Marijuana facility rezoning article postponed indefinitely; article to purchase land north of Case High School loses

SWANSEA — The library won big. The waterfront won big. The police department won big.

For that matter, there weren’t many losers by the time nearly 400 citizens that turned out for Monday night’s special and annual Town Meeting had dispatched of 59 articles in 3½ hours.

Barely half the voters remained for the final article to rezone two parcels opposite the Target plaza at 610 GAR Highway that could allow a medical marijuana dispensary.

Selectmen reversed course and sought indefinite postponement on expanding its manufacturing zone, with the Advisory and Finance Committee opposing the article, 9-0.

The night ended with the sole closed-ballot vote, 134-62, on that indefinite postponement, not keeping the ATM going. Town Moderator Paul Burke adjourned it at 10:30 p.m.

The only other article the Advisory and Finance Committee opposed, by a 10-2 margin, was the town purchasing 27 acres north and adjacent to Joseph Case High School for future use, like a new junior high school and combined campus.

Despite the appeal by Superintendent John Robidoux and School Committee members to plan ahead, the $550,000 purchase for Article 31 went down in flames.

“We have an opportunity to ensure this valuable piece of land is secured at this juncture,” Robidoux said. He said there are 17 buildable acres.

School Committeeman Eric Graham, echoing Robidoux’s call to have foresight in a long written statement, said, “At what point do we stop spending our money on aging schools and start investing in the future?”

The combination of the currently landlocked property having questionable access with wetlands and an appraisal, therefore, being $172,000 less than the asking price, was too much to overcome.

Timothy Reynolds, Advisory and Finance Committee chairman, cited those obstacles from his finance board while saying he was one of two members in favor of the purchase from a private party living in that school area.

It was a far different voter sentiment for the library project to move ahead.

Two articles were near-unanimous and unanimous to seek state grant funds to defray roughly half of the envisioned $14.5 million renovation, retrofitting and expansion of the cramped historic library and to accept the preliminary design.

“We’re excited for the next chapter and anxious to see where we rank with the state,” library Director Cynthia St. Amour said after the vote.

She said on July 18, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners would announce the ranking and prospective funding. If Swansea fares well, town voters would have six months to fund its share, estimated at 52 percent or about $7.5 million, said James Devol, head of the library building committee.

Devol and Lillian Rodriguez, Case High School sophomore and a library page, narrated a five-member Swansea Cable Access video describing library conditions and three options the building committee explored.

Rather than building a new library on another site or buying land behind the library the design they’ve pursued and issued to the MBLC moves the current building on the site closer to Town Hall, incorporating renovations and a connected expansion.

Among questions during a half-hour discussion was Bob Adams of 50 Whitney Circle praising the need to upgrade the library but questioning the project size. “The scope of this is enormous,” Adams said, contending the new library is several times larger.

Town Administrator John McAuliffe said if the state approves the grant and voters must fund Swansea’s share at a future town meeting, the cost based upon 4 percent interest and a 20-year bond would be an additional $71.79 for a taxpayer with a $250,000 assessed home.

Devol said final design likely would take another year after the town approved its funding share.

Two-thirds though the annual Town Meeting warrant, cheers rang out for the $1.2 million approval from free cash to pay for waterfront beach dredging and re-nourishment as well as demolishing the vacant Bluffs building.

The project at Ocean Grove has languished since voters in November 2014 approved $1.15 million to do most of that work. Afterwards, a larger construction project that had to be aborted over missed timing of prior votes.

“The goal is to get the beach re-nourished,” McAuliffe said of the first priority.

The voice vote Monday night was nearly unanimous, leaving Christopher Sampson, chairman of the waterfront building committee, looking satisfied.

The $34.4 million fiscal budget is a 4.05 percent increase over this year. There was limited questioning and opposition to it.

“I find 4.05 percent to be exorbitant,” Michael Callahan of 50 Locust St. said. He compared it to inflation and Social Security increases, and recommended half that growth or 2 percent.

The school budget of $20,758,877 within that total reflects a 2.9 percent increase, according to the itemized budget sheet distributed with the ATM warrant.

Two articles for the police department stirred debate but went through.

Robert Marquis, the former longtime selectman who chose not to run last month, questioned the $50,000 cost of a harbormaster’s boat. He gave a history of the police department obtaining various boats that Police Chief George Arruda took exception to, giving his own version.

“What do we need this vote for?” Marquis asked, saying police had obtained several other boats previously.

Police Chief George Arruda reminded the public selectmen asked police to take oversight of the re-instituted shellfishing program in 2009 and two years later his department appointed a sergeant as the harbormaster.

He summarized the years of different boats differently than Marquis, saying they were free from different government entities. With one boat, he said, “It would cost more than $50,000 to repair the boat and make it safe.”

On a close voice vote, the 20-foot powerboat was approved using an added $25,000 to the shellfishing revolving fund and the other half from taxation.

It was the only close voice vote of the night.

The next article to raise $400,000 for a new police station HVAC system generated questions because the station on GAR Highway was built recently in 2010.

Town officials explained problems with the system and why it’s best to replace it now though the town has filed suit against the builder. Repairs to the HVAC system had cost $33,000 the past two years, Arruda said.

He also remarked that the level of heating and air conditioning problems left him “concerned about catastrophic failures,” including to the police “911” emergency phone system.

Residents questioned why the town was spending this much to fix the system when the town has filed suit against the contractor. “We have to fix it now,” Town Attorney Arthur Frank said. He said that would benefit their court case.

The funding won overwhelmingly.

Among other expenditures included:

— $1,468,488 for window and door replacements at Brown Elementary School. The town has applied for grant reimbursement with the Massachusetts School Building Authority that could later be applied to the repair costs.

— $109,000 for installation of lighting by the Swansea Little League at Veterans Memorial Park for recreational activities, transferred from the Community Preservation Committee fund.

Overall, the seven special Town Meeting articles and 52 on the annual Town Meeting warrant that followed passed unanimously or nearly unanimously.

They included several other Community Preservation Act and several zoning articles, the latter requiring two-thirds votes. Among the five zoning articles near the end of the warrant included amending a one-mile stretch from the Coles River to Gardners Neck Road from Rural Residential to Business A to stimulate a business district.

Burke announced the attendance at 397 voters at 9:15 p.m.

Email Michael Holtzman at mholtzman@heraldnews.com or call him at 508-676-2573.