Voters have 3 choices in deciding fate of historic GAR building
Peterborough residents will weigh three options for what to do with the vacant GAR Hall at town meeting in May.. (Staff photo by Dave Anderson) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
PETERBOROUGH — Deciding what to do with the town-owned GAR Hall on Grove Street could be a challenge for voters at the open session of Town Meeting on May 15. Three articles about the historic downtown building will be on the warrant, each offering a different solution.
Last year, the Select Board agreed to sell the building, which had been vacant for about a year after Club Cannon, a youth program run by the Creating Positive Change organization, was shut down. Peterborough residents Jason and Rebecca Hackler had offered to buy the property for $100, with plans to renovate the building as a private residence. The Hacklers submitted the lone offer when the board put the building up for sale. But in September, the N.H. Attorney General’s Office ruled that the sale would violate the terms of the agreement made when the building was given as a gift to the town by the Peterborough Academy in 1899. That agreement stipulated that the building be held forever by the town for use as a park and memorial. The Attorney General’s Charitable Trust Division said the building should be put on the market at its appraised value, which is around $172,000.
Voters will be faced with three options in May.
Put it up for sale
The Select Board and the Budget Committee are recommending Article 10, which would authorize the Select Board to put the building on the market immediately, with an asking price of $172,000. A historic preservation easement would be required to protect the exterior of the building and the statue, cannons and cannonballs on the front lawn would remain the property of the town.
At the April 9 Select Board meeting, Public Works Director Rodney Bartlett said that price might be unreasonable.
“In my mind, would we ever get this amount? Probably not,” Bartlett said. “We’d want to get additional appraisals to give to the Attorney General’s office.”
According to Bartlett, if no offers for the full asking price are received after one year, the town should be free to sell the building for the highest offer, because it will have satisfied the Attorney General’s office that an effort was made to sell for the appraised value.
The building would have to continue to be mothballed, which costs at least $30,000 a year, until a sale takes place. The Select Board estimates the cost to taxpayer for this option would be 5 cents per $1,000 assessed value, or $10 a year for the owners of a house assessed at $200,000.
Upgrade the building
Members of the Heritage Commission are leading an effort in support of a different alternative. Article 5 on the warrant calls for appropriating $300,000 to renovate the building so it meets building codes and complies, both inside and out, the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. The building would remain the property of the town and could be rented or leased, which could help offset the cost. A $300,000 bond over five years would cost $66,000 per year, adding 11 cents per $1,000 to the tax rate or $22 a year for a $200,000 home.
In a statement sent to the Ledger-Transcript, Heritage Commission members wrote that they envision a mix of uses for the building. They said it could provide office or archive space for small organizations and town committees and a shared meeting hall. They wrote, “The hall’s history as a school would make an educational component appropriate — as a space for educational offerings organized by nonprofits, or for quiet after-school study or tutoring (surely kids won’t need parking). Wall space could be used as a rotating gallery for various school projects or historic exhibitions.”
They also suggested making the GAR Hall land a part of Putnam Park and encouraging public pedestrian use of the green space downtown along the Nubanusit and Contoocook rivers. “A pedestrian bridge across the old abutment would provide access to and from Depot Square. The recreational possibilities should at least be looked into,” they wrote.
Article 5 is a bond article, so it requires a two-thirds margin of approval to pass.
Start a GAR Trust
The third option on the warrant — Article 9 — calls for the town to immediately appropriate $172,000 to establish a GAR Hall Expendable Trust Fund. This would satisfy the requirement of the Charitable Trust Division that the town get full value for the building and use the money for parks and recreation purposes. It would also allow the town to immediately sell the building for the highest offer. The $172,000 appropriation would add 29 cents per $1,000 for one year to the tax rate, or $58 for a $200,000 home. The sale revenue would offset the appropriation, although that would be insignificant if the best offer remains in the range of $100.
Having three choices will require some explanation at Town Meeting. And the Select Board is also planning to ask voters to change the order in which the three articles will be considered, a move that could mean that Article 5, the proposal to keep the building and spend money to renovate it, and Article 9, to set up a trust fund, might never come up for a vote.
Because Article 5 calls for a $300,000 bond, state law requires that it must appear first on the warrant. However, voters at a Town Meeting have the right change the order in which articles are considered. So when Article 5 comes up, the Select Board plans to make a motion to first take up Article 10 — the one to put the building on the market for a year and then take the best offer — followed by Article 9 and then Article 5.
If that motion is approved, voters will debate Article 10 and vote on it. If it fails, voters will discuss Article 5 first. Either way, the discussion is likely to cover the pros and cons of keeping or selling the building, according to Bartlett.
If the change in order is approved and Article 10 is then approved, the board would move to pass over Article 9 and then move to pass over Article 5.
If Article 10 fails, voters would then discuss and vote on Article 9. According to a framework for the meeting distributed by Bartlett at the April 9 meeting, if Article 9 passes, the board would then have to move to reconsider Article 10, because Article 9 does not authorize the board to sell the property. If Article 10 isn’t reconsidered or if it fails again, the board would move to pass over Article 5.
But if Article 9 also fails, then voters would discuss and vote on Article 5. If it were to pass, the town would start renovations and start working to determine how the building would be used. If Article 5 also fails, the building would remain mothballed.
When asked about the process recently, Bartlett agreed that it is complicated to follow, because each step is contingent on the earlier votes of the meeting. “Who knows exactly how it will go?” he said.
The open session of Town Meeting starts at 7 p.m. on May 15 in the Town House.
Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.