HARVARD -- The selectmen's meeting Nov. 19, began with a Town Hall update and ended with a discussion of the Town Hall building project, with a good deal of ground covered in between. Here are some highlights.

Town Hall

Having assumed control of the Town Hall building project, which is on hold right now, selectmen agreed it will be on the agenda at all of their regular weekly meetings from now on as the proposed renovation restarts, either as a downsized version of the current design voters previously approved with a $3.9 million price tag or as something else.

Although selectmen have consistently said "something must be done" to fix up the old building, voters recently said they don't want to pay any more for it than the previously appropriated amount, having rejected both a Town Meeting bid to kick in another $1.1 million and a related debt exclusion ballot question at the polls.

At the recent meeting, Selectman Lucy Wallace said she's not sure most people want the renovation project to continue as presented and she strongly advocated for public forums next month to gather input before the board decides what to do next.

"I think some people don't want to do it," she said, and the public sessions would be an opportunity to educate people and explain why project cost estimates went way up.

Leo Blair, however, didn't favor the forums on that basis. "I think it's a waste of time," he said. "We've been told repeatedly" that the higher-cost plan is unacceptable and "it's too soon to move people."

"I don't want to move them," Wallace retorted.


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"I want to hear from people...their ideas."

Having agreed on parameters for discussion within the scope of the existing design and appropriated budget and assuming there will be trade-offs if the project is to move forward, the board set two dates for the forums: Thursday, Dec. 5, from 7:30-9:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 7, from 9-11 a.m., with locations to be arranged.

Single tax rate to continue

At the annual tax classification hearing Tuesday night, selectmen voted to adopt a uniform or single tax rate again this year, as recommended by the Board of Assessors and Regional Tax Assessor Harald Scheid, who made the presentation.

This year's estimated tax rate is $17.13 per thousand in assessed value for residential and commercial taxpayers alike, up from $16.68 in fiscal 2013. The rate must be approved by the Department of Revenue and is subject to change, Scheid said.

Among other options, selectmen could have chosen to adopt a split rate that would shift the tax burden from residential to commercial, but the assessors don't favor the switch. With a tax base of 95 percent residential and less than 5 percent commercial, resultant savings on one side of the divide would not be substantial enough to justify the hefty hit on the other, Scheid explained.

For example: In a split-rate scenario, if the commercial rate were raised by 1.5 percent, the maximum allowed by law, the residential rate would be lowered by the same percentage. Based on an assessed average home value in town of $546,600 and an annual bill of $8,500, the switch would reduce those annual tax bills by $220. But business and personal property tax bills based on the same amount of assessed value would jump from $17.13 to $25.70 per thousand, an annual hike of $4,285.

The selectmen agreed to retain the uniform tax rate for another year.

Appointments

In other business, selectmen appointed Bill Johnson and Steve Adrian to the Cable Committee and the Rev. Dr. Gregory Schmidt, who is the minister at the Congregational Church of Harvard, to the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust.

They also seated members of a new Viewshed Committee. The committee's charge is to meet with MassDevelopment officials and representatives from Bristol-Myers Squibb to provide input on the pharmaceutical firm's plans to expand its Devens facility.

One of the members, Marge Darby, served on the previous Viewshed Committee when the company was a newcomer to Devens and sought a zoning waiver for a building that would exceed height restrictions. 

After 44 years in town and "shooting for 50," Darby has been civically active in town, particularly in regard to historic and conservation issues and Devens redevelopment. She said the Prospect Hill Viewshed is a national historic site and important to the town.

The group will also include a representative of Fruitlands Museums, whose prominent perch on Prospect Hill offers sweeping vistas of the Harvard Hills, i.e., the viewshed, including the area of Devens where Bristol-Myers Squibb is located.

Selectman Lucy Wallace was appointed as the board's liaison.

According to Wallace, also an alumnus of the earlier effort, the company worked with the previous committee to come up with a building and layout design that would have the least impact on its neighbor's valued view and she anticipates the same level of cooperation this time. "They were mindful of the issues," she said.

Unlike last time, though, there's no height bylaw exemption needed. "This building will be lower," Wallace explained.

She pointed out photos in the selectmen's information package that show the sight line from Prospect Hill, situation of the buildings and viewshed impact, including heights, rooflines and color. "This is the second phase of a three-phase project," she said.

With a committee in place, MassDevelopment will set up a meeting and contact members, selectmen said.