PORTSMOUTH – City employees are doing “due diligence” to investigate whether there were any environmental problems on the 34-acre campus property and the reasons the city recently agreed to buy it for $10 million, according to city attorney Robert Sullivan.
Sullivan acknowledged that former Mayor Rick Bexstead had “relayed to us” a report from a resident that areas in or near the Community Campus site had previously been used as a dumping ground for debris or backfill from the city’s North End urban renewal project.
“We take any concerns like this with the kind of seriousness required in a $10 million real estate transaction,” Sullivan said. He said city consultant engineers are conducting work on the site.
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“They are the experts and do the necessary investigation work to tell us the environmental condition of the property,” Sullivan said.
The city council voted unanimously in December to spend $10 million to purchase the 34-acre community campus property, which is owned by Seacoast Health, a nonprofit that operates a nonprofit multi-tenant center on the site.
The council voted earlier in 2021 to authorize City Manager Karen Cunard to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement with Seacoast Health.
Sullivan said Wednesday that the two sides do not have a “signed agreement.”
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Mayor Deaglan McEachern previously described the purchase as a “very big deal for the city” and said the property could potentially be used for housing, a sports facility or to expand the existing Seacoast Community School on the site.
If it were decided there was a landfill on the site, Sullivan said, “that wouldn’t be unusual.”
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“There are well-established ways to deal with it,” he said.
Sullivan remains “very confident” that the sale will go through.
“Keep in mind, this was a unanimous vote,” he added.
Becksted believes that areas of the Community Campus property were used as dumping areas after homes were demolished during the city’s urban renewal process.
“It is part of the city’s history. Although none of us were a part of it, we have a responsibility to make it right.” “Between the Community Campus and Banfield Road, this is all an urban renewal.”
The news about the city’s due diligence on the property comes this week after the city’s trustees suspended their meeting Tuesday to seek more information about trust payments to be used as part of a $10 million land purchase.
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Chairman Thomas Watson said the trustees had “suspended our meeting in order to allow the Legal Department to submit additional documents.”
“We are always concerned that all steps are being properly followed through our funds, and our job is not to distribute money that we shouldn’t,” he said on Wednesday. “The documents seen by the trustees have enough ambiguity to require clarification and that is what we have requested from the city attorney.”
He believes that once this information is received, the trustees will vote to spend $627,496 from the Peirce Estate Trust to purchase Community Campus, plus $25,542 from the Daniel Street Trust.
Watson said former City Council members Paige Trace, Esther Kennedy, Petra Huda and Peter Whelan, along with Bexstead, attended Tuesday’s meeting and raised concerns about the process.
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Bexted stressed that he supports the use of funds from trust funds for purchases, but said, “I wanted to make sure we were following appropriate procedures.”
“I think the boxes should have been part of their vote as a separate decision,” Beckstead added.
Sullivan said the Legal Department is ready “to provide the trustees with everything they need, and we’ll do that as quickly as possible.”
“I am absolutely certain that the Board has authorized the transfer of trust funds and I stand ready to do whatever is necessary to achieve this goal as quickly as possible,” he said.