HARVARD -- With applications before the board for a special permit and a variance for the Town Hall building renovation and addition project, the Zoning Board of Appeals met last Wednesday night in the second session of a public hearing that would be continued again to the following week.
This time, same as last, members seemed stuck on a key point: whether the hardship criteria the town's case hinges on has been met.
During the first session, the board got a project overview from Cal Goldsmith, of Goldsmith Prest and Ringwall, the civil engineering firm that prepared the site plan.
Goldsmith made a case for relief from zoning based on the plans, which call for razing the 1950s addition on the east side of the building at the rear and rebuilding it on basically the same footprint, but with some overlap.
Due to its height and distance from the centerline of Ayer Road, Town Hall's zoning status is that the building is a pre-existing, nonconforming structure as it stands. Now, however, with a major overhaul in the pipeline, zoning relief is required to move forward.
The previous hearing at Volunteers Hall was sparsely attended. It's continuation, however, drew a crowd, filling the Town Hall meeting room.
After hearing Town Counsel Mark Lanza state the town's case in zoning terms, and despite abutters who said they support the project, which Town Meeting has already approved and agreed to pay for, the ZBA still did not make up its mind.
Town counsel makes the case
Citing state statutes, Lanza said variances are to be granted "sparingly" and that nobody gets one by right. However, in this case there are "unique circumstances," he said, such as the irregular shape of the Town Hall lot, which is more triangular than rectangular, like most building lots. And the "juxtaposition" of Ayer Road "constrains" the building's location and ties into the "hardship" criteria, he said. If the building were as wide on the north end as it is on the south end, "we wouldn't be here."
Cost comparisons show that alternatives such as building the addition on the other end of the building or tearing down the existing structure and starting from scratch, while possible, are not practical and would cost significantly more than the current design plan, Lanza told the board. "In a $2.5 million project, that's a hardship," he said. Especially for the town, which must ask Town Meeting for the money. "The money's not there," he said. "The town can't simply go out and get it."
Besides finances, there are on-site issues that prevent changing the addition's location on the building, including parking and traffic circulation. As for the demolition/reconstruction option, that would destroy a historic structure, Lanza said, while the project as proposed would not be a detriment to the neighborhood,
Addressing another variance criteria, Lanza said it's tough to prove a negative, such as showing the project is not a detriment to the public. "How do you define that?" he asked. The project has been discussed, vetted and voted on by numerous boards, approved and funded by Town Meeting, and the town's chief executive officers -- the Board of Selectmen -- support it, as does the Finance Committee, he said.
"In any of those cases, did the public know the proposed design would require a variance and/or a special permit?" Chairman Chris Tracey asked.
The point didn't come up until this fall, Lanza responded, "but I'm not sure it makes a difference."
"There couldn't be a clearer statement that it's in the public good," he concluded. "The town has spoken, loud and clear."
Tracey also questioned the disparate dollar figures presented to show how much more it would cost to build an addition in a different place. "Why such a huge difference?" he asked.
An architect from LLB, the architects working on the project, explained the figures in terms of square footage. But those other options wouldn't be desirable even if cost were not a factor, he said, since the current design is the most efficient for program and circulation space in the building.
Member Richard Moeser called the design scheme "loosey goosey" out of all the options available, but he was also concerned about preservation, he said, one of the primary reasons the project was initiated. "How will you address the root cases" of Town Hall problems, he asked. "What caused the deterioration?"
"Old age," the architect said.
Moeser persisted. "There's a potential to spend millions and we're back again in 10 years with ... (the building) falling apart again," he said. Will there be an adequate vapor barrier, for example, to ensure that the paint job lasts?
Yes, that's in there, he was told.
Capobianco wanted to know if soil tests had been done at the addition site.
Not yet, Goldsmith answered. But they will be.
"So site costs could go up?" Capobianco asked.
The answer was yes.
Tracey, harking back to the renovation versus rebuilding concept, said he still couldn't see why only one option would work. "My challenge is, if you can build this building, why don't you?" he asked, referring to sketches the board received that day, showing the addition on the west versus the east side. "For us to grant a variance, yet you can build a new structure, is it just because you like it (east addition) more?"
Lanza said that's not the point before the board. "We offered the west addition (sketches) to show that literally enforcing the bylaws would present a hardship," he said.
"I'm having difficulty understanding your argument," Capobianco said. In any case, the fact that the town is the applicant shouldn't make a difference. If it comes down to a choice based on preference rather than necessity, it's not a valid argument for granting a variance for the project as proposed, he said, whether the people want it or not.
"I agree we have to look at this applicant like any other," Lanza said. "But the public good criteria is different and in that respect, the town is a different kind of applicant."
He also noted that a single-family home could get this variance. In fact, one had been granted earlier in the evening. But a demolition and reconstruction such as the homeowner plans to do might not fit Town Hall, given that it's in the historic district, and the commission could nix it.
The design plan as proposed, "preserves the historic character," of Town Hall, Goldsmith said. And it will be safer in terms of site access and egress for fire trucks, with the station located right behind the building. In terms of parking, "anything done to keep that corridor clear is a plus," he said. "That's a strong negative for this (alternative) layout."
Tracey opened the floor to the public, abutters first, but the first speaker was former zoning board member James DeZutter, of Eldridge Road, whose comments focused on process. "ZBA decisions must be based on testimony given here, in public," he said, and in his view, discussions and decisions by other boards don't count. "There's no such thing as a precedent for this board," he said. "I would not grant this variance."
Historic Commission Chairman Ken Swanson, of Fairbank Street, felt differently. Speaking as an abutter, he said town center couldn't be built under current zoning, but its character is important. "I ask you to listen to abutters on that basis," he said.
Another commissioner, John Martin, also of Fairbank Street, lent a creative twist to one of the variance criteria. "This could be called a hardship of historical integrity," he said.
Houses in the district should communicate, aesthetically, including Town Hall, he said. It's a Greek Revival-style building, in which additions are typically built in the rear, as this one is, making the proposed design "historically appropriate," he said.
Selectman Tim Clark submitted "evidence of structural liabilities" in the existing addition as well as the building, which is in disrepair, he said. He also argued that the lot is indeed unique and underscored the qualifying variance gap between single-family homes and institutional uses.
As for why the Building Committee, to which he is liaison, didn't come to the board sooner, he said they did so when it was appropriate. "We needed a real project, not a hypothetical one to seek zoning relief," he said.
Resident Whit Sprague suggested the board's decision shouldn't favor the town but stick to the rules. "Who trumps who with this board, institutions or homeowners?" he asked.
"Every application must be processed in and of itself," Tracey answered. "I don't give greater weight to either one."
Asked why town counsel was in on the discussion, Tracey said it's the applicant's prerogative to have legal counsel state its case to the board.
Stu Sklar, who recently presented a citizen's petition to the selectmen calling for town buildings to be exempt from zoning, said the people's voice shouldn't be ignored. "It's unclear how this board will vote, but it should consider the town voted to restore this building," he said. Besides, no abutters have spoken against it.
Noting documents submitted for and against, Tracey asked if any of those present who had written to the board wanted to speak. It was 10:15 p.m. and none did. But Building Committee Chairman Peter Jackson presented a written response to Wade Holtzman's memo.
The evidentiary part of the hearing was then closed by roll call vote.
The board agreed to continue the hearing to March 21.