SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 20, 2013

Seminary proposes housing development in schoolchildren debate

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — HAMILTON — Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is looking at selling a portion of its land off Bridge Street for taxable housing.

The land could be sold to a developer to help meet some of the town’s housing needs, officials said.

The proposal came out of discussions with town officials about the costs associated with educating children of seminary students in the public schools. The issue has been a heated debate for many years, with some residents and officials claiming that it is a burden to the school system.

“They said, ‘Cash is tight, but we have land. Would you be willing to look into options?’” said selectmen Chairman Marc Johnson.

Johnson said any plans are in early stages, and the seminary wants to work alongside the town to figure out the best options for housing.

“They have no intention to do anything on their own,” he said. “If we hadn’t approached them, I don’t know if they would be looking to sell the land.”

The seminary is located on an 118-acre estate off Essex Street.

Members of the Board of Selectmen, Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Hamilton Development Corporation all agreed the town should discuss possibilities for developing the land with the seminary. Such a development will require special permits from the town, Johnson said.

The exact location is unknown, but seminary officials have indicated it could be 12 to 15 acres off Bridge Street near Miles Rivers Road.

“They were not very specific,” Johnson said.

The town’s housing goals include moderately priced condominiums, housing for those looking to downsize with no price constraints and accessory apartments, Johnson said. Hamilton released a housing production plan in May.

Gordon-Conwell President Dennis Hollinger said in a statement that the school is looking forward to “mutually beneficial agreements,” but the plans are very preliminary.

“We are working with the town to explore various possibilities of developing some land in ways that would enrich and benefit the town of Hamilton,” he said.

The discussion about how much the school pays to the town each year in lieu of taxes was rekindled in February when selectmen decided to approach the seminary to discuss the issue.

As a nonprofit, the seminary has no obligation to pay property taxes but has made $100,000 donations to the town annually for the past four years. The dollar figure came out of previous discussions between the town and seminary.

The children of seminary students who live on campus have attended Hamilton-Wenham schools since the seminary built married student housing in 1975.

Several grass-roots citizen groups, including Enough is Enough, have formed over the years urging the seminary to pay more for its students.

Johnson said the next step is to sit down with seminary officials to discuss the plans.

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.