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Meetinghouse funding up for debate

Restoration may cost as much as $985,000; $150,000 has been raised

Gary Ryer, chair of the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee in Hancock, talks about plans for a warrant article at a public hearing on Tuesday

Gary Ryer, chair of the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee in Hancock, talks about plans for a warrant article at a public hearing on Tuesday Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

HANCOCK — Private donors have pledged more than $150,000 to date to help fund a planned renovation of the Hancock Meetinghouse. But with the overall cost of the project estimated to be about $985,000, some residents have questions about the scope of the project and how the rest of the money will be raised.

At a public hearing Monday to discuss a warrant article that will ask voters to fund the bulk of the project, resident Tim Lord asked Select Board members to clarify the arrangement between the town and the First Congregational Church, which occupies the top floor of the Meetinghouse and has offices on the ground floor.

In response to Lord’s question, Select Board Chair John Jordan said town attorneys have reviewed various documents dating back to the 1800s and have issued an opinion that the town has “common undivided interest in the whole.” Jordan said that means voters can legally approve spending money to renovate and repair the building.

The Meetinghouse was built in 1820 and was moved to its present location in 1851, when it was divided into two floors, with the sanctuary for worship upstairs and a space for town meetings on the lower level. Ever since, the town has shared responsibility for the building with the members of the church, which the church maintaining the sanctuary and its offices while the town maintains the portion of the lower floor that once served as a town meeting space and for many years housed a preschool program. The town and the church have traditionally shared the cost of exterior maintenance. The building has separate furnaces and electrical systems for each floor.

David Carney described the attorney’s opinion as a “total historic revision,” saying everyone in town wants to protect the building but the church should be expected to participate in some way.

“The tenant is basically living rent-free,” Carney said. “Ninety percent of what we’re going to do will benefit just one tenant. It’s irresponsible to keep talking around this.”

Jordan said many groups use the sanctuary, which is the site of many musical events. He said much of the renovation work would make the lower level, which the town no longer rents to a preschool, available for town events, possibly even future Town Meetings.

“It’s very much a community building,” Jordan said.

Public Works Director Kurt Grassett, who serves on the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee that developed the renovation proposal, said church members have participated on the committee and are being asked to contribute to the private fundraising effort to reduce the amount that will need to be raised. Grassett said most of the interior work that is planned will be to upgrade the downstairs it can be used for community functions, now that the preschool is no longer in operation.

“We now have an opportunity to revitalize space that we haven’t had for 20 years,” Grassett said.

The Meetinghouse Restoration Committee is recommending replacement of the slate roof on the building, restoration of some windows and installation of new storm windows, a complete exterior paint job, structural work to repair footings, posts, foundation walls and an attic truss, a new heating system, electrical system upgrades and fire alarm system. The proposal also calls for converting one of the church offices on the first floor to contain handicapped accessible toilets and a platform lift to link the two floors. A ramp would also be built to provide handicapped access to the meeting area at the back of the first floor. Other recommendations include replacing the current outside fire escape with an addition to hold an enclosed stairway as the emergency exit and building a small kitchen on the first floor. The committee has contracted with The MacMillin Company of Keene to serve as project manager.

Grassett said bid proposals have gone out to subcontractors and the $985,000 that the warrant article calls for is an estimate that could be lower by the time the proposal goes to voters.

Resident Don Klug noted that the warrant article will require a 2/3 majority for passage and asked if the committee has a backup plan.

“This is the priority list,” Jordan said. “There is no plan B.”

Grassett and Jordan said there are advantages to doing the entire project at once, such as only having to install scaffolding once and doing large amounts of interior work at one time, under the supervision of a construction manager. Jordan said the town has been offered a rate of 2.75 percent on a 15 year loan.

“Now is a good time to do this,” he said.

Members of the Restoration Committee and the Hancock Improvement Association are working on raising private donations toward the project. Tom Shevenell of the HIA said 58 donors have pledged $158,615 so far, which would reduce the amount the town would need to borrow if the warrant article is approved.

According to a document passed out at the meeting, if the town borrows $850,000 for the project, the impact on property taxes for the owner of a $200,000 home would be $56.74 annually for the 15 years of the loan.

“I can almost go on record that we will not need to borrow as much as $850,000,” said Hunt Dowse, a Restoration Committee member who is working on private fundraising. He said the final amount to be borrowed could be less than $775,000, and a more accurate number will be available by Town Meeting.

“It’s still a large number, but it’s a really large project,” Dowse said.

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