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After a lengthy meeting featuring impassioned pleas that the town renovate the old Methodist church for new town offices versus building new offices on a nearby piece of land, the Waitsfield Select Board accepted the recommendation of the Town Office Task Force to build a new building.
The task force made its recommendation to the select board on January 21, offering a resolution outlining its reasons for selecting the Flemer Farm Stand on Route 100 in the village instead of the church.
Those reasons boiled down to a million-dollar cost differential, lower energy costs with a new building and concern over evicting the current business and residential tenants at the church.
To renovate the church will cost $770,000 more than building new, plus 20 years of interest, bringing the total cost differential to $1 million.
After hearing from the task force as well as a roomful of town residents who favored the church, the select board voted 4-1 to bring the new construction project before voters in an Australian ballot item at Town Meeting. The cost of building at the Farm Stand site, including purchasing the property, is $1.6 million.
Members of the task force told the select board and those present at this week’s meeting that they recognized the historic value of the church and said that if both options were equal in price, they might have recommended in favor of the church.
“Both sites are in the same zoning district and the Town Plan has the same land usage goals for the sites. I was looking at them being equal. Had they been equal, I might have leaned toward the church. But they are not and we realize that there is a real value to having something closer to the core of the village, as the church is. We don’t think it is a $770,000 or $1 million value to the taxpayers,” said task force chair Brian Shupe.
Several of those present at the meeting spoke passionately about renovating the church, including one woman who said that people who participated in the town office task force public forums (87 people participated in two surveys) showed the town that “they did not want the Farm Stand, that they wanted something beautiful.”
Village resident Kirstin Siebert urged the select board to consider the church and said “people in December voted clearly for the church even knowing there was a $700,000 cost difference. The results from both forums were clear. The task force did not listen to the public and the select board is not listening to the public.”
Select board member Paul Hartshorn took issue with whether unofficial surveys of the people who attended the two forums constituted an official poll of Waitsfield’s 1,400 voters.
Siebert submitted a petition to the select board with 90 signatures, asking the town to select the church for new town offices.
Sam Gulisano, who owns the blue building on Bridge Street with his family (and has just completed rehabilitating the historic building after it was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene), said rehabilitation can be hell and a nightmare but worth it in the end.
“I think we should think about things long-term and I can see the church as a focal point of our village. It could be sensational. I know a new building could be amazing as well and would be very energy efficient. I’ll throw out something odd here, but with what it costs to borrow right now I’d challenge the board to think about buying everything it can, the church, the Flemer Farm Stand and the Flemer Barns,” Gulisano said.
For town resident Leo Laferriere, the matter came down to the directive of the task force.
“The task force’s responsibility was not to save the church by moving the town offices into it and sometimes that’s what’s coming across here. The purpose of the two-plus years of work by the task force was not to do something for the church. We really need an arm’s length objective view of the two projects. Regardless of what the survey preference was, the most informed group about these projects are the people in this room. To spend an additional, half again, as much money as we need to accomplish the objective of a new home for the town offices – a million dollars over a 20-year period – would have to be backed up by many compelling reasons,” Laferriere said.
“There’s competition for money. The Harwood budget is up. The Washington West budget is up. The local school budget is up 6 percent. We need to know something about the town’s ability to borrow,” he added.
A Waitsfield resident present at the meeting responded that she disagreed with the idea of separating the connection of the need for a new town office and the church.
“It’s a match made in heaven. It’s a former civic building that would be used again as a civic building. I feel very strongly that we have an opportunity as well as a responsibility to ourselves as a town to protect and reclaim our historic buildings,” the woman said.
The board voted 4-1 to place the task force recommendation on the ballot for Town Meeting. Voting in favor were chair Sal Spinosa, Paul Hartshorn, Bill Parker and Charlie Hosford. Logan Cooke voted against it.