Call it the largest turnout for the Marion Board of Selectmen in years. Hundreds gathered at Sippican School on Thursday for the first glimpse of a proposed plan to construct a town administrative office building on the grounds of the Benjamin D. Cushing Community/Senior Center – a project with a price tag of about $1.8 million less than renovating the historic Town House. But the debate amongst residents and town committee members went deeper than expensive versus less expensive; the more divisive aspect of the issue turned out to be modern versus history.
Tasked with conducting a feasibility study to build a town administrative office rather than renovate the Town House, the Town House Building Committee Subcommittee – with the $35,000 approved by Town Meeting – delivered its results on March 1, proposing an 8,500 square-foot, $5.1 million “21st Century building” touted as the “less risk,” less expensive, “straightforward building design” alternative to renovating the Town House.
Designed by LLB Architects, the one-story building would be placed adjacent to the community center and sit right along Route 6 with its own 34 parking spaces near the entrance. The right side, wooden horizontal shiplap exterior wing would align with the community center at a slant towards Route 6; the main entrance and stone exterior left side wing would align parallel with the road.
Just inside the main entrance would be the 30+ person meeting room and across it the town administrator’s office and selectmen’s secretary. Most frequented offices such as the Building and Planning Departments, Town Clerk’s Office, and the health and public nurse’s office occupy the right wing and are also accessible via two side entrances – one by the community center and one to the left alongside the new parking lot.
“We hope that its simple construction – not pretentious,” said co-chair of the subcommittee Rob Lane, “hopefully says ‘welcome’ and this is the house for all citizens of Marion.”
Alan Minard, co-chair of the subcommittee and Chairman of the Finance Committee, emphasized that new construction is less risky than a renovation, in both time and cost. Furthermore, the existing Town House could be sold to a condominium developer and solve a growing need for smaller-scale living in town, while adding enough of a tax base to support $1 million in debt, Minard said, adding that Marion ranks 7th in highest debt per capita out of the 351 Massachusetts municipalities.
“I think we need to be very careful about acquiring new debt,” said Minard. He called this design a “reasonable building,” as he concluded his presentation.
Breaking it down, the hard costs (building materials, interior finishes and fixtures) would total $4,122,160; soft costs (interior furnishings, equipment, computers) amounted to $985,400 for a total of roughly $5.1 million.
Re-introducing the Town House Building Committee’s nearly $8 million project to renovate the Town House was that committee’s chairman, Bob Raymond.
Community Preservation funds totaling just over $1 million would reduce the borrowing amount to $6.9 million, said Raymond, which would amount to an average ($400,000 home) tax burden of $136.91 for a 20-year loan or $104.14 over a loan period of 30 years.
The 11,255 square-foot (8,295 sq. ft. functional, 2,960 sq. ft. basement storage) plan includes demolishing the inefficient annex addition built in 1890, while completely gutting the interior of the original 1876 structure “down to the beams and studs” – a move that would reduce much of the common risks of renovations, said Raymond. “There’s a lot less unknowns.”
Erica Patten of T2 Architecture gave an overview of the renovation plan, which includes a new, “less dysfunctional” interior layout, handicap accessibility (wider entries, elevator to all four floors), expanded parking, and efficiency upgrades to utility systems.
On the first floor is the 24-person meeting room with double doors, along with the most frequently visited offices (town clerk, tax collector) and harbormaster and Assessor’s Office. On the second floor are conservation, planning, building, public health/nurse, and accounting. The third floor, mostly admin, houses the town administrator, selectmen’s office, and finance.
Breaking down the costs: hard costs account for $6.5 million and soft costs total $1.4 million. In addition to the $1 million is CPC funding, the tax burden, said Raymond, would be further reduced when school debt retires in 2026. But any further delay in a decision, Raymond emphasized, would cost the town an additional $400,000 for every year of inaction.
In preparation for debate, Raymond laid out the pros and cons of adopting the Town House renovation plan, such as the “white elephant building” problem like the one Fairhaven now faces with two unoccupied historical schools (one under contract with physical progress still two years away) that no one wants to buy and the town still must maintain and fund. Not to mention, he said, relocating the town hall would change the character of the village.
“This historic building has the character and preeminence appropriate for the center of town,” said Raymond. “Removing the seat of government from a pedestrian-centered village to an automobile-centered site will change the entire character of our town.”
Furthermore, he said, adding residential units at the town house building would increase the demand on town services.
“This is a special building, and it needs special treatment. When you walk through the front door of this building,” he said, you wouldn’t see the old, tired, inefficient town house you see now. “It’s gonna be wonderful.”
Raymond referred to a prior town-wide mailing that resulted in 900 responses, 55% of which supported a Town House renovation.
Public response was equally divided – passionate on one side, pragmatic on the other.
Resident Joe Zora called the Marion Town House “home” and lamented, “for God’s sake,” regarding the notion of transforming it into another condominium in the village of Marion.
“Then we can end up calling this ‘condo village,’” said Zora. “Pretty soon we won’t have a village anymore. My God, please don’t do this.…”
A $1.8 million difference in cost didn’t concern resident Ron Wisener when it came to honoring Elizabeth Taber and preserving the Town House. “Elizabeth Taber was responsible in large part for the character of Marion.… I agree with Mr. Zora about our heritage and our legacy.”
Resident Lee Vulgaris said, as a former Finance Committee member, he is aware of the impact on taxes as well as the fact that the Town should have implemented better long-term planning. “The decision comes down to intrinsic and intangible value; not so much the money,” said Vulgaris. “I like the beauty of the Town House,” he stated, adding that he also liked the new construction plan design. “But I have to say that I don’t think … we should just weigh it just on money.”
Bill Washburn rose to speak but first had to pause, saying, “This is tough for me.”
“Mr. Zora hit it on the head,” said Washburn with emotion. “Families that have been here a long time have a lot of history with that building, and it seems a shame that we just let it go.” Washburn continued, “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Planning Board member Andrew Daniel said he understands the emotional ties to the building, which he hasn’t yet formed as a resident of fewer years. He said he likes the current location of the Town House, “But we’re kind of kicking the can down the road,” with building costs increasing every year. “We don’t know where we are with our sewage and what that’s going to be… We have other needs. We need a highway barn; we’ve got equipment sitting out in the rain.”
Something has to be done, Daniel said, “But the overall cost of living in this town is really starting to scare me.” Daniel wondered if tearing the Town House down and rebuilding one in its likeness would prove more economical in the scope of all the “red flags” Marion now faces.
Other residents’ comments pointed out, for example, that perhaps the $1 million in CPC funds would be better spent on the library, and that village-style pedestrian infrastructure is still not in place to encourage that aspect of the Master Plan when it came down to moving the town offices outside the village and across Route 6.
“I personally would not like to see it on Route 6,” said former selectman Jon Henry. “It’s more than just getting to it that bothers me.” He said the Route 6 site would be better suited for a future new fire station when the need arises.
Energy Management Committee member Bill Saltonstall said that while he was out in the village with consultants from California surveying the LED light transition, one of them said, “This is a beautiful town. This is really special,” Saltonstall spoke. “And I think we’ve just got to fight to keep these things here and keep the village thriving here now.”
“The Town House, like it or not,” said resident Peter McCormick, “is the centerpiece of the Town of Marion, and to turn that over to outside developers and lose control of that centerpiece to me would be a huge error – and once made is irretrievable.”
Retired Sippican School teacher Diane Cook said one of the highlights of teaching at Sippican has been leading third-graders on a walking tour of Marion’s historic center. “I’m not looking for taxes to go up, but I think we will find it – the money,” said Cook. “I think this is a very important project. I think we should preserve this building and we’ll find the money.”
Linda Goodwin recalled how she preserved her historical home, and said, “It’s too bad that I’m not willing to kick a building like that to the curb. I feel that it’s part of the town and … shame on us for not taking care of it.”
A few further comments were in favor of the new design, with one resident referring to the Town House as “a dilapidated building,” and another stressing, “A building’s function is more important than how you look at it.”
Resident Kathy Reed briefly commented that she does not yet know which option she prefers, but added that while she was looking for a small-scale residence in Marion she could not find one. “I looked for a condo … for a year and a half and was unable to find one,” Reed said.
“The option that we presented was fully [calculated] yesterday at noon,” said Minard. “A lot of Marion taxpayers are not here. They are the folks that need to have some exposure to this so when they go to the ballot box … they understand what they’re doing.”
Minard asked the selectmen to take the matter under advisement long enough to “give it a chance to percolate in the community.”
Selectman Jody Dickerson stated at the start of the forum that the Board of Selectmen would consider the options and consider them both while preparing articles for the Annual Town Meeting in May.
By Jean Perry