State appeals board sends blessings to Dalton couple

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DALTON — A plan shaped Thursday appears likely to lift the cloud that hangs over a high-stakes historic renovation in Dalton.

The owners of the former Grace Episcopal Church at 785 Main St. say they came away from an hourlong appearance before the Board of Building Regulations and Standards hopeful that they will at last be able to secure an occupancy permit, after spending more than $620,000 to buy and renovate the former church, a Dalton landmark.

"It went better than I thought," said Cris Irsfeld, who renovated the property with his wife, Caroline, and a contractor, Dale Dedrick.

"It was cordial and it stayed calm," he said of the session.

The Irsfelds were denied an occupancy permit this spring by Building Commissioner Brian P. Duval, despite the fact that Duval's predecessor, Don R. Torrico, granted the couple a building permit in 2017 that exempted the project from state energy conservation standards.

Duval says he denied the exemption because the property, while old, had not been recognized officially as historic by an official party, as he believes the law requires to obtain an exemption from what's known as the "stretch code."

On Thursday, four members of the appeals board, meeting in Milford, zeroed in on a provision in state law that exempts projects that involve properties deemed to be eligible for historic status — even if that status has not yet been recorded.

That turned out to be the case with the Dalton church, which was built in 1893 and includes a former two-room schoolhouse that was constructed in 1869 and later moved to the church site. Old buildings are eligible for waivers from the energy rules because of the impracticality of fitting them to modern conservation standards. The church, for instance, has 40 stained-glass windows that pivot on a center point and cannot readily be equipped with storm windows. Irsfeld said the energy standards could not be met without marring the historic nature of the property, which he had promised to preserve.

The impasse was the main topic at this week's meeting of the Dalton Select Board, where the Irsfelds took their case Monday.

They won support there from officials who expressed frustration that the family has been left in limbo by the building commissioner's permit denial — and wasn't able to sleep in their new home. The board does not have the power to overrule Duval's decision.

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Duval attended Thursday's state hearing and provided information to the board. He said later Thursday that he accepts the board's recommendation that the local Historical Commission officially weigh in on the Gothic revival church's significance.

"It seems like that building has enough history," Duval said. "It seems that way."

The board gave the Irsfelds 60 days to provide evidence that Dalton's Historical Commission deems the property significant to the town's past. Louisa Horth, the Dalton historical panel's vice chair, has expressed support for taking that step.

In a July 3 email to the Select Board, Horth wrote that her commission applauds steps taken to preserve the wood-shingled church's character.

"He has endeavored to preserve original components of the buildings and should be fully encouraged to continue preserving original architecture where possible," she wrote of Irsfeld.

Even before the local commission acts, Duval said he is willing to grant the Irsfelds a temporary occupancy permit once relatively minor issues are addressed, including placement of fire alarms.

"It's a couple of small things which, hopefully, they can do right away," Duval said.

Irsfeld said he and his wife drove home Thursday in good spirits, after contending over the past three months with a problem he likened to a "nightmare."

He had not quite awoken from that experience Thursday evening.

"The sad thing is, we had such fun for two years doing this project. It was a joy," he said. "The last 90 days really took the fun out of it."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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