State school bill blows up at Senate/House conference

CONCORD — Differences among House and Senate lawmakers over how to deal with the site of the former Laconia State School property, which the city has sought to acquire, prompted Representative Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) to declare publicly yesterday that he would do all he could to see that Laconia never owned the property.

"Sometimes things get a little overheated," Chandler, a former speaker of the House, said later, "but I can't say I didn't say it."

Chandler's frustration arose over legislation to repeal a provision of the 2012-2013 state budget stipulating that the former State School property off North Main Street be offered for sale. The bill carried the House by a voice vote, but the Senate amended it to delay the effective date until June 30, 2015. The House refused to concur and requested a committee of conference, which met yesterday but failed to reach agreement, effectively scuttling the bill.

By repealing the current law any sale would become subject to the statute (RSA 4:40) governing the disposal of state-owned real estate. That law stipulates that before any sale the Long Range Capital Planning and Utilization Committee, composed of four senators, four representatives and a representative of the governor's office, must first declare the property surplus before proceeding with any sale. Further, it requires that the property must first be offered to the municipality where it is located and cannot be sold for less than its "current market value."

When the conferees met, Chandler, who has consistently opposed the sale of the property, proposed the repeal become effective on January 1, 2015, but the Senate conferees refused. Senator Andrew Hosmer (D-Laconia) said that he and fellow conferees — Senators Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) and Peter Bragdon (R-Milford) — agreed not to retreat from the Senate's position.

Chandler said that he sought to explain that under the law as it stands any private party could make a reasonable offer for the property. Consequently, he insisted that repealing the current would be "in the best interests of the city (Laconia)." When the Senate stood their ground, he confessed he grew "frustrated."

In 2011, the Legislature directed the New Hampshire Department of Administrative Services to offer the entire site to the city for "not less than $10 million" and if the city failed to accept the offer, to offer it to Belknap County "at fair market value." If neither the city nor the county purchased the property, it would be put on the open market for no less than its fair market value.

That same year the state appraised the property for $2.16 million. The next year the City Council offered to purchase it for that amount, but the offer was not considered. The county expressed no interest in the property. Since then interest on the part of city officials in purchasing the property has waned.
When Mayor Ed Engler was inaugurated he said that the property represents a "tremendous economic development opportunity," not only for the city but also for the state. Ownership of the property, which rests with the state, he suggested is less important than the use of the site. "No other use of that beautiful piece of property should be considered until the state, in cooperation with Laconia, has exhausted every reasonable possibility that it could be used to site hundreds, if not thousands, of high-paying, professional-level jobs," Engler declared, vowing to pursue that goal as a "top priority."

The property consists of four tax parcels. The largest, some 200-acres, is bounded by North Main Street to the east, Meredith Center Road and Eastman Road to the north and Ahern State Park to the west and south and divided roughly in half by Right Way Path. This parcel includes some 60 acres adjacent to the Robbie Mills Sports Complex bounded by Eastman Road and Green Street known as Risley Field, which the city leases on a short-term basis to provide parking for the sports complex. There are also two smaller parcels. An undeveloped 10.4-acre lot at the junction of Old North Main Street and North Main Street and an unimproved wooded lot of 7.5-acres at the corner of Lane Road and Meredith Center Road.The state also leased both smaller parcels to the city in 2000 for 99 years at $1 a year.