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Wenham

Town Meeting approval paves way for new housing

At Wenham’s Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, residents approved articles to clear the way for a 238-unit, age-restricted housing development at the former site of Mullen Advertising on Essex Street. When developed, it could create a significant reduction in property taxes.

In another key Town Meeting vote, residents approved the budget requested by the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District, sending that issue forward to Hamilton's Annual Town Meeting, scheduled for Saturday. Under the regional agreement, both towns must approve the district's budget.

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By approving both the creation of an independent living overlay district and the location of it on the 50-acre Penguin Hall site, the town is supporting a project that could yield significant revenue without putting a strain on community resources.

“We're all very excited about that,” said Molly Martins, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, who noted that when the question was moved forward for a vote, “It seemed the public was well informed, and people approved the motions very quickly.”

According to a report by the Community Opportunities Group, if the first phase of the two-phase project is completed, the cost of town services would be 25 cents per tax dollar received, slightly lower than the original estimates, and if the entire project is completed, the cost of services would be 24 cents per dollar received. The property currently generates $155,000 in real estate taxes, but that number projects to $1.1 million if the first phase —150 units — is completed, and $1.8 million if the 88-unit second phase is built.

The report also found that the traffic impact would be less than in the days when Mullen operated an advertising firm on the property.

The vote on the assessment of the two towns for the school district's fiscal year 2013 budget moves that issue to Hamilton's Annual Town Meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at the Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.

‘It seemed the public was well informed, and people approved the motions very quickly.’

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Officials in both towns have sought a reduction following the identification of a cash surplus of approximately $3.5 million.

The “giveback” would reduce the district's $1.7 million excess and deficiencies fund.

Originally, the two towns had sought a more significant giveback, but following the recertification of the district's budget by the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee two nights before the Town Meeting, the Board of Selectmen changed its figure and sought $500,000 less from the $28.2 million district budget.

Hamilton Board of Selectmen chairwoman Jennifer Scuteri, whose board planned to meet this week to decide whether to revise its figure, said that even with the reduced assessment, because of the surplus the district will still be able to fund all existing programs, plus additional investments and capital improvements.

School Committee chairwoman Alexa McCloughan said that unlike last year, when there was a difference in philosophy, this year the issue is one of financial mechanics.

Her committee has voted to return all but 3 percent of its excess and deficiencies fund but by law cannot do so until the fund's balance is certified by the state Department of Revenue in October. To do so could jeopardize other programs, she said.

“We cannot give $500,000 back at this time without compromising fiscal ‘13 investment in our program,” she said.

The school district budget is one of the major articles of the 27 on the warrant.

Among the other articles is one asking whether to accept the historic Patton Homestead on Asbury Street — former home to General George S. Patton Jr., commander of the U.S. Third Army in World War II — as a gift.

David Rattigan can be reached at rattigand@aol.com.
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