a better phrase – right before them. And I was merely laying out the public background, the history, the involvement of all and then, at the end, an argument as to why they could grant zoning relief under the statute and from the facts at the project at hand.”

He then reiterated that because the town is a partner in the redevelopment effort, he had “no qualms” about urging the ZBA to find a way to facilitate the project.

“The community needs to embrace opportunity when it knocks,” Suhoski emphasized. “Just take a look at the growing list of vacant school buildings from this same era. They’re very difficult to redevelop due to cost.”

He noted that attempts have been made in the past to redevelop the former Silver Lake School, but financing for the project could not be found.

“In this case, this is real,” he continued. “The funding will come. This project can happen. And it will be a taxpaying entity, rather than a drain on the taxpayers.”

Suhoski then harkened back to the initial portion of the public hearing held on April 7.

“I don’t appoint (the zoning board), so I don’t have a problem going before them,” he said. “They’re independent of me. They don’t have to listen to me.

“But I’m also a resident of this town, as required by the Charter, and a voter, as were the 30 people in that room. Whether or not it was somebody who’s on the Selectboard, or the Historic Commission, or the Economic Development Corp., or the Planning Board that were in attendance, they are all citizens. And if the community is behind this project and wants to get it done, we’ve got to get the permitting and then the funding will follow that.”

If the project is unable to move forward, Suhoski explained, the cost to the town will be considerable.

“With due diligence, we have reports on the asbestos-containing materials in those facilities,” he went on. “If the town had to take them down, we’d be going to the voters for a tax exclusion for over a half-million dollars. It’s that order of magnitude. And then what are you left with?

“So, even if the town spent half-a-million, three-quarters of a million dollars to take these down and created – what? – six housing lots at $40,000 each, that’s a half-million-dollar loss. How does that benefit the community we’re serving; and we lose all that history as well.”

NewVue has estimated the cost of redeveloping the old schools – including construction of a new building to accommodate community space and several rental units – at around $30 million. Officials with the Leominster-based organization have expressed confidence that various tax credits, grants, and other funding sources can be found to make the project a reality.

The public hearing on the special permit and variances for the Bigelow/Riverbend project will be continued at the meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 26 in Memorial Hall at the Town Hall.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


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