By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The City Council may find itself reconsidering the prospects of purchasing the former Laconia State School property on North Main Street in light of the findings of an advisory committee that the costs of addressing its environmental issues and maintaining its infrastructure, along with encumbrances on the site, heighten the risks of its successful redevelopment.
The committee was convened by the governor and Executive Council and is chaired by Vicki Quiram, commissioner of the state's Department of Administrative Services, to package the property for sale. The panel has identified a handful of issues, which are not only likely to diminish the value and hinder the sale of the property but also to cool the city's interest in acquiring it.
"We're discussing selling this property as if it has value," said Matt Lahey, who represents the city of Laconia on the committee. "Does this property have any value at all?"
The entire property stretches over about 245 acres, divided into five parcels, and houses 24 buildings and between eight and 10 smaller structures. Three of the parcels, including the 10.24 acres of the Robbie Mills Sports Complex and two undeveloped parcels, were leased to the city for 99 years. The main campus straddling Right Way Path consists of approximately 200 acres.
Quiram wondered whether the three parcels encumbered by the leases to the city — the 10.24 acres comprising the Robbie Mills Sports Complex, a 7.5 acre lot at the junction of Meredith Center Road and Lane Road and a 10.4 acre parcel at the corner of North Main Street and Old North Main Street — should be offered together with the 200-acre tract or sold separately. She asked Lahey what the city would prefer. He said he could not speak for the City Council, but suggested that the city might consider surrendering its leases on two of the properties in return for acquiring the Robbie Mills Sports Complex and perhaps the 70 adjacent acres, known as Risley Field, which the city leases annually to provide parking for the athletic facility.
The property is home to a so-called "designated receiving facility," or DRF, two buildings that house sexual offenders with developmental disabilities, at the northwest corner of the property. Dawn Touzin of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which operates the DRF, said that the agency "is committed to moving the facility" and has requested $6 million in the 2017-2018 capital budget to construct an alternative. However, she said, "It's a matter of finding a location. We're flying blind without knowing where we're going to land. If we can't move it, we can't close it."
Tim Drew of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, presented a summary of the identified environmental issues at the site together with estimated costs of assessing, but not remediating, these conditions. The department estimated the cost of an environmental assessment of the entire property at $620,900, which includes $262,500 for assessing the presence of hazardous building materials, such as paints containing lead and organic chemicals and asbestos, in the buildings on the property. Drew cautioned that the estimates are approximations based on a preliminary environmental assessment undertaken by Credere Associates Inc. in 2010.
Lahey reminded the committee that Nobis Engineering Inc., after completing an assessment of the Blood Building, one of two dozen significant buildings on the property, estimated the cost of abating and remediating the environmental hazards at between $175,000 and $290,000 exclusive of engineering costs. He told the committee that the city was the sole entity eligible for funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the environmental concerns.
The committee agreed that encumbrances represented by easements for water and sewer services as well as snowmobile trails could be satisfactorily resolved and incorporated into an offer to sell the property.
Meanwhile, Michael Connor, deputy commissioner of administrative services, pointed out that the state currently budgets $386,000 annually to maintain the property, a cost that would fall to the city should it acquire the property.
After the meeting, Lahey said that without an assurance that the DRF would be relocated, the unknown cost of addressing the environmental conditions and the annual cost of maintaining the property doubted the property would sell to a private party, leaving the city the buyer of last resort. Quiram appears to share his view, noting that brokers may be reluctant to invest time and money to market the property aggressively knowing it could ultimately be sold to the city without a commission to the broker.
The property was appraised for $2.16 million in 2012 and the state budget projected $2 million in revenue for its sale. The city has contemplated acquiring the property since 2010, and in 2012 offered to purchase it for its appraised value. Nevertheless, Lahey, once an advocate for purchasing the site, said that when he reports to the City Council the first question he will ask is "Are you still interested?"