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April 24. 2013 2:26AM

Epsom nears decision on buying Pathfinder property

EPSOM - Selectmen will decide next week whether the town should buy the site of the former Pathfinder Academy for use as the town's new offices.

The plan which has been met with support in town but supporters of Epsom's old Town Hall say they're not so sure it's a good idea.

Board members plan to decide whether to move ahead with the purchase process at their meeting next Monday, but will first consult with their attorney on the proper procedure.

"We want to make sure that we don't make any mistakes in the process going forward," said Chair Donald Harty.

Should the board vote to move forward with the idea, the purchase will go before the voters in a special town meeting.

"What the board of selectmen is trying to do right now is be able to let the voters in town weigh in on the issue, say yes or no whether it's a good idea or not," said Harty.

The timeline for the town meeting is still in the works, but current estimates put the vote, should it occur, sometime between the end of June and early July. The cost associated with the meeting is also unclear, but a "ballpark" guess has been given of $3,000.

Pathfinder Academy was a Montessori school founded in 2001 by libertarian Wayne Anderson and his wife, Julie. Faced with plummeting enrollment, however, the school shut its doors in 2012, and the property went up for auction in January of 2013.

With no third party bidders meeting the asking price, the Bank of New Hampshire repurchased the property. The bank is currently asking $285,000 for the site, which is assessed at close to $900,000.

The town has leased its office space from a strip mall at the Epsom traffic circle for about three years. Under the 10 year lease, the town pays about $33,000 a year, a figure that is soon expected to increase to $40,000.

The lease agreement includes an escape clause which gives the town the option of moving out after five years, provided the town offices are moved to town-owned space of larger or equal size.

The option must be exercised in two years, so the town has been doubling its efforts to find a new solution.

On Monday afternoon, the board conducted a tour of the property which drew a roughly even mix of supporters and critics. Supporters touted the property's features, relative low cost and capacity for growth. Critics argued that the town already has enough buildings in its possession, and focus efforts on them.

Of the other buildings, the old town hall retains a number of vocal supporters.

That building was brought onto town property with the idea of fixing it up and using it. While some work has been done on it, funding has run out.

A warrant article providing more money for the project was defeated in March, and the building remains empty and unused. Harty has maintained that the Old Town Meeting House lacks the capacity that the Pathfinder Academy property has for growth.

"The Old Meeting House is a big unknown in terms of what it's going to cost and get it up and usable . and it's about 40 percent less space than we currently have," said Harty. "We could shoehorn the current staff into that space, but it allows for zero growth. Pathfinder Academy, on the other hand, has everything we need for probably 50 years," he continued.

The property, which was described as "mixed use" in the auction notice, is located at 59 Sawyer Ave in Epsom and is "visible from the traffic circle."

The 3.5 acre complex includes four buildings which total more than 9,000 square feet: a main house, two classroom buildings, and an outbuilding with two drive-in doors used as garage and workshop.

According to the auction notice, the property is zoned for residential and commercial use.



bclogston@newstote.com


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