Sewer vote clears path for college campus

By Dan O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2011

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A Catholic college that takes pride in its campus scenery and has a curriculum heavy on Great Books literature is looking to make Groton its new home.

The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., has put a down payment on 34 acres at 122 Old Ayer Road, a property commonly referred to as J. Geils Farm in honor of a former owner, John Geils of the J. Geils Band.

William Fahey, president of Thomas More, would not disclose how much money the college gave in a down payment to owner Scott Lathrop, but said a purchase date has been scheduled for April 15. According to town records, the property is valued at nearly $1.5 million.

On Monday, Special Town Meeting approved extending sewer lines to the site in anticipation of the college’s arrival. The college has agreed to pay the entire cost of the extension, officials said.

Last week’s vote would allow the sewer line to be installed only for Thomas More College.

“It’s clearly spelled out that it has to be for the college,’’ said Selectman Stuart Schulman, the board’s chairman.

Thomas More has also agreed to a payment in lieu of taxes of about $24,000 per year, according to Town Manager Mark Haddad, in consideration for the loss of property tax revenue after the exempt institution takes ownership of the land.

Fahey said college officials want to move all undergraduate students from its 12-acre campus in New Hampshire to Groton, and increase the number of undergraduates from 88 to 300.

Graduate students would continue using the New Hampshire campus, Fahey said. Between seven and 10 new buildings are expected to be built at the Groton site, where the current structures, including a 4,800-square-foot estate house dating from the 19th century, will also be utilized, he said.

“The historic beauty is compelling,’’ Fahey said. “Part of what we desire is for students to see a thing of beauty and a way of life that’s beautiful.’’

Fahey said the New Hampshire campus, about a 35-minute drive from Groton, does not have enough space to accommodate the college’s anticipated growth. He said the Groton site is close to downtown, historical sites, and other schools, including Lawrence Academy and the Groton School.

“That kind of location is ideal to us,’’ Fahey said. “We want a location close to historic origins that can be sympathetic to a liberal arts institution. Groton factors in very well for that.’’

Schulman said the college proposal would be “mostly positive’’ for Groton.

“I don’t see any negatives,’’ he said. “Private education is big in town. I think people in general are looking forward to a use that would create some jobs.’’

Thomas More College is one of about a dozen Catholic institutions in the United States that provide students with a broad-based education that includes a heavy dose of Great Books literature, Fahey said.

He said students are taught “to study what it means to be a human under the light of the Catholic church.’’ He said most students “do not have a specialized outcome’’ in which they learn a particular skill or trade, which is similar to how most colleges operated before World War II.

The college has a student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1, according to its website. Tuition is about $16,100 per year with room and board about $9,100 annually. About 95 percent of students live on campus.

Fahey confirmed the college is in talks with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston to purchase the vacant Sacred Heart Church on Main Street in Groton, and move it to Old Ayer Road to serve as the campus chapel. Students are supposed to attend daily Mass, according to the college’s website.

Town officials want to purchase the church property for $475,000 and use the site for a new fire station. However, Special Town Meeting voters on Monday decided to “indefinitely postpone’’ the purchase until more information could be made available.

“Not enough people felt all the alternatives had been explored,’’ said Becky Pine, a Groton resident who voted for the postponement. “I also thought it was too expensive.’’

Haddad said selectmen are expected to decide during their meeting tomorrow night how to proceed with the church issue, but said he will recommend establishing a committee to examine the issue before another public vote is scheduled.

Fahey said the delay on the church issue should have no effect on the college’s move to Groton.

“Whether the property is purchased by the town or not doesn’t affect our negotiations for that,’’ he said.