HARVARD -- The Zoning Board of Appeals held a public hearing to consider the applications of the Town Hall Building Committee for a variance and special permits needed to renovate the existing Town Hall. It stands, on a 7.5 acre parcel in the Town Center and to replace the "apse" addition on its north side.

Already a non-conforming use under current zoning laws, the variance being sought would allow dimensions of the new addition to exceed height limits and road set-back requirements that new construction must comply with, even if the existing structure does not.

The focus of the applications was on the "hardship" that compliance with zoning would involve. Cal Goldsmith, of the civil engineering firm Goldsmith, Prest and Ringwall, which recently surveyed the site for the purpose of preparing the application, made the case, with input from LLB, the architectural firm that created the new building design.

The "unusual shape" of the common, which bisects the property, accounts in part for the building's odd shape, as it "nips" in at one end, Goldsmith began, and there's no dividing line associated with the street at that point. These facts constitute "unusual circumstances worth discussing," he said.

Showing the layout on a map, he pointed out the driveway to Hildreth House and the old ambulance building behind Town Hall, which presents a constraint in terms of adding a wing at the opposite end of the building versus replacing the addition where it is.


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But the addition can't simply be repaired due to its poor condition, Goldsmith said, citing severe foundation problems. The structure is stable, but would be too costly to fix, he said. The addition is needed primarily to house the elevator for access to the second floor, where meeting rooms and other public space will be located. The elevator is an ADA-requirement, in addition to stairs and there's no other practical place to put it, he said.

Although setback requirements stipulate the building must be at least 75 feet from the centerline of the road -- in this case Route 110/111, or Ayer Road -- it's now only 33 feet back at the north end and 28 feet at the south end. So even if the new addition were built on exactly the same footprint, zoning requirements couldn't be met, Goldsmith said. "We need relief."

ZBA member Robert Capobianco, participating by telephone, asked if the size of the structure could be "manipulated" to bypass the conforming issue.

That was the intent, he was told, but more space was required, not less.

ZBA Chairman Chris Tracey asked if the addition could be placed on the west side of the building instead of replacing it where it is now.

The choice was mostly a cost consideration, Goldsmith answered. But it would also be a problem because of the old ambulance building.

Building Committee Co-Chairman Pete Jackson said the group had looked at a scheme with a west side addition back in 2011, but it wouldn't have conformed with the road setback, either.

Goldsmith said that program requirements -- or Town Hall functions -- drove the design decisions. A litany of constraints and considerations piled up as his presentation continued, including costs versus, comprises, complications and common sense.

But Capobianco was not convinced. "I'm having difficulty with the substantial hardship issue," he said. "The petitioner has to prove that." Basically, he didn't think they had.

Goldsmith conceded that more figures were needed to back up the facts. "We owe you some hard data, such as cost comparisons," he said. With that information, the ZBA will be better able to understand the constraints and where the addition must be. "I don't think we've made a strong enough case that common sense should rule here," he said,

Selectman Marie Sobalvarro, said she was her board's liaison to the Building Committee when the design decision was made. "Once you touch a building, you must meet ADA requirements," she said, adding that the design was endorsed by Town Meeting.

Resident Deborah Skauen-Hinchliffe asked what the committee would do if the variance is not granted. Would they re-do the design or go for a bylaw change? She also wondered why they were so set on saving the old ambulance building.

The ZBA can't answer those questions, Tracey said, but as Capobianco had indicated when he quizzed Goldsmith, if the question was whether a plan could be devised that would not require a variance, the answer would be yes. The question then becomes whether it's a "substantial hardship" to do so, he said.

True, Goldsmith said. But the test is of the plan as proposed, supporting the program endorsed by the selectmen and Town Meeting. "He's saying prove to me that it's too hard, too costly, to do this a different way," or even put the building someplace else, he said.

Most agreed, however, that moving the building was not an option, nor was it within the ZBA's purview to suggest it. Rather, the aim is to determine whether project goals can be met on site without the requested variance. Relocating the addition elsewhere on the building, however, might be a reasonable solution.

Wade Holtzman, who formerly served on the Building Committee but resigned at the 2012 Annual Town Meeting, faulted the group for not providing paperwork that could have avoided the zoning issues in the first place.

Even as the contract was being completed, documentation wasn't there, he said. "I'm dumbfounded that we'd spend this money and design something that requires a variance."

Pete Jackson explained. Although the contract calls for the architect to address these issues, it also states that the town must provide a site survey, which it didn't do. "We searched but couldn't find documents to establish set-backs," he said. Finally, they found one, dated 1992, that showed the boundaries, he said.

The next step was to draw up a plan. "We tried to stay within the footprint as much as possible," Jackson said. But unknowns surfaced. The architect couldn't be expected to resolve the issue with the information they were given, he said.

Selectman Tim Clark said he served on a previous municipal building assessment group and that studies then had shown the existing addition was "compromised." It has no basement, he said, which also explains why it needs an attic, to house systems that could otherwise be located below.

Clark also cited the need to conform to an authority other than zoning. That is, the historical aesthetics of the town common. Two variances were granted to the new library based on that premise, he said. "These historic buildings, circa 1800's, were positioned where they are," he said, and to reconfigure the footprint of either one would destroy their character.

Mary Turner, of Littleton Road, said a lot of meetings had been held at which public input contributed to this design and that nothing proposed was "any more non-conforming than it is now."

"No harm will be caused, and the town has spoken," she said. "I'm not sure what the problem is" in granting the requested variance.

Another resident felt the same way. Town Hall has needed a makeover for a long time, she said, and now is the time to do it. "This is a good design," she said. "I'd like to see this building built before I die!"

Harvard zoning laws were aimed at discouraging buildings other than single-family dwellings, he said, and it's a struggle to change them. He promised the board would be as diligent and appropriate as possible when making its decision.

The hearing was continued to March 13 at 8:30 p.m. in the Town Hall meeting room. With the board's permission, Town Counsel Mark Lanza, who usually advises the ZBA and is well-versed in zoning matters, said he would prepare a summary of the town's case for the variance.