Residents critical of new town office proposal
Legal issue raised if town hall abandoned
December 16, 2009
WOLFEBORO — Even before selectmen formally voted 3-2 to place an article on the warrant for new town offices on Lehner Street on Dec. 7, opposition to the idea was growing.
At the Dec. 2 selectmen's meeting Selectman Linda Murray raised the issue of whether the town could legally abandon Brewster Memorial Hall and move town offices elsewhere. She cited John Brewster's will that called for the erection of the building and specifies, in Article 7, that "said building shall beheld by my trustees forever for the use and benefit of the inhabitants of said town of Wolfeborough as and for town hall and library."
Murray also quoted from Article 19 on the 2004 ballot, which called for the purchase of Brewster Town Hall for $1.00 and stated "if such negotiations fail, directing the Board of Selectmen to retain legal counsel experienced in eminent domain actions for the purpose of initiating an eminent domain proceeding to secure title in the Brewster Town Hall for the Town, so that, following the transfer of title to the Town by one means or the other, the building can be renovated and restored and can continue to serve as the Wolfeboro Town Hall."
Murray then quoted from the agreement signed by selectmen with the trustees of Brewster's will on June 10, 2005, which stated, "Whereas, the Town is desirous of continuing to use and occupy Brewster Memorial Hall as the Wolfeboro Town Hall for the foreseeable future; and whereas, Brewster Memorial Hall is in need of substantial renovation to make it suitable for continued service as the town hall in the modern age; and whereas; the Town wishes to renovate and maintain the town hall as its own property…" the Brewster trustees agreed to petition the Middlesex Probate and Family Court to transfer title of the building and land to the town. In its petition, the Brewster trustees stated, "14. The Town despite the cost of required renovation andimprovement is desirous of continuing to use and occupy Brewster Memorial Hall as the Wolfeboro Town Hall for the foreseeable future."
Murray concluded by saying that 77.6 percent of Wolfeboro voters approved Article 19 in 2004 and that the town gave its word to Brewster trustees that it would continue to use the building as a town hall. To move town hall elsewhere would show bad faith and break promises.
Chamber of Commerce
At the Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting the next morning, Dec. 3, Chip Maxfield, head of the Parking Committee, expressed his concern about the proposed new town office building on Lehner Street taking away from the parking lot just purchased. He also pointed out that the town could lose the parking spaces behind Brewster Hall as well if it were sold.
Outgoing Chamber President Michael Cooper, Head of School at Brewster Academy, took advantage of closing remarks to "make a political statement." He also read from John Brewster's will about the erection of the Brewster Memorial building and its replacement in the event of loss. "It would seem that to deviate too far from the original intent of Brewster's will could, potentially, be viewed as an action not done in good faith, and who knows, it may not even be legally possible to do… If we continue to turn our backs on the issue of our town hall to the point where it has to be knocked down, we aren't doing justice to those who were good stewards of our communities and who provided such buildings…Our continued debate, and often times finger pointing, only serves to be a divisive force in an all-important issue and will not be viewed over time as a legacy worth leaving."
Comments at Special Meeting
In the public comment sections of the selectmen's special meeting on Dec. 7, others also expressed opposing views on the Lehner Street new building proposal.
Bobby Hanson, who had brought the complaint against the town about lack of handicap access to facilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stated that there is no ADA-compliant handicapped parking available on Lehner Street. Selectman Chair Dave Senecal pointed out that there were two marked handicapped spaces. Hanson replied that parallel parking spaces are not ADA-compliant.
Sharon O'Donnell of the Friends of Wolfeboro Town Hall read a letter from Maggie Stier of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance to Town Manager Dave Owen correcting the misconception that local governments can successfully turn over historic buildings to others for adaptive re-use. "I have researched this issue for New Hampshire and by far the most common scenario is that towns work incrementally to update their historic town halls and continue to re-use them…If town halls are vacated and abandoned, then the sad truth is that they tend to stay that way." Stier cited successful local historic renovation projects in Alton, Franklin, Freedom, Rochester and Wakefield, and 10 other more distant communities. The three examples of commercial re-use she knew of were all wood-framed buildings, not brick structures like Brewster Hall.
Steve Davis referred to a letter he sent on Dec. 3 where he said he opposed "bringing any large-scale plan before the voters this year" but favored spending $110,000 on basic repairs to Town Hall, which he pointed out will be 120 years old in February 2010, having been completed in 1890.
Speaking for the Parking Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, Roger Murray said the committee was concerned that the Lehner Street proposal shows no parking plan and that the new building would "eat up" parking spaces in both existing and newly-purchased lots. The loss of the 54 parking spaces at Town Hall if it were abandoned was also cited.
Gary Baker pointed out that in March a Lehner Street evaluation study was rejected by 65 percent of voters and 68 percent rejected moving to Varney Road. Based on those votes, he questioned whether 60 percent or more of voters would go for a $4.5 million building on Lehner Street.
Bob Smart said that before moving to Wolfeboro he had spent his career in building maintenance and spoke about the decision at Princeton University to save Nassau Hall, the 250-year-old building that was General Washington's headquarters in the Revolutionary War. He said that you have to look at the long-term value of buildings to see it makes sense to keep them. The only buildings he demolished were wood and steel buildings that did not last.
Bob Hughes said the $3 million needed to fix up Brewster Hall will not be paid by a business. He said he could not imagine someone taking the building faced with that cost.
Judy Breuninger said no one wants a town hall on a decrepit street like Lehner with boarded-up buildings. People who have written against Brewster Hall do not come to meetings. "This has gone on too long – people are sick of it," she said.
Mike Cooper read his statement from the Chamber of Commerce meeting, which was greeted with applause from the audience.
Later in the meeting, after the board voted 3-2 in favor of putting a $4.5 million article for a new building on Lehner Street on the warrant, Richard O'Donnell showed the Lehner Street planned imposed on existing lots: "There is no room for parking," he pointed out. "Good luck."
Blair Moffett asked if the board of selectmen adds any rationale when it presents warrant articles. Senecal said the board will hold public hearings. Moffett said "I am at a loss to understand the logic of proposing a new town office construction for $4.5 million vs. $3.5 million" for Brewster Hall. He said the board needs to address what will be done with Brewster Hall. "You just can't walk away from the building," he said.
Former Town Hall Options Committee member Fred Stephens said "I came into this meeting proud to live in this town…I move out of this building less proud." He said he expected integrity and critical thinking and found both lacking.
Bob Lemaire, who had proposed new town offices on Lehner Street in a different configuration and location last year, pointed out that the town hasn't gotten 60 percent approval to do anything. He said town employees were being held hostage by successive proposals. He said he didn't believe in $4.5 million for Lehner Street but also thought $3 million for Brewster Hall was too low. He urged the board to come in with a proposal for under $3 million that would work.
The only positive comment on the Lehner Street proposal on Dec. 7 came from Dick Mosher, who thanked the current board for "re-examining the issue."
Selectmen met again on Dec. 16, after the deadline for this week's edition. Any further developments from that meeting will be reported next week.