DALTON — The great Dalton Town Hall “eviction” of 2022 will start next May. If it fails, a half-million-dollar building renovation will remain on hold.
Thanks to bats.
Just weeks ago, employees on the second floor of the historic building were getting ready to move to temporary space so a $500,000 project could start. Today, they have a new cause to seek other quarters: droppings from bats in the third-floor space pose health risks.
“As of last week, the reason for moving changed,” said Town Manager Tom Hutcheson.
This spring, the town approved borrowing to continue bringing the 19th-century building into modern times, with plans to remove or enclose asbestos in the third-floor area on the back side of the structure, along South Carson Avenue. The work would allow the town to use that floor, if even just for storage initially, because the area lacked adequate flooring, Hutcheson said.
The big space is open along the roofline nearly to the top and sometimes is referred to as an attic — or as the “opera house,” a bygone use from the time long before the building housed town offices.
The construction schedule looked like a simple matter until the discovery of bats threw it off. By law, bats can only be “evicted” — that’s the term the state prefers — in May or in the late summer and early fall.
That’s all part of a state effort to protect bats from what the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife terms “catastrophic” mortality because of white-nose syndrome, in which a fungus attaches to hibernating bats and causes them to use precious stored body fat before they emerge in the spring to feed.
Within six years of discovery of the fungus, near Albany, N.Y., in 2006, the syndrome killed over 6 million bats in New England, according to MassWildlife.
Hutcheson said the town now must hire a wildlife consultant and wait until May, when it will have just one month, after bats emerge from hibernation but before they rear offspring, to usher the animals out of Town Hall.
“If there is even one bat on June 1, we have to put the project on hold until August,” Hutcheson said. The cost of dealing with the bats could eat up all of the project’s 10 percent contingency allotment of $50,000.
Joe Diver, the Select Board chair, says the bat presence is now the third problem to fix, along with earlier moves to increase the building’s energy efficiency and deal with asbestos.
“You might as well take care of all three at the same time,” he said Monday.
Greg Elser, the town’s animal control officer, estimates that a handful of bats occupy the space. If the number hits 10 or more, that would classify it as a colony.
Of the nine bat species known to live in Massachusetts, out of dozens nationally and 1,200 worldwide, the most common are the little brown and big brown types.
Whatever the exact count today, through the years, enough bats have made the Town Hall space home to put down a concerning amount of guano.
“There’s a lot of waste to clean up,” Hutcheson said.
The droppings of bats and birds can carry histoplasmosis, a fungus. If people inhale spores from that fungus, they are at risk of developing lung infections, MassWildlife says.
Hutcheson told the Select Board last week he hoped to begin moving town departments out of the building’s second floor by next month, anticipating a six-month project that might have begun Jan. 1.
But, work on the third-floor space now must be pushed back until June at the earliest, when it also will include steps to close up any and all gaps that could be allowing bats to enter. Meantime, Hutcheson is negotiating with owners of nearby commercial property for space that temporarily can house Town Hall employees — and now for longer than first thought.