HARVARD - Harvard Town Administrator Tim Bragan confirmed Tuesday that the Town Hall renovation and expansion project has hit a bump in the road. A survey has revealed what is generally visible to the naked eye - the structure built in 1872 lacks sufficient setbacks off Ayer Road in the context of the present zoning bylaw.
The rear of the main building of Town Hall is 31 feet off the road's centerline. The existing addition behind Town Hall is 33 feet away from the centerline. It's proposed the addition be torn down with a replacement addition built in its place which would be located 36 feet off the center line at its closest point.
In any event, the entirety of historic Harvard Town Hall rests within the 75 foot minimum setback dimensions. Zoning took effect in Harvard about a hundred years after the structure was built at 13 Ayer Road.
-- WARNING FLAGS FLEW
Bragan said that in April both Wade Holtzman and Lou Russo, members of the second and now defunct Municipal Building Committees, had asked to see a Town Hall survey plan which would have included setback measurements. Assurances were made that an early 1990s town common plan also included Town Hall measurements.
After a search through May and into June, the sought-after David E. Ross Associates plan was found. "Yup, here's the 4.4 acre lot," said Bragan. "But there was no Town Hall building placed on that [parcel]."
Ross Associates were retained to provide a plan of 13 Ayer Road. A survey was
The results confirmed the setback situation.
The Town Hall Building Committee is comprised of Bragan, professional builder Chris Cutler, Energy Advisory Committee member Eric Broadbent, architect and Historical Commission member Doug Coots, and licensed engineer and experienced project manager Peter Jackson. Jackson previously chaired the Library Building Committee and served on both former MBCs.
On July 14, former selectman Leo Blair appealed to the selectmen in a letter to seek "informed opinions" from the Building Inspector and Town Counsel "so that if any adjustments to the plan are needed they can be made before the town incurs any additional unnecessary expense."
Bragan said the design work to prepare for the $4 million town hall rehab and expansion is now on hold while the setback issue is sorted out.
Town Finance Director Lorraine Leonard said $70,000 was expended in Fiscal Year 2011 by the first MBC to study and prioritize rehabilitation needs between the Town Hall, Hildreth House and Old Library. Another $185,000 was appropriated in Fiscal Year 2012 to move to schematic design for Town Hall and Hildreth House.
Of the $185,000 sum, Leonard said $98,000 was spent, though Jackson said a bill was submitted last week for an additional $14,700. The total spent to date on Town Hall research is approaching the $183,000 mark.
Bragan said town attorney Mark Lanza agrees the setback concerns are valid and suggested a dual-track approach.
A variance will be sought of the Harvard Zoning Board of Appeals. Simultaneously, there will be a request of the Harvard Planning Board, and then Town Meeting, to amend the zoning bylaw to allow for a shortened setback distance.
Bragan suggested it would be "impossible" to successfully make an argument for a special permit since Town Hall cannot comply with the setback requirement. "Thirty-six more feet away is the actual western wall of Town Hall" said Bragan.
The plan is to bring Town Hall to code, renovate inside and out, and replace the current addition with a new one that's 15 feet longer. A setback variance is needed here, said Bragan. Expanding instead to the side of Town Hall would likely not pass muster with the Historical Commission, offered Bragan.
The addition would also be higher, though not as high as the current Town Hall peak. The bylaw allows for a maximum building height of 35 feet and so the new addition's height could trigger the need for a second variance.
And Bragan said a third variance may be needed regarding the proposed floor area ratio (FAR) of the recast Town Hall. The FAR measures the intensity of land use (square footage of all floor space divided by square footage of the lot).
Each potential variance request faces the onerous threshold imposed by Mass Gen. Law Chapter 40A, Section 10. Variances may only be granted upon proof of all three elements: (1) substantial hardship, (2) no substantial detriment to the public good, and (3) no substantial derogation from the intent and purpose of the bylaw and when the substantial hardship springs from "soil conditions, shape, or topography of such land or structures" and which is "especially affecting such land or structures but not affecting generally the zoning district in which it is located."
"We don't know if we can meet that, but we'll apply," said Bragan. "Hardship appeals vary town to town. Whether variances are legitimate hardships or not are [often] not determined because some people don't challenge it. Hypothetically, we can seek one, but someone could file [an appeal]. If that's the case, then that would delay the project even longer."
Blair says the expansion is effectively dead as a result of the zoning concerns. Jackson disagrees.
--RECALIBRATE THE PROJECT? KEEP IT STATUS QUO?
Blair has urged the selectmen to freeze further spending unless and until the roadblocks are cleared. "The Town has spent more than $150,000 on this design without even the minimal amount of due diligence as to zoning," wrote Blair in a July 20 email. "Now that the BOS is aware of this issue it would be very difficult indeed to understand why they would fail to act to stop any further potentially wasteful expenditures until this issue is resolved."
"I don't believe they'll get a variance," predicted Blair. "Then they'll have to go to the town and rezone a specific building for a specific purpose. I doubt it would pass the smell test since you can't rezone a location for a use."
"If you change the zoning [for a district], you'd change it for everybody and those guidelines would be whatever the new guidelines are", said Blair.
Blair believes the ZBA would not approve a variance. If they did, "an appeal to the Land Court of that decision would, in my opinion, win."
"I do not want a precedent set in the town that says 'Because we were either ignorant or arrogant we spent a great deal of money before we checked whether we could get a variance from zoning," said Blair. "Once you allow ignorance or arrogance to be the driving reason for granting variances, there is no zoning. All of land use law is based on precedent."
Jackson said, "Engineering, politics, legislative issues - you work through them and get the job done. We have no intention of stopping. We'll try to make up lost time but this is not unusual. To the layman this looks like a show stopper but it's not."
"I've had to go to Congress to have it pass a special provision in the House of Representatives" to move a project forward, said Jackson. "I have no intention of leaving this project which is one tenth the size of others" he's been involved in.
"The same with others on the committee. They agree with me," said Jackson. "We're talking engineers and architects whose whole profession is solving problems and moving on them. The design plan we have is the best plan for Town Hall."
Blair wrote the selectmen on July 14 that he was shocked the board voted (3-2) to allow the execution of a contract by the chair with the singular construction management firm that bid on the job - Design Techniques, Inc. (DTI). Blair argued DTI's contract, and hence hourly rate, terms and costs were not in hand for prior review. DTI had previously worked on the library project. LLB Architects, which also worked on the library, is also expected to re-up for this next leg of the Town Hall project.
"Given the size and importance of this contract I believe the actions of the Board were ill advised and I would urge you to reconsider," wrote Blair. "The consequences of not doing so could negatively impact the entire project."
Blair said the selectmen should shut off the spigot, "recalibrate" the project, and give people options to revote the scope of the project.
Jackson disagrees, noting the MBC voted unanimously in late winter to go with the expanded Town Hall design that largely exists in the same form today. "And we tested it - offices upstairs, leaving it open - we kept coming back to the same design. Whatever we do I can't think of a better design."
"I don't see anyone on the board of selectmen saying you've got a show stopper here."
"The frustration for me is that if this had been dealt earlier then it could be dealt with tomorrow night [Aug. 29] at Town Meeting instead of having to have another Town Meeting," said Bragan.
Bragan doubted a bylaw change would fail at Town Meeting. "For what end? To what purpose?"
Asked if the setback issue was obvious to the eye, Bragan answered, "Everyone says 'Take a look at the road and the building and you'd know there was a problem' but even the attorney would not make that determination until he saw the survey."
"It just needs to be fixed. The money is not lost," said Bragan. "There are some who'd like to make a hullabaloo out of this. And there are those who are like 'OK, this is an issue and we have to deal with it. We now know where we are and where we need to go."
The initial hope was for work to begin on Town Hall in January and finish by June 2014. The plan is for town offices to temporarily relocate to the old library on Fairbank Street.
"I've been in the business for 50 years," said Jackson. "I never fail to complete a project."
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