By Bill Kirk
---- — Melmark New England, a school for children with autism and other brain disorders, is planning to expand its campus and work with a developer to build senior housing on property adjacent to its River Road campus.
Rumors of a development plan by Melmark had been circulating for weeks after the May Town Meeting approved a senior zoning overlay district for about 113 acres of land along River Road that includes the 70-acre Franciscan Center next door to Melmark.
Melmark vice president Peter Troy confirmed Melmark’s plans to The Townsman during a selectman’s meeting Monday night held to discuss a sewer hookup the school needs so it can build a kitchen at its 461 River Road complex.
“We want to build residential homes for students that need 24-hour services,” Troy said. “We are looking at three houses with eight children in each house.”
Currently, the school has six residential facilities in Peabody, Methuen, Dracut and Tewksbury. “We would like to bring some of those residences onto the (Andover) grounds,” Troy said.
In addition, the school hopes to partner with a senior living developer to determine what to do with the cavernous, historic Franciscan center, which was built in 1930 as a training center and later used as a retreat house for the Franciscans. The property is now vacant.
“We want to speak with a developer to weigh our needs along with their needs,” he said. “It would be up to the developer whether to renovate or develop something new on the site of the center.”
Melmark has an agreement to purchase the 70-acre site from the Society of Friars of the Orders of St. Francis. According to town records, the land is assessed at almost $5 million and the building at about $2 million.
Troy would not reveal the negotiated price.
The deal was made possible following Town Meeting approval in May of a zoning bylaw that created a Senior Residential Community Overlay District along River Road. The nine-page bylaw encompasses land that more or less surrounds Melmark School. The district is bordered on River Road and includes about 113 acres.
The zoning allows 1-acre, single-family homes as well as a variety of uses under the new overlay zoning of senior housing, including congregate housing, assisted living facility, skilled nursing care and the like.
“We are trying to ensure it will be developed along the lines of senior living,” Troy said. “We want to protect our property and get additional land to serve the school.”
Troy and Melmark Executive Director Rita Gardner said they had learned earlier this year that another developer wanted to purchase the property. So when that deal fell through, Melmark jumped at the chance to put an offer on the property, they said.
“The original reason was so we could keep our parking lot,” Gardner said. “Someone else was going to buy the Franciscan Center. So we decided to get in the driver’s seat when the other agreement fell through.”
She said the school has an “agreement in principle” and is working with the town’s Conservation Commission and “other folks” on getting approval for the project.
Monday night, selectmen approved a proposal by the school to tie into privately owned sewer. The unanimous vote had nothing to do with the school’s plans for the Franciscan property, however.
The board’s 5-0 vote allows Melmark to install a sewer line from its building to a private line that goes into Tewksbury and ties into the Lowell municipal sewer system. The board was actually voting on what is known as an Inter-Municipal Agreement, so-called because it is an agreement between Andover, Tewksbury and Lowell, as well as the owners of the sewer line and Melmark.
The sewer line is owned by Avalon Andover, a 115-unit apartment building on the other side of River Road that was constructed six years ago amid controversy and years of litigation.
Selectmen were concerned that approving the sewer tie-in could have given the green light to Melmark to develop another project similar to Avalon, which was the target of intense opposition from neighbors as well as the town.
Melmark officials told selectmen they only needed the sewer hookup because their Title 5 septic system was “under stress” and because they wanted to install a full-fledged kitchen facility in their building.
Gardner said the kitchen would be used for culinary arts training as well as to serve meals to the 112 students as well as the employees who work in the building. Currently, all the meals at the school are catered.
Selectmen held several meetings on the subject, mainly to discuss wording of the new agreement. The wording limits Melmark in how it can use the hookup so that it serves the school only and no other existing or proposed buildings either on or off the site.