Plans for former Stockbridge Town Hall to be laid out Monday

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STOCKBRIDGE — A set of proposals to determine the fate of the historic Town Hall on West Main Street will be unveiled for residents on Monday.

The building, which includes Procter Hall, has been unused since local government and the police station relocated to the former Stockbridge Plain School after a $7 million renovation of that site in 2007.

The Select Board will hold a public forum at 7 p.m. in the board's meeting room at the Town Offices, 50 Main St., to discuss ideas for reusing the Old Town Hall adjacent to the First Congregational Church.

Four potential options to be explored, among others, include no action, terminating the lease granted to the town by the church in 1902, purchasing the land from the church, or demolition expected to cost $350,000.

The century-old Plain School had closed in 2004 when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District returned the building to the town following construction of the $30 million Muddy Brook elementary and middle school complex at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

At the time, Stockbridge officials discussed renovating the Old Town Hall into a community center but plans fell by the wayside.

Now, Selectman Stephen Shatz is leading an effort to hear suggestions from the public that could lead to action by voters at a town meeting.

"The Board of Selectmen has reached no conclusions regarding the ultimate disposition of this property," Shatz stated in remarks prepared for the Monday meeting. "We have, however, reached conclusions regarding the status of the Old Town Hall, the land on which it sits, and the costs associated with the town's continuing obligations and responsibilities."

In 1839, the Congregational Church leased the land to the town for construction of the Town Hall that year. A new lease in 1902 included an agreement "in perpetuity" for the land known as the Town Square extending to the northern border of the Stockbridge Golf Club.

As Shatz explained, the church is entitled to terminate the lease if the building is no longer used as a Town Hall.

The town also has the right to end the lease and has no obligation to restore the Town Square property to its original condition by demolishing Procter Hall.

The building was named for a long-established family that arrived in Stockbridge in the mid-1800s. A major donation by Rodney Procter funded a renovation in 1961, said Barbara Allen, town historian and curator of the Stockbridge Library's Museum and Archives.

Starting in 2008, a Reuse Committee appointed by the Select Board commissioned a historic review, two parking studies, and consultations with land surveyors and planners, but was unable to reach a parking agreement with the church. The committee considered such an agreement essential to any plan for reviving the property, Shatz pointed out.

By June 2012, the committee told the Select Board that "there was no viable economic use of the building" as a facility for private functions such as weddings. Shatz also noted that church leaders had voiced concerns about potential uses of the property and potential negative impacts on the First Congregational Church.

Shatz pointed out that since the building and the leased land are not owned by the town, the site cannot be sold or leased to a third party.

Potential new uses are limited by zoning considerations, as the land is zoned residential and is subject to legal land-use restrictions. However, there are exceptions for educational and religious purposes and for affordable housing.

Since the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, any changes or demolition may require federal approval.

Shatz listed additional complications:

• The building does not meet the state's building, sprinkler and life safety codes and cannot serve as a public gathering place, a school, or other uses without major improvements and an asbestos removal program.

• Annual maintenance costs, including heating, have been $22,000, but last winter, following water leakage, the town drained the system and turned off the heat, reducing operating costs to about $5,000 per year.

• A new roof is likely to be needed within five years at an estimated cost of $100,000. Mechanical systems are outmoded and any new use would require substantial interior demolition and reconstruction. In 2010, the Reuse Committee projected costs of $3 million to convert the site for any use involving the public.

Although the Select Board is not recommending demolition, it has an estimate of $350,000 for such work, including asbestos removal and site restoration.

Shatz termed discussions between the Select Board and the Congregational Church as "fruitful" on a potential agreement for site ownership, parking, exterior maintenance, church access and possible transfer of town land in front of the church, adjoining Main Street.

But he cautioned that the talks "provide a framework only and are not conclusive, as only the voters can approve an agreement."

Furthermore, he added, suggestions have been made that the town has "an ethical obligation to remove the building if it is not to be re-used and the town were to decide to terminate the lease."

That scenario stems from the belief that since the town constructed the building, paid no rent and benefited from its use as the Town Hall for more than 100 years, it would be improper to leave the church with the responsibility and liability of demolition.

"We have made it clear that only a town meeting can decide this issue," Shatz said.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

Next steps ...

The Stockbridge Select Board has listed some of the potential options for the vacant Old Town Hall, which includes Procter Hall, adjacent to the First Congregational Church on West Main Street:

• No Action: The lease would continue, the town would cover costs for maintaining the property and await other proposals for reuse of the site. But ownership issues would preclude sale of the landmark site, and ongoing maintenance and repair costs could become unsustainable.

• Terminate the lease: The Congregational Church would assume liability for the building.

• A "global" settlement with the church: The town would purchase the land and rights to 28 parking spaces, convey easements rights and road frontage to the church, and discontinue maintenance except for town property; the town would assume liability for the future of the building.

• Demolition: The building would be razed and the lease terminated.

Source: Stockbridge Select Board


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