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By Bob Burley
Next week is the final, up or down, vote on the Waitsfield bond issue for a new town office building on the Farm Stand site. Here are my thoughts on the historic value of the village and the need to maintain its integrity and economy viability.
The Waitsfield Select Board, in accordance with the Town Office Task Force recommendation, has consistently favored the construction of a new town office building on the Farm Stand site. The site is above the floodplain. It is buildable and of adequate size. It is on the village Main Street and was offered at a favorable price. New construction on the Farm Stand site was targeted for a federal grant, which was awarded. In addition, an anonymous $100,000 donation has been accepted by the select board. Sounds like a no-brainer!
But there are other factors to be considered and a primary factor is the value of our historic village. It has been nationally recognized both for its architecture and its role in our country's history. It is a modest agricultural village that contributed, beyond its size, to the Revolutionary, Civil and World Wars. Our buildings, covered bridge and pattern of development identify Waitsfield and the Mad River Valley. It is a valuable economic, as well as cultural, resource. (Just imagine Mt. Mansfield without the village of Stowe!)
Better than a "museum" village, Waitsfield is a good example of "preservation in use." You can buy goods, conduct business, raise a family and walk to school, church, library and store. Preserving this historic resource, which is irreplaceable, requires thoughtful planning and good policies.
In a historic district, new buildings are "non-contributing." In other words, they contribute nothing to the genuine historic character and national significance of our village. Certified historic buildings, which probably make up 95 percent of our village, are "contributing" and they are what gives us our sense of place, our character and a major resource. Simply stated, new buildings can gradually dilute the integrity of a historic district.
Unfortunately, not all of our historic buildings are fully occupied and others are for sale. So why would we want to build new, when existing historic buildings are available and could just as well be adapted to meet our current needs? Our village is not a privately funded museum and our historic buildings need healthy economic use in order to maintain their integrity and value to the community. A good example of preservation in use is nearby, in Warren, where they have done a good job of adapting historic buildings for current use and avoiding the need for new construction. Warren village retains its character and value. The need for better town office space offers Waitsfield a similar opportunity.
An adapted historic building would require a new or amended application but is just as eligible for a federal grant as a new building. Better town office space and a strengthened historic district should go hand in hand. If the no votes defeat the bond issue, Waitsfield will regain the opportunity to restore and adapt a historic building to accommodate its current office needs. This would be in the long-term interest of the town.
Burley lives in Waitsfield.