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Keene council OKs negotiating sale of Corner News land to owner

Keene city councilors voted Thursday to negotiate selling the land under Corner News to the building’s owner, despite the city manager’s advisement against doing so.

Roberta Mastrogiovanni bought the Corner News building at 2 Gilbo Ave. in 2002, according to online property records, but she leases the 0.04 acres of land from the city. Her request to buy the land went to the finance, organization and personnel committee, which split 2-1 in favor of selling the property at its Nov. 14 meeting, a recommendation the full council debated Thursday.

The committee’s recommendation to negotiate the sale passed the council, 9-6.

Councilors Philip M. Jones, Gary P. Lamoureux, Janis O. Manwaring, Robert J. O’Connor, Thomas F. Powers and David C. Richards opposed the sale. Voting in favor were Councilors Kate M. Bosley, Bettina A. Chadbourne, Terry M. Clark, Randy L. Filiault, Mitchell H. Greenwald, George S. Hansel, Stephen L. Hooper, Carl B. Jacobs and Robert B. Sutherland.

The vote allows City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon to negotiate the sale, but not to execute it, which means she will have to return for approval once the terms of the purchase are outlined.

Dragon expressed concerns about whether planned infrastructure projects might affect that property, and if keeping it might be in the city’s best interest, a point a few councilors agreed with. But others said a longtime small business owner’s desire to invest in Main Street outweighed such worries.

Joseph S. Hoppock, Mastrogiovanni’s attorney, sent a letter in late August to City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins with an offer of $60,000 cash for the land, which is equal to its assessed value, according to online property records. The letter was sent to the City Council and then referred to the finance, organization and personnel committee.

Hoppock has said that, without owning the property beneath the building, Mastrogiovanni has little incentive to make significant investments. He’s also said his client could have trouble securing loans to complete upgrades or renovations if the value of the land isn’t part of the property.

Mastrogiovanni wants to preserve the building’s history, Hoppock has said, and would be willing to negotiate any stipulations the city would want with the sale.

In September, Dragon requested a few weeks to consider the offer and returned Nov. 14 recommending against the sale. Her opinion didn’t change Thursday, when she again noted that a handful of the city’s long-term plans intersect or abut the parcel.

Some councilors, including Greenwald and Filiault, said they’ve heard more than once during their years on the council that there were projects that might happen on Gilbo Avenue, or plans coming down the pike for the area. They argued it would be unfair to withhold the land from the business owner because of what they considered vague possibilities.

Dragon, who began her role two years ago, pointed out that she hasn’t been here for any prior discussions surrounding the land.

She said Keene has funding lined up for preliminary design work on Main Street, and infrastructure projects on Gilbo Avenue will be presented in the next capital improvement program. There’s also the potential arts and culture corridor, which extends up Gilbo and across Main Street. Underscoring that she doesn’t know if the Corner News property would be affected, Dragon said she’d rather wait until these projects are closer to completion.

“And one of the things that we don’t wanna be is in the position of coming back and using eminent domain, even to take a piece of it, a sliver or it, to do infrastructure under the ground,” she said, calling it a difficult, uncomfortable and expensive process.

The discussion of whether to sell the land was dotted with a few tense exchanges.

During one of his comments, Filiault delivered his signature line — “it ain’t rocket science, but we try to make it rocket science” — while acknowledging the frequency with which he says it at council meetings.

After Filiault’s impassioned speech later in the meeting about the council needing a backbone to vote “not based on something that might happen four or eight years down the road,” Mayor Kendall W. Lane stepped in.

“I would remind Councilor Filiault that this is, in fact, rocket science,” Lane said.

He mentioned the projects Dragon referenced earlier and urged the council to consider the effect on taxpayers, who might bear the brunt of the cost if the city needs to buy the land in the future at much more than the sale price.

Several councilors offered suggestions for what to include in the contract negotiations, such as clarifying city rights-of-way and giving Keene the right of first refusal if Mastrogiovanni decides to sell the property in the future. The proposed contract will go through the committee process again when it’s ready for approval.

Mastrogiovanni said Monday morning that the negotiations will be “a little daunting, given that the city manager did not want to sell me the land to begin with.” Selling Greyhound bus tickets from her businesses for nearly 20 years, she said she wants to continue in her role as the city’s transportation center and restore her property, which was built in the 1960s.

She tried to buy the land more than a decade ago but said she got the opposite result: then City Manager John MacLean supported the sale, Mastrogiovanni said, and the council voted it down.

Her hope now is to complete the negotiations and get a final vote before the “changing of the guard,” when the new city councilors are sworn in in January.

“It’s all positive,” Mastrogiovanni said of the vote overall. “I’m really happy that the city council has given me permission to negotiate, and once I own the property I think you’ll see that corner really brighten up.”

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Happy tails: Dogs in Marlborough cruelty case adopted, celebrated

SWANZEY — Tails wagged at high speed Sunday while foster families officially adopted many of the Labs seized in a high-profile animal cruelty case last year.

Monadnock Humane Society staff offered refreshments, took family photos with everyone’s pet and wrapped up any outstanding tasks, such as transferring the dogs’ microchips to their new owners.

Emily Kerylow, the humane society’s director of shelter operations, explained that the organization was able to finish the adoption process because the pets have all been spayed and neutered as of Thursday.

Making the adoption event into a fun shindig was intended to punctuate the past 16 months, she added.

“I think this was just such a long process and it was such an emotional roller coaster,” she said.

After so much turmoil and uncertainty for the foster families, Kerylow said it was time to celebrate a positive resolution.

In July 2018, 52 dogs and a cat were seized from the Marlborough home of John Riggieri, who was subsequently charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. Sheriff’s deputies and humane society staff have testified that they found the dogs living in a house covered in excrement and other filth. A litter of puppies was found in a bathtub, in a room reeking of ammonia, according to the testimony.

A judge found Riggieri, 59, guilty in February of two counts of animal cruelty, but he appealed and was headed for a jury trial in Cheshire County Superior Court. Last month, just a few days before the trial was slated to start, Riggieri struck a deal with the prosecutor’s office: The charges were dropped, and he relinquished ownership of the animals to the humane society.

Riggieri’s cat and 50 dogs — two puppies were euthanized for medical reasons — spent the past 16 months under the humane society’s care. The dogs were first housed at the organization’s Swanzey facility before being placed in temporary foster homes.

Sunday’s event marked the end of a legal process that lasted for more than a year and involved dozens of people, Kerylow said.

Roxanne Karter brought Bruin to the party, who’s being adopted by her son and daughter-in-law. Karter said she’s spent a lot of time with the Lab because they all lived together for six months.

Bruin was one of the last dogs to get a foster home because he was so shy and skittish around people, but he’s come a long way since then. He eagerly looked to everyone for pats Sunday, and when someone offered a treat, he politely sat and lifted both paws in the air.

Volunteers at the humane society have told Karter that “even when he was fearful, he had this positive energy,” she said.

Karter said he’s smart and has learned to trust people. He prefers sleeping on a blanket rather than the bare floor, she added, and if there’s a pillow he’s the happiest pup in the world.

In the lobby, Bodie wiggled excitedly at the sight of other Labs, tongue hanging from his mouth. His owner, Kim Fisher, explained that he was one of the dogs found in the bathtub, and Bodie reunited with one of his litter mates Sunday afternoon.

When she and her husband Craig took him into their Surry home, Bodie was only a few months old. A photo on Fisher’s phone shows a young and lanky Bodie seated underneath the Fishers’ older Lab.

“He has to be near another living thing at all times,” she said, attributing Bodie’s anxiety to what she’s heard about his prior situation.

They read about the cruelty case in the newspaper, Fisher said, and thought they could help by fostering one of the dogs, which they presumed wouldn’t last more than a few months. After raising Bodie for so long, though, she said they dreaded the idea of losing him.

Kerylow said that concern was prevalent among foster families, many of whom watched a puppy grow up in their home. Although the humane society’s staff explained there was no way to know how long the foster situation might last or what the case’s outcome would be, Kerylow said, people still became attached, which she said is understandable.

“Not only did I not want the dogs to go back to a bad situation, but I didn’t wanna see the fosters heartbroken, either,” she said. “So it was like double stress.”

On Sunday, everyone could breathe a collective sigh of relief and finally enjoy their permanent pets. All of the dogs and Smitten the cat are being adopted by their foster families, according to Monadnock Humane Society Executive Director Kathy Collinsworth.

The day also served as the first meetup for the foster families, Kerylow said. Because of the sensitivity of the case, they didn’t have any contact with each other, so it was an opportunity to share their experiences. A few people found that their Labs expressed some of the same traits, for instance, like sticking very close to their owners.

During the adoption party, the shelter was still open for business, with people peeking at cats, and a beagle on a leash looking bewildered among all the Labs.

Kerylow said the only feasible way to host the event was during regular hours, and it didn’t make sense to close. Besides, she added, the afternoon was emblematic of the past 16 months.

“That was the thing: It’s not like our lives stopped when we took this on,” she said.

The humane society took in more than 50 animals on top of everything else in what Kerylow called a “logistics Tetris puzzle.”

Collinsworth has said the humane society incurred about $400,000 in costs caring for the dogs both at the shelter and in their foster homes, including overhead, administrative work and veterinary care. The organization has made up about $150,000 of that through donations, she has said.

Kerylow credited the donors, volunteers, staff and fosters, without whom, she said, she’s not sure it would’ve worked out.

“It takes a village, and luckily we have a community that pitches in.”