Three options, three opinions on Marion's Town House

May 8, 2018

With renovation options ranging from $8 million to $12 million, a new build taken off the table (at least for now), residents split about whether and how to renovate Marion's aging Town House, and Town Meeting scheduled to OK -- or not -- one of two options next week, the question remains: What is the best option?

Town departments have outgrown the Town House, located on Spring Street. The historic building is expensive to maintain and in need of extensive repairs. Earlier this year, in the middle of a cold snap, the boiler broke, leaving the building without heat. The town paid more than $70,000 to replace it. In past years, mold was discovered in the building's basement and water infiltration problems surfaced.

The Town House Building Committee was formed to determine the town's options. In early 2017, it announced five: A $12 million complete renovation of the Spring Street building with an "annex" addition, an $8.5 million renovation that would move three departments to a town-owned Atlantis Drive building, a $9.6 million renovation with no annex but an addition for meeting space, an $8.1 million option without the meeting space, and a $9.1 million option to construct a new building on Benjamin D. Cushing Community Center property or a different site. (The latter made possible after the Veterans of Foreign Wars gave the property to the town.)

Some officials and residents balked at the price tags, and the group was sent back to the drawing board. Earlier this year, the Building Committee and a subcommittee charged with exploring a new build introduced a honed renovation plan to $7.9 million and a proposal for constructing a $5.1 million Town House at the community center site.

The details:

Town House options

The two options were going to be placed on the May Town Meeting agenda to allow voters to choose. Instead, on March 20, Selectmen Jody Dickerson and Norm Hills agreed to remove the option for constructing a new building. Reading from a prepared statement, Hills worried that abandoning the historic Town House for a new building would impact the town's heritage and character. Dickerson agreed, saying that the Town House has been "the fabric of the community for years."

A third option, placed on the agenda via citizens petition by Ted North and John Waterman, gives residents the option of an approximately $5.4 million renovation plan that would be approved yearly, $200,000 at a time. It promotes fixing only what is necessary in the building.

It is unclear what will happen if voters reject the Town House Building Committee's proposed renovation option (Article 14) and North's and Waterman's proposal (Article 36).

Sippican Week asked the proponents of each of the options -- including the currently tabled new build -- to explain their reasoning.


A renovation is the right decision for Marion

By Robert Raymond
Chair, Town House Building Committee

In 2010, Marion began serious planning studies to find remedies for the years of neglect of our historic Town House. The Town House Building Committee, consisting of architects, engineers, and other construction experts was formed in 2014 and assembled a team of consultants including T2 Architecture, PM&C Cost Estimators, Peer Consultants, and Dodson and Flinker site planners. All have extensive experience in municipal projects.

Over the past four years, this blue-ribbon team explored dozens of alternatives for renovation or replacement of the historic building. Detailed surveys revealed that the building needs extensive renovation, functional reorganization, hazmat abatement, sprinklers, new mechanical and electrical systems, and upgrades to fix building code and Americans with Disabilities Act violations.

The heavy timber structure and granite foundations, however, are sound -- and the building's central location and historic and cultural significance make it an excellent candidate for restoration.

Pushback from concerned citizens has resulted in a very efficient and lean restoration program costing half of original estimates.

The town must now decide to:

  • Do nothing. Vote no while we wait for the next unplanned emergency like last winter's boiler failure or perhaps a lawsuit from an injured employee. Each year we can add $400,000 in inflation to the cost.
  • Approve a low-cost maintenance program at maybe $200,000 per year (Article 36). This would have been a good idea in 1980, but now it is far too little, too late.
  • Approve Article 14 and do the right thing for our town.

Some say we can't afford it (here, in the most affluent town in the South Coast.) You will hear a lot of talk about money -- and money's important, but it's not only about money. In the words of one citizen who expresses this very well: "Consider all that makes the village of Marion so exceptional: A protected harbor, a post office and charming shops, a music hall and iconic general store, three churches, excellent schools, a library, museums, and permanently protected open spaces. Shouldn't we preserve our Town House in the center of all of this?"


A new Town House is the best choice

By Alan Minard
Chair, Finance Committee

The VFW gift made it possible to consider building a new Town House on that property. To provide an estimate for taxpayer consideration, the town allocated $34,300 at last year's Special Town Meeting. The new Town House Subcommittee set out to develop a modern, efficient office layout designed to conduct town business that will take Marion into the future.

We had three goals:

  • Provide one or two architectural elevations and floor plans to help citizens visualize a new building that reflects Marion values.
  • Obtain a professionally-developed cost estimate for the building.
  • Analyze the financial impact of repurposing the existing Town House into condos or offices.
New building facts:
  • Proposed building is 8,500 square feet with a flexible layout on one story
  • Located near the Community Center to create a "community campus"
  • The professionally-developed cost of construction and fitting is about $5.1 million
  • The external "look" is easily modified
  • Town operations remain in place until the new building is completed.
  • Selling the current Town House to a private developer for preservation, subject to deed restrictions, keeps it in the center of the village, helps to meet an existing housing need, and eliminates the financial risk inherent in renovation.
  • Condominiums would generate enough new tax revenue to support $1 million of debt.
  • It is the least risky alternative from both a time and cost perspective.
Cost is one important element of the decision to renovate or build new. Keep in mind that Marion ranks No. 7 in the "debt per capita" category in Massachusetts -- and much more debt looms with the sewer, water, and street projects already on the books.

The sentiment to keep the Town House in the village also has merit. Leaving emotion aside, we must have the opportunity to evaluate the value and the cost of each option to make an informed decision.


Support the renovation bylaw

By Ted North and John Waterman

The Town House is in "good condition" and structurally sound, per a January 2011 report from an architectural firm specializing in historic buildings. To extend its useful life as a village landmark, an investment needs to be made to catch up on deferred maintenance and repairs and to update the building. It needs some serious TLC -- such as electrical work and a new roof, siding, and windows. The recently installed new boiler is a good first step.

Town Meeting Warrant Article 36, the "Marion Town House Preservation Bylaw," provides for a flexible "pay as you go" program to maintain and repair the building over time. It provides $200,000 in Year 1 to allow the facilities manager to make any emergency repairs. During this first year, the town's facilities manger will be asked to develop a detailed, prioritized list of projects to repair and update the Town House over the next five years. Then, the facilities manger will be asked to update the list each year on a rolling, five-year basis.

Article 36 is designed to preserve and repair the Town House while minimizing the cost to the taxpayer and avoiding the need to issue long-term debt. In addition, as a historic building, many of these projects may qualify for Community Preservation Committee funds each year. (Editor's note: Community Preservation Act funding is raised through a property tax surcharge and can be used only for historic preservation projects, open space, recreation, and affordable housing.)

As a bylaw, Article 36 binds the town to follow through on the preservation and repair of the Town House. This obligation will continue until amended, modified, or discontinued by a Town Meeting vote. Projects proposed by the facilities manager each year will require the approval of both the Capital Planning and Finance committees and the Board of Selectmen before being put on the warrant for approval at the annual Town Meeting.

Sippican Week has received many letters about the Town House project. Click here to visit our Opinion section.