Dalton voters to decide whether to convert old Dalton High School into affordable housing

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DALTON — Should voters decide against a private conversion of the old Dalton High School into housing during a special town meeting Thursday, town officials warn "few alternatives" exist for the nearly 90-year-old structure at 120 First St.

Town Manager Kenneth E. Walto detailed two remaining options should voters block an earlier-approved proposal to see Berkshire Housing Development Corp. convert the old school into 33 affordable housing units: Sell the building to the highest bidder or tear it down.

Offering preliminary numbers, Walto said the latter would cost between $700,000 and $1.3 million, a 10-year bond on which would "cost the town roughly $121,000 per year."

"On the other hand," Walto said, "my estimate — and I'm still working on the numbers, here, is the [affordable housing units] would generate $40,000 a year in taxes."

The 33-unit housing development BHDC proposes to convert the school into — with construction to begin sometime in 2018 — would also serve the town's need of more affordable housing.

According to a 2013 Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, 97 families or individuals were on the waiting list for affordable housing in Dalton. The study also revealed a rising level of town residents living below the poverty line: In 2000, the figure was two percent versus eight percent in 2011.

"We'd be an excellent candidate [for more affordable housing]," Walto said. "The state likes to see 10 percent [of a town's housing to be affordable housing], and right now we're at about five."

In May of 2014, a town meeting composed of 128 residents voted to allow the Dalton Select Board to find an appropriate buyer with a suitable plan for the space.

BHDC was the only entity who made an offer during a public bidding, proposing to purchase the space for $100,000, then gut and convert it into affordable housing several years later.

But opposition — primarily among people who live in the neighborhood — sprung up late.

Resident Marguerite Nixon, of nearby Field Street, started a petition against the plan which ultimately garnered 246 signatures and triggered the requirement to hold Thursday's vote.

Nixon offered many arguments against the plan. She said the property sits within a flood plain; developing it in such a way would congest the neighborhood and alter its character; the property would require significant attention from the town police and fire departments and the sewer system inside is of questionable integrity.

"If in fact they put housing in the area, we'll see 60 cars sitting in the lot and a doubling of the occupancy of the neighborhood," Nixon said. "There will be as many people in that one building as there are in the neighborhood already."

Marguerite said she preferred earlier plans to convert it into senior housing or even tear it down and use it as a garden for the nearby senior center or a town farmer's market.

Once the former town high school, and later the middle school, the building was vacated by the Central Berkshire Regional School District in 1997 with the completion of the present Nessacus Regional Middle School on Fox Road. For several years following, Pittsfield Public Schools used the space while Reid Middle School underwent construction. The building has remained vacant ever since.

Plans to turn it into an assisted living facility; then a new location for the town library and historical commission; and then a senior center and senior housing facility fell apart in 2001, 2007 and 2013, respectively.

Meanwhile, the town paid to replace the roof and better secure the premises, and also established a fund for its maintenance, which today stands at just more than $120,000.

"I've personally been working on this for almost 15 years," Walto said.

Thursday's vote stands to either end or start the process afresh.

BHDC remains interested in carrying out its redevelopment plan and was working with selectmen on a purchase and sales agreement until residents triggered Thursday's special town meeting with their petition. BHDC has agreed to pay half of the annual $12,000 maintenance and insurance costs on the building in the run up to the project.

Walto said he expects a "large turnout" at Thursday's meeting. It will be held at 7 p.m. at Wahconah Regional High School.

View the warrant and agenda online at: http://ow.ly/VDIof.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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