As the Planning Board was poised this week to close discussions on dormitory expansion plans at Merrimack College, the Board of Selectmen continues to look at how, and whether, it can block or alter the project by delaying or denying approval to hook up to the town's sewer and water systems.

According to Town Counsel Tom Urbelis, a 1948 Special Act of the State Legislature allows Andover and Merrimack College to enter into a contract enabling the town to provide sewer service to the campus.

The only problem is, nobody can find the contract. 

During a Board of Selectmen meeting last week, Urbelis told town officials and a handful of Merrimack College neighbors opposed to the dorm plans about how the search for the contract document so far has come up empty.

"Merrimack College and the town of Andover are authorized to enter into a sewer contract directly," Urbelis said at the meeting. "I asked the attorney for the college to provide me with that contract. They've been unable to produce a contract."

He said employees from the town's Public Works Department similarly are going through town records, but have so far come up empty.

College spokesman James Chiavelli confirmed that the college is combing through its records.

"We are still searching our archives," he said. "We are going through them, box by box. We assume the town is doing the same with their records."

The search for the contract is the latest sideshow in what has become one of the biggest controversies of the summer: The college wants to build four new dormitories for an additional 400 students along with a community center on land that neighbors say has always been open space and should remain open space.

Residents of Rockridge Road in particular are opposed to the construction of the 3-story buildings, proposed to be erected directly across the street from where they live.

So far, the issue has been the purview of the Planning Board, which is governed by a limited set of criteria based on what is known as the Dover Amendment, which allows educational institutions to ignore zoning regulations in order to expand. Tomorrow night, the board continues its public hearing on the project in the Third Floor Conference room of the Town Offices at 36 Bartlet Street. The hearing, actually a 'Site Plan Review - Dover Use,' is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. 

Director of Planning Paul Materazzo said he doesn't expect the board to take a vote "but they may choose to close the discussion should they feel they have all of the information to make a recommendation to the Inspector of Buildings."

Meanwhile, the Board of Selectmen continue searching for a way into the fray, since the board also serves as the town's Water and Sewer Commission. As such, Selectmen must approve so-called "Inter-Municipal Agreements," or IMAs, which allow buildings in one town to be hooked up to water or sewer systems of another town.

In this case, most of the new dorms are being built in North Andover, while Andover would be providing the water and sewer service. During a meeting earlier this month, Selectmen raised the question of whether an IMA would be needed with North Andover in order for the dorm project to proceed.

Last week, Urbelis said it appears an IMA is not needed for the sewer service due to the existence of the special act of the Legislature and the supposed contract between the two entities. However, an IMA may be needed for water service.

"An IMA with North Andover is not required to connect to the sewer," he said, adding, however, that he has requested attorneys for the college to "provide agreements that authorize a tie-in to water and whether an IMA is required to tie into water. They were unable to provide any agreement."

Chiavelli said the college has been tied into the town's water system for more than 60 years.

"Since the late 1940s we have been connected to the town's water system," he said. "I can't believe the town would connect us illegally for 60 years."

Last week, some selectmen said they doubt any agreements exist on water or sewer.

"We suspect it never happened," said Selectman Paul Salafia.

Selectmen Chairman Dan Kowalski, however, noted, "It would seem appropriate to have a contract governing payment, terms, rates, things that are similar to an IMA."

He said town officials needed to reach out to North Andover to discuss creating an Inter-Municipal Agreement for water service.

Neighbors of the college are also hoping to meet with Andover police and have reached out to the department to set up a meeting to discuss how to ensure the safety of the neighborhood in the event that the dorm project does go through.

Police Chief Patrick Keefe said late last week that  he was working to set up a meeting as soon as possible.

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