HARVARD -- Faced with possible zoning issues that could prevent the Town Hall building project from moving forward as planned, including the required set-back from Ayer Road and the height of the planned addition's roof, selectmen asked Town Counsel Mark Lanza to look into the matter.

After reviewing the architect's schematic design, a site plan and applicable provisions of town bylaws, Lanza told the board in a Sept. 12 email that the project will require "zoning relief."

"There are zoning issues regarding this building," Town Administrator Tim Bragan told selectmen at their Sept. 18 meeting. A special permit, zoning variances, and a Planning Board site plan review will be required, he said, citing details in Lanza's letter. "The Town Hall Building Committee is working on it."

Selectman Tim Clark noted that in light of the zoning hurdles, some items on the project checklist would need to be revisited. GPR, the civil engineering firm working with LLB, the architect, "indicates there's more work to do," he said, such as a closer survey of the site. The additional work probably won't add to the project cost, however, unless there's a "significant delay," he said, referencing the LLB contract.

"So we look to GPR to do the variance application?" Selectman Bill Johnson asked.

"Mostly," Clark answered. "With LLB support."

Selectman Ron Ricci was irked about having to cover the same ground again. "I thought we had plans from LLB," he said.

The question then became whether it's a good idea to enter into a new contract with the same firm for the next phase of the project, which until recently was the intent.

Johnson said he was leery of signing an "even larger contract" with LLB for future work just to get engineering services now. He'd rather contract directly with GPR, he said.

He also questioned the wisdom of re-signing with LLB in light of the current problems.

"What if we can't get relief and must re-do the design?" he asked. LLB might not be the firm he'd choose to do it, if so, he said, or DTI, the contractor tapped for the project.

But Clark wasn't worried that the contracts might be risky. "The way the contract works, they're paid only for completed work," he said, adding that the town can't legally do it any other way. "I think we're protected."

"So if we choose to terminate the contract, there's no liability?" Johnson asked.

"Only for authorized work that's been done," Clark answered.

"Say we don't get a variance, can we say sayonara to LLB?" Ricci asked.

According to Clark, the answer was yes. The town is only on the hook for authorized services performed, he said, but not for items in the contract that were not done when a contract is terminated.

Ricci, however, was concerned that if the selectmen completed the contracts with LLB and DTI, the THBC might go ahead and authorize work that commits the town to spending more money on the project, even before zoning issues are cleared up.

Clark wasn't worried. The Building Committee would be "cautious, as we are," he assured Ricci.

"Can the new work be done under the existing LLB contract?" Johnson asked.

Bragan said no, because the parameters of that contract don't include permitting.

In that case, Johnson said, the next step was clear. "I feel very strongly it's time to freeze the project until we sort this out," he said.

But Selectman Marie Sobalvarro disagreed. "I'm committed to advancing this project as approved by Town Meeting and via the path that Tim Bragan has laid out for us ... toward success," she said.

"Why not have GPR work through LLB?" she asked Johnson.

"I've given my reasons," he answered.

Chairman Lucy Wallace sided with Sobalvarro. "We have this contract, I'd like to move forward," she said. "Permitting is simply part of the process, even if it's out of sequence."

In her view, LLB and DTI are part of the "reliable team" the project needs. "The steps before us are not insurmountable," she said. "I'd like to see this board endorse this contract."

"We already did," Clark pointed out, and unless there are substantive changes, it's good to go. 

But Johnson said there had been changes he hadn't had a chance to review.

Wallace gave him 24 hours to do so, but Johnson didn't consider that enough time.

Ricci didn't, either. "This is a $4 million project," he said.

While noting Johnson's objection to the two firms, Clark asked if he saw any "substantive issues" in the contract. If not, "I'm inclined to trust our team," he said -- Bragan, Finance Director Lorraine Leonard and Mark Lanza.

"Absent that trust, maybe we should get a new team," Clark said.

"Hyperbole aside, we require time to review this (super-size) contract, Johnson shot back.

Wallace, meanwhile, stuck to her 24-hour deadline. After that, she'd sign the contract, she said.

As for the DTI contract that both she and the firm have signed, with an extended completion date of September 2014, she asked if it was still being held in-house.

Bragan said DTI had the contract and he was awaiting a final copy.

But Ricci made a motion to put it on hold. "I move we suspend (doing) further business with DTI until variance issues are settled," he said.

Johnson seconded the motion.

"I grow tired with the delays," Sobalvarro said.

But Ricci held firm. "I feel we have the zoning problem because of DTI," he said.

The project manager presented a project that can't be built, he said, and in his view that's not responsible stewardship of taxpayer's funds. "We need a time out," he said.

"We're the owner," Sobalvarro remonstrated. "We've had this conversation before."

Johnson, however, pressed on. "It was DTI's job to professionally look over our amateur shoulder," he said. "They failed to do so."

"This wasn't a secret project," Clark said. "Let's be careful about playing the blame game."

The board voted down Ricci's motion, 3-2.

"You've got until 5 p.m. tomorrow" (Wednesday, Sept. 19) to review the LLB contract, Wallace told Johnson.

"Why are we signing a contract when we don't even have a start date?" Johnson persisted. "This is a crazy contract and it's just nuts to proceed with it."

But that was precisely what three of the five selectmen decided to do.