By Thomas P. Caldwell
HEBRON — Voters who have set aside $100,000 each year for the last three years will be asked to do so again at the March 10 Town Meeting, bringing the total amount in the capital reserve fund for town office expansion to $400,000.
The Town Offices Expansion and Refurbishment Committee made a presentation on Feb. 17 to bring everyone up to date on their progress in deciding what to do with the former Hebron Academy that now serves as the selectmen's office. Presenting most of the information was Norman Larson of Christopher P. Williams Architects, hired last year to begin developing architectural plans for the building.
Larson explained that he has been involved with the Academy building since 2010, when the town received a grant from the N.H. Preservation Alliance to do an architectural and structural analysis of the building. That study found the building to be sound, but in need of some restoration work because of changes that had been made to the structure over the years, as well as deterioration of the floor joists from moisture. The building, built in 1839, had most recently served as an elementary school until the Newfound Area School District closed it in 1999, and playground equipment remains on the site today.
The historic preservation study came about after voters rejected a request for funding to design a new town hall, as recommended by an earlier committee, at the 2010 Town Meeting. With that plan shot down, the town was trying to decide what to do about the town offices that were spread through several buildings surrounding the Hebron Common, and the Hebron Academy appeared to be a good solution.
A grant from Plan N.H. allowed the town hold a charette in 2011 in which residents took at look at all the buildings around the common. Recommendations coming out of that effort included building an annex on the Hebron Academy and putting in a new foundation, with renovations and new foundations also being recommended for the library building and the town clerk/tax collector's office.
"Everyone wanted change," said Larson, "but they didn't want to see it."
It was after the charette that the Town Offices Expansion and Refurbishment Committee formed to see how those recommendations could be implemented, starting with the Hebron Academy building. Committee Chair Roger Larochelle said they agreed that active use of the building was the best way to preserve it, that they could consolidate town functions and still address the various needs of the employees, and that it is a prudent use of tax dollars to move forward with their plans.
Larson explained the space needs process, in which they calculated how much room each desk, filing cabinet, and counter would need, as well as storage and mechanical needs. The conclusion was that they would need to add 1,800-square-feet to the current 2,400-square-foot building to accommodate all town functions except for the library, which would remain in a separate building.
After looking at three options, for one- and two-story arrangements and an addition at the back of the building, the committee finally agreed on a fourth option which has all town business being conducted on one floor, with meeting space upstairs and storage in the basement. While there are preliminary sketches of what the space would look like, the next step will be to develop specifications so the town can put the project out to bid and get realistic estimates of how much it would cost to do the renovations and expansion.
At Town Meeting, voters will be asked to confirm the direction the committee is taking.
Most of those attending the presentation on Feb. 17 agreed with the plans to preserve the building by putting it in active use, but some expressed disappointment that it did not address all of the needs identified during the charter.
"I'm all in favor of preserving the building," said Ron Collins, "but it doesn't go after the other problems. Down the road, you will be asking for something else. With this plan, we don't get a lot for what we're spending."
Don Franklin, who had served on the town hall committee, said the cost of renovating a building is more than building a new one, and he said he still supported a new town hall. He suggested that the Hebron Academy would be better utilized as a library, which still would achieve active use without the need for extensive renovations.
"We came up a design with 3,000-square-feet on one level, and that was going to cost $750,000 with new construction," he said. "Renovations will be more expensive."
Some attending the meeting had practical suggestions. Bruce Barnard suggested digging a new well, and he noted that the turnbuckle in the roof is undersized and that it might be wise to replace it.
The consensus of the meeting was that consolidating all of the main town functions in the building would make town government more efficient, while the renovations would make the Hebron Academy more energy-efficient as well.
Town Meeting will determine whether Hebron voters agree that moving forward with those plans is the best use of their tax dollars.
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