HARVARD -- With 286 people present -- the lowest turnout in 10 years -- annual Town Meeting on Saturday took almost five and a half hours to move through 45 articles on the warrant, taking several out of order, amending some and wrapping at 2:29 p.m.

With the exception of a duplicate item that was tabled, most articles were approved, including several money articles and the town's $21.28 million omnibus budget, the motion for which passed unanimously and without discussion.

Money articles outside the budget, all with sources identified, included approval of $39,000 to modify the part of the Bromfield School building to be used as the Cable TV studio for handicap access, per ADA regulations; $157,000 to repair and repave the school's rear parking lot, contingent on later passage of a capital exclusion ballot question; $19,000 to refurbish the high school science lab and another $10,000 to ventilate a chemical storage space; $10,000 to replace a rusted-out trailer at Hildreth Elementary School with two storage sheds; $14,000 to install safety gates at both ends of the HES emergency driveway; $75,000 for a structural study and subsequent work at Bromfield House; $21,000 to rewire the town library for an emergency generator and $175,000 to connect the Center Fire Station and Hildreth House to the municipal sewer system.


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Community Preservation Act funds were tapped for several sums and purposes, including: $16,000 for the town clerk to preserve historic town documents; $100,000 transferred to the Harvard municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund; $100,000 to the Conservation Commission's Conservation fund; and another $55,000 for the Parks and Recreation Commission to restore Bromfield's stone wall.

Two articles that generated a lot of discussion, #42 and #43, both inserted on the warrant by citizen's petition, were moved up on the roster and addressed early on.

Article #43 sought to hire a town planner. After much discussion, it passed, narrowly.

Zoning change passed

Article #42 sought to amend zoning laws to exempt town buildings, Town Hall in particular.

Passed by a two-thirds majority, acceptance of this article added the following new paragraph (reworded in a handout from the original, printed version in the warrant) to Section 125-3A of the Code of the Town of Harvard: "The repair, moving, enlargement, alteration and extension of and addition to any lawful nonconforming existing structure and the construction of new on-site and off-site accessory structures owned by the Town of Harvard or leased by the Town ... and used for a Town library, Town museum, Town office, Town hall, Town protective services or other use by the Town of Harvard or its lessee and located ... within 2,500 feet of the Town Center ... shall be exempt from all provisions of this Bylaw, except for Section 125-39, Site Standards."

First to speak on this item was Joe Hutchinson, who said the three-member Planning Board met before Town Meeting and voted 2-1 to support the article, as amended.

Stu Sklar, who initiated the citizen's petition to put the article on the warrant, said the amended version narrowed the scope of the original but was still a smart move whose time had come. "Other towns exempt their public buildings from zoning," he said. "This injects common sense into our protective bylaws."

Given that the Town Hall Building Committee applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals for relief but was denied the variance and special permit needed to proceed as planned, it's obvious that the only way to solve the dilemma is to remove the obstacle, which would likely impede plans to renovate other town buildings in the Town Center as well, such as Hildreth House and the old library.

"We have a lot of buildings that are over 100 years old that will require work," Sklar continued, but no municipal building project can happen without this change. As for Town Hall, every delay costs the town more money and pushes the project completion date further out. "Time is money in this case," he said, noting that Town Meeting voted three times to proceed with the current project, as proposed.

Peter Brooks was the only Planning Board member who voted against the article, citing concerns with process. The matter just came up, he said, and the recent redo was "very different" from the original. In his view, the bylaw change now being considered wasn't adequately thought out. The Planning Board is required to conduct a public hearing before proposing a bylaw change, "and that hasn't happened here," he said.

"This is all in response to denial of a variance for the Town Hall project, yet this proposal goes well beyond that," Brooks said. He suggested limiting the proposed bylaw change to Town Hall only and to narrow the scope to existing buildings, not new construction.

But THBC Chairman Pete Jackson said this article was "the most cost effective" way to go. The bylaw as written would prevent updating the town's "historic treasures," he said.

The selectmen backed the amended article, Chairwoman Lucy Wallace said. A hearing was held to present the article "as originally printed," she said, and "it's captured in the amended version."

Billy Salter, who lives in the Town Center, said, like others, he's been "disappointed" in the bureaucratic process holding up the Town Hall project. "Most town buildings, especially those around the common, are nonconforming," he pointed out.

Salter proposed a "friendly amendment" that he said would "descope" the article to focus only on Town Hall. Later, when the other buildings need a facelift, "an analogous article can be proposed" at a future Town Meeting, he said.

But Bruce Nickerson objected to bypassing a vote on the article as is, so Moderator Bob Eubank asked the body what to do.

Discussion followed, with a couple of technical questions directed to Town Counsel Mark Lanza. The upshot was that the article must go to the Attorney General for approval, but it would not be "spot zoning" to target Town Hall.

Selectman Tim Clark, speaking "as a citizen," opposed Salter's amendment. "We're here because we adopted bylaws that made Town Hall nonconforming," he said. "We're in a crunch here, but it's not new."

Clark noted that the town library required two variances, among other projects, but unlike residential property owners, town buildings have no other option. "The bylaw prohibits it," he said. He urged voters to say no to the amendment and yes to the previously amended article. "It's the only way to move the project forward," he said.

Keith Turner said he usually sides with Salter, but not this time. "This is a misguided amendment," he said. Citing how long it took to get this far, he asked, "Do we want to do this again?"

Selectman Marie Sobalvarro made a motion not to support the proposed amendment.

More discussion followed. At one point, someone asked if passing the amendment would preclude the addition part of the Town Hall project, which Salter said wasn't his intent.

Selectman Ron Ricci asked Lanza for a read.

Lanza's answer was that if the amendment passed, the Town Hall project could not move forward as planned, since the current design puts the heating system "off site," on Hildreth House land, which would lead to another trip to the ZBA. "You could modify the lot line," he said, but there's no way to know if that would accomplish the goal.

After a few more suggestions aimed at saving the amendment, it went down in defeat by a majority vote. The earlier motion on the original article passed by the required two-thirds vote.