HARVARD -- Selectmen at their meeting Tuesday night discussed how to handle a couple of zoning challenges that a past town official has said could derail the proposed $4 million Town Hall building project. During the public comment period, former selectman Leo Blair reiterated his concerns.
"The main issue" in a letter he previously sent to the board was that despite looming problems related to "zoning variances" that could halt the project in its tracks, a majority of the board voted to contract for project management services with a lone bidder, without a set price and with no further review of the proposed contract. Blair called the action "inappropriate and irregular."
The selectmen should stop all spending on the project until the zoning issues are settled, Blair said. The question then was, had they done so?
"There have been no contracts signed" since the issues surfaced, Town Administrator Tim Bragan said. But Town Meeting-approved funds for the project have been tapped to pay legal bills.
Blair, however, wanted to know how road setback and height limits affecting the design scheme could have been ignored until now. People involved with the project who are architects, engineers or selectmen who served on the Planning Board "should have known better," he said. "Why didn't anyone ask about zoning?" in relation to the survey plan, he asked. That is, what could or could not be done?
He also questioned why selectmen moved ahead anyway, once they knew about the problems. "Was this an oversight or a conscious decision?" Blair asked.
"I think people have been aware of the issues, including zoning," Chairman Lucy Wallace said, and those issues are being addressed.
Selectman Ron Ricci interjected with "an accurate answer" to Blair's question.
"Someone was supposed to determine that the building project met regulations and that was not done," he said. "I thank you," for spotlighting the problems, he said to Blair. "Otherwise, we could have gone through the whole process, only to find out we can't build as planned."
Now, selectmen have an opportunity to not only address the problems but prevent a repeat. "We should figure out what went wrong" so it doesn't happen again, Ricci said.
"It was the owner's responsibility to survey the property and we didn't," Marie Sobalvarro said.
Resident Deborah Skaun-Hinchliffe rephrased Blair's query. "Has the project been stopped?" she asked, citing $168,000 spent to date and another $14,700 encumbered. In her view, the town has done "something so stupid..." that the only sensible next step is to halt the project.
But selectmen are not considering that option at this point.
When the "Town Hall update" item came up on the agenda later in the meeting, the gist of their discussion was how to solve the zoning problems and move forward with the project, which seeks to completely renovate the existing antique building and build a new addition to replace the old, octagonal one.
"Zoning first," Bragan said. He told the board he's requested an official letter from Town Counsel Mark Lanza regarding zoning, in particular road setback and height anomalies in the project plan that could prevent its execution.
Besides the exact height of the new addition's roof, Lanza needed its "gross floor area" to determine if other zoning requirements are met. For example, bylaws allow a new build to occupy up to 20 percent of the lot size, which in this case is 300,000 square feet, Bragan said, so the addition "could be up to 70,000 square feet," well over actual size. "No problem there."
The height limit, however, is 35 feet and the planned addition's roof will rise 38 feet.
Anyway, Lanza has the information he needs now. "I expect to hear back in 48 hours, Bragan said.
"We're applying for a "hardship variance" with the Zoning Board of Appeals, Bragan continued. At the same time, he recommends taking an alternate path, asking the Planning Board to craft a bylaw change. That option would require advertising and a public hearing before the proposed change could be presented to Town Meeting. Citing time requirements in each case, "you could take the risk" and try both, he said.
"Those are the two tracks to deal with zoning issues," Bragan concluded.
In the end, selectmen decided to pursue one track at a time.
After discussing the matter at some length, weighing in on pros and cons and speculating about chances of success, they voted unanimously to authorize Bragan to file a variance application with the ZBA, and to "bring in appropriate expertise," including Town Counsel.
The caveat came out of a suggestion from Tim Clark to hire an engineering consultant to look at the "zoning analysis" in terms of a variance bid and from the "hardship" perspective they plan to pursue.
Ricci harked back to a vintage issue that came up when he was a Water Department commissioner and a proposal to erect a cell tower on department property on Bolton Road called for a zoning variance because the fall zone -- calculated based on the tower's height and distance from the nearest structure -- was short of the 500-foot limit by about five feet. But an application for a variance due to hardship was rejected by the ZBA because there were other places in town where the cell tower could go, he said.
In this case, the road setback issue presents a difficulty that isn't likely to be overcome and moving Town Hall "someplace else" isn't a viable option.
"I think we have a strong opportunity to prevail ... with professional assistance," Tim Clark opined.
Wallace said she had signed the DTI contract (the Building Committee's firm of choice to act as Owner's Project Manager and provide other on-site services) but the document hadn't yet gone out to the other party. She suggested "having the project team in place" when making a case to the ZBA. "It gives us a level of credibility," she said.
"I respectfully disagree," Bill Johnson said. "These are not design issues, it's about crafting a hardship narrative." He favored Clark's idea, to tap "local experts" such as GPR, a civil engineering outfit that has worked for the town on many occasions.
"Besides, DTI didn't raise these issues," he said. In his view, the firm should have raised flags when they viewed project parameters versus schematic designs, even if it wasn't their job to fix those issues. "They've been part of this problem and shouldn't be part of the solution," Johnson said.
But Sobalvarro waved off that premise. "I'm tired" of the blame routine, she said. "Let's just solve the problem."