Madison Receives Proposals for Island School Property –

By Jesse Williams/ • 07/20/2021 03:38 p.m. EST

The former Island Avenue School, shuttered by the town in 2019 and since occupied by private K-8 Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory Academy (OLMPA) on a yearly lease, is likely to have its permanent fate decided in the coming months with three concrete proposals submitted for officials to sift through before sending the issue to voters.

The Board of Selectmen (BOS) is planning a public forum on Tuesday, Aug. 3 that will include representatives of the three entities seeking to purchase the property taking questions from residents and presenting their proposals, after which time the BOS will likely vote to move one of the three on to other boards, and eventually to voters.

After putting off a permanent decision on Island in spring of 2020 as it renewed OLMPA’s lease for one more year, the BOS commissioned a citizens committee that spent just under a year deliberating on a permanent path forward for the property. That committee eventually recommended the property be either sold to a school or to a residential developer, and worked with local project management firm Colliers International to write a request for proposals (RFP) last May.

The town had Island appraised this year for $2.1 million, and will seek to balance tax revenue with a solution that will be amenable to residents. First Selectman Peggy Lyons has stated that a good financial deal for taxpayers will be important, but not the only consideration going forward.

Marc Sklenka, a consultant with local project management firm Colliers International who is working with the town on Island, said he thought some developers were “scared off” by deed restrictions on the property. He said there were a handful of other developers who showed up at a walk-through at Island a couple months ago who did not put forward proposals.

Sklenka added that all the proposals were high quality and the two residential developers have extensive and impressive resumes.

OLMPA has long indicated it is interested in purchasing the property as a permanent home for its school, and it did submit an offer to the town for $2.3 million, indicating it will use a for-profit entity to purchase the school to ensure the town receives tax revenue going forward.

The two other respondents to the RFP are Beacon Communities out of Massachusetts and Newport Realty located in Plantsville, Connecticut. They offered $250,000 and $300,000 respectively, with very different plans on developing Island for residential use.

Lyons has said she hopes to have Island on a referendum for voters by next February.

The Proposals

Beacon’s proposal would fully demolish the school building and put up seven townhouses and a large apartment-style “community space” building, creating a total of 70 units. These would be divided with 80 percent of living spaces restricted for seniors and the other 20 percent limited to families with foster children, with the stated intention that senior residents would support the foster families with community events and an on-site kitchen.

Newport is proposing to keep at least a portion of the school intact, turning that portion of the building into senior housing. It would additionally build 10 duplex-style, three-bedroom condos and would try to preserve wetlands on the property, ending with a total of 22 units

Part of the school building would also be dedicated to community space, though it wasn’t clear exactly what this space would be.

Both Beacon and Newport are proposing constructing playgrounds or leaving open green space on the property that will be accessible to the general public.

OLMPA’s proposal is much more straightforward, as the property would continue to be used as it has been during the last two years of their lease with the town. In its proposal, it emphasized the established relationship it has with the town and neighboring property owners, as well as an online survey run by the town last year showing a plurality of residents favoring OLMPA as a buyer.

Another factor favoring OLMPA is that the heirs of the property, Town Attorney Kari Olson said, have made it clear to the town that they prefer Island to remain a school. Island’s deed allows descendants of the previous property owner the first chance to purchase it at whatever sale price the town has received.

Whether or not the heirs exercise this right of first refusal, moving toward a residential use could create complications, according to Olson and Lyons, especially if the question is put to voters at referendum as potential litigation and statutory deadlines conflict with the town’s other obligations.

“Moving toward an educational school type use…will be way more palatable for the heirs, and more likely to garner a voluntary release,” Olson said.

Selectman Bruce Wilson said he wanted to solicit residents to see if they were comfortable with the Island decision being made at town meeting, though Lyons has made it clear she is aiming for a referendum due to the scale and importance of the decision.

The difference in purchase price between the residential developers and OLMPA is partly due to the need for remediation and demolition, according to consultants from Colliers, as well as plans by those developers to invest significant amounts of money into the property, which OLMPA doesn’t necessarily have to do.

Colliers Project Manager Felicia Smith said that Beacon plans to put about $30 million into the property, and Newport around $4 million.

The Beacon proposal is both unique and complex, modeled after other communities the company has created in partnership with a Massachusetts-based non-profit called The Treehouse Foundation, which came up with the idea of putting seniors and foster children together in inclusive living spaces. The first of these opened in 2006, and Treehouse is currently seeking to build two others.

Though it would be requesting some tax breaks, Beacon said it estimates the project will still bring about $87,500 a year in revenue to Madison.

The Newport proposal is smaller in scope with less density and fewer units, aiming for “a sense of place” and reserving about 50 feet of setback from wetlands to the north and east.

Though it wasn’t totally clear whether Beacon’s units would be deemed affordable by the state, it appeared that project aligned with town official’s stated goals to create a more diverse housing stock, which has also been something sought by some state legislators.

Beacon’s units would sell for around $350,000, while Newport’s would sell for about $500,000 or rent for around $2,000 a month in the senior housing, according to Smith, though those numbers would likely change based on market conditions.

The Beacon proposal will also almost certainly require significant zoning variance, specifically mentioning that the town could re-zone the property to fit the project. Earlier this year, Town Planner Dave Anderson spoke in favor of residents at least giving serious consideration to some sort of affordable housing on the Island property.

Olson advised the BOS that laws going into effect this fall related to affordable housing and zoning are likely going to factor significantly into any residential development in the area, which include changes on how much parking a town can require along with many other tweaks.

She added many land use experts have been pushing towns across the state to recognize that affordable housing is inclusive of unique proposals like Beacon’s after affluent towns in Fairfield became too exclusive for people like teachers and firefighters who worked there.

“We have been trying for years to dissuade people from the notion that affordable housing equates to subsidized housing,” Olson said.

The public hearing will take place on Aug. 3 in a hybrid format beginning at 6 p.m.