BERLIN — Town and school officials are suddenly scrambling to deal with the fact that the Berlin Volunteer Fire Station was built on land still leased from a school district that could soon cease to exist.
The looming merger of Berlin and its sister districts in the five-town, six-school Washington Central Supervisory Union prompted the School Board to huddle Wednesday with the Select Board due to implications of the state-ordered educational alliance.
One of those implications is that property now owned by the Berlin School District is set to be transferred to the new Washington Central Unified Union School District on July 1. As is the case in Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, that includes the local elementary school.
The added wrinkle in Berlin is it also includes the land on which the volunteer fire station was built 30 years ago.
By all accounts there is no reason to panic.
The fire station isn’t going anywhere — at least not for the next 20 years — under a 50-year lease that was signed in 1989 and is scheduled to expire on Aug. 31, 2039.
The $1-a-year lease, which paved the way for construction of the fire station on 1.28 acres of school-owned property, shouldn’t be materially affected by the merger, although officials agreed the arrangement wouldn’t be optimal.
Members of both boards said they’d like to resolve the issue before one of them cedes operational control to the soon-to-be-elected board of the merged district.
The new 10-member board will — at least initially — include two representatives from Berlin. Based on candidates running in mostly uncontested races that will be collectively decided by voters in all five towns on May 21, Superintendent Bill Kimball said he didn’t foresee members objecting to a sensible solution to an unusual problem, but couldn’t make any guarantees.
“It’s hard for me to fathom they (the new board) wouldn’t just sell it to the town for $1,” he said, referring to the portion of the school property that is leased to the fire department and has never been used for the operation of the local school system.
Though the school district owns the land, the fire department owns the building. If the lease were either terminated or allowed to lapse, the department would be required to raze the structure under the terms of the agreement.
The simplest solution discussed would be for the School Board to exercise its voter-approved authority to extend the 50-year lease. The lease reviewed by board members at the joint meeting notes the School Board was authorized to execute a lease for up to 99 years, but chose instead to settle for a 50-year term with the understanding the duration could be revisited at a later date.
Extending the lease wouldn’t require voters to weigh in and shouldn’t be terribly time-consuming. However, the two boards expressed a preference for a cleaner solution that would involve the school district selling the leased property to the town.
Kimball said that would require a local vote, with little time to warn the special election in conjunction with an anticipated June 25 budget vote for the merged district. The election must be warned by May 24 and that presumes all the supporting documentation can be gathered in the next two weeks.
The boards agreed to consult with their respective attorneys and huddle again before the warning deadline to determine how to proceed. The School Board is expected to ask voters to approve a series of documents similar to those recently approved by voters in Calais in an effort to further secure their interest in the school property.
The documents include an “exclusive irrevocable option” that would give the town the right to reacquire the Berlin Elementary School property for $1 in the event it is no longer used for the “on-site education of children.”
That type of transaction is already contemplated in default articles of agreement that would be imposed on the merged district.
The other two documents — an easement and an agreement — would preserve the town’s right to use the school building in the future.
The easement deed would guarantee continued use of the school as an emergency shelter and local polling place and town meeting space as needed. It would also provide the town with the permanent right to use the school’s fields, playgrounds and gymnasium for recreational programs and activities it sponsors.
The agreement provides some more specific detail with respect to insurance requirements, the need to provide adequate supervision, and compliance with current and future laws, ordinances and regulations, including school district policies.
Voters in Calais have authorized the execution of those documents and school directors in Middlesex this week tentatively agreed to ask voters to do the same on June 25. The Berlin Select Board unanimously endorsed that strategy Wednesday even as one member — Justin Lawrence — urged Town Administrator Dana Hadley to explore whether there are additional options with respect to the school property.
“I don’t think what’s good for Calais is necessarily good for us,” he said, citing the need to protect the fire department and potentially swap land to accommodate future expansion plans at the nearby Berlin Mall.
The latter proposal was presented to local school directors two years ago, but never acted on. A future request would go to the merged board and Lawrence wondered whether there was a way around that.