Town moves to boost its Avon Hall options

After a presentation by Avon Hall study group leader and Washington Town Council member Gary Aichele and a vigorous discussion among council members and the 15 or so citizens attending its monthly meeting Monday night, the council voted to hire a surveyor to define more precisely what could be done with its 9-acre Avon Hall estate — besides, that is, trying to sell it as a 9-acre estate.

Council member Jerry Goebel, after declaring he thought that’s exactly what the council should do — put its long-held property on the market, as is — cast the only no vote in the 5-1 roll call. (Council member Patrick O’Connell was absent.)

Before the council decided to spend up to $3,000 for Flint Hill surveyor Dan Clark to walk through the property and report back by the council’s Sept. 14 meeting, Aichele said disposing of what remains of the estate is important to the town’s immediate financial future, but should be done with care and planning.

When the town purchased the property from the estate of William Carrigan more than a dozen years ago, it intended to use part of it to build a new wastewater treatment plant — which it did, carving out about three acres of it. Proceeds from the sale or lease of the remaining property were then built into the town’s projected income after the plant was open. In 2004, the county purchased four acres adjacent to its courthouse complex, but the remainder of the property, which includes a two-story home in need of much work and a large pond and nature trail renovated in recent years by local conservation and master-gardener groups, has sat dormant.

The treatment plant opened five years ago; most of its first few years of operation — and payments on the town’s $4 million construction debt — were paid for by substantial connection fees. Those fees have all but gone away, since most of the town properties are now connected; the town’s only other source of income is its meals and lodging excise tax.

In two well-attended public forums last month, Aichele said, the study group — composed of Aichele and council member Mary Ann Kuhn and planning commission members Fred Catlin and Judy DeSarno — found that there were many good ideas but “definitely not a consensus among the public” on what the town should do with Avon Hall. Ideas ranged from turning it into an arts center or community center to suggestions about a B&B, school or training center, or business center — ideas that, Aichele pointed out, all would require a “very special” buyer who may or may not exist.

The only idea that seemed to generate at least some consensus, Aichele said, among the public as well as the council, was town resident Allan Comp’s “concept” to consider dividing the property into eight or more smaller parcels, some of which would contain existing historic structures (including the main house), others of which would become half-acre (or smaller) residential building sites.

It’s the “Comp Concept,” or a slight update on his ideas done by Aichele and the study group since last month, for which Clark would be asked to fill in the details of topography, likely building sites, fence lines and other considerations. Though the town would not be committed to the concept, Aichele said, the details would settle some of the complicated questions — including what the town might hope to make from the sale of the property (or properties).

Aichele said the study group also sought updated “ballpark” estimates of the 9-acre parcel’s possible value in the current real estate market. He said three local real estate agents came up with a possible value between $750,000 and $1 million — but stressed again that the number could vary significantly, depending on many unknowns.

Several town residents rose to express mostly appreciation to the study group, and the council, for pursuing the Avon Hall question with some care and urgency.

Town resident Nancy Buntin, who still lives in the Main Street home where she grew up, noted that “developing the Avon Hall property is going to be a major shock for many — in most people’s lifetimes, it’s always been pretty much what it is. But looking 15 years down the line, what are we going to do? I look at small towns everywhere that are just dying. . . .

“Many of the older residents look at the sale of Avon Hall as just awful,” she said. “But many also see it as a way to sustain our town and ourselves into the future. Maybe building up more residents would be a way to do that.”

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