West Tisbury Town Hall Project Founders, Direction Unknown

By IAN FEIN

West Tisbury selectmen this week put the brakes on plans to scale back the troubled town hall renovation project.

The deadlocked 1-1 vote on Wednesday cut off funding for the redesign and effectively killed the renovation - at least for now.

Selectman John Early said that although he still wants the existing town hall to be renovated, he did not believe the scaled back project could be completed within the $3.7 million budget. He said he would not proceed without additional support from town voters.

"I want this project to go ahead, but I want the town to be aware that it's probably going to cost more than we appropriated. And the farther we go, the harder it will be to kill it," Mr. Early said. "Absent a further appropriation from the town, we shouldn't continue to go down this road."

Selectman Glenn Hearn argued that the renovation should continue forward cautiously. Project architect Deborah Durland of New Bedford said last week that she believes the scaled-back plans could come in under budget, but that it would cost another $36,000 to prepare the redesign for a professional estimate.

"There are a lot of people who want to have [our town hall] here, and this is the only way it will happen," Mr. Hearn said. "I think for a matter of $36,000, we should take a shot. If it doesn't look reasonable, then we should kill the project. But right now it looks pretty good to me."

Board chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter was not present this week to break the tie. But at a meeting two weeks ago, Mr. Manter echoed Mr. Early's remarks and said that even though he personally supported the project, as a selectman he would not vote to spend any more money on it without voter approval.

Voters in November soundly rejected a $1.8 million cost overrun to the $3.7 million price tag they approved for the project the year before. One month later town hall building committee members decided to scale back the plans and attempt to bring it back within budget, but in a nonbinding resolution last month voters told them not to proceed with the revised plans.

Despite the January special town meeting vote, the building committee last week recommended going forward with the scaled-back plans.

The direction of the town hall project at this point remains unclear. Mr. Early spoke of the need for a structured public forum to discuss the future of the West Tisbury town hall, but selectmen this week did not schedule such a meeting.

Mr. Hearn and Mr. Early did vote on Wednesday to hold a place on the annual town meeting warrant for a town hall article, but they are still uncertain what they will request - possibly an additional appropriation for scaled-back plans or money to study other potential town hall locations elsewhere in town.

Panhandle Road resident Richard Knabel expressed open confusion. "I think everybody is looking for a clear direction," Mr. Knabel told selectmen on Wednesday. "So far this afternoon, with all due respect, that doesn't seem to be emerging."

Discussion about the town hall project over the last few weeks has been all over the map.

Building committee chairman Ernest Mendenhall at different times has expressed both support and skepticism of the scaled-back plans. At the selectmen's meeting on Wednesday he said it was unwise to design a project simply to fit within a certain budget.

"We've really gone from a project driven by the future needs of the town, to a project driven by an allotment of money," Mr. Mendenhall said. "It does, or would, require great diminishment in the vision of the project. If we're not going ahead, then we should just stop this. It's a shame to cheapen this any further. I don't think we can just keep bumbling along."

Mr. Early also appeared reluctant to pursue a project that was less than what the building committee originally proposed.

"The town [in November 2004] voted for that picture," he said, pointing to the rendering by architect Robert Schwartz that hangs in the town hall and adorns the cover of last year's annual town report.

"That's the culmination of 10 years of the building committee's work," Mr. Mendenhall replied. "I'd hate to see something less than that."

But some building committee members have suggested that the original design was too big and that the scaled-back plans were more appropriate.

"I'm encouraged to see the reduced size," new member Peter Rodegast said at a committee meeting last week. "I think the previous project was more than we needed, and obviously more than we could afford."

Some town officials said they are hesitant to stop the project because they do not want to waste money already spent. Mr. Mendenhall noted last week that the town had spent roughly $360,000 on the renovation designs.

"That money is - if we go back to square one - for all intents and purposes gone," Mr. Early said two weeks ago.

Town officials also believe any delays to the project will likely result in further cost increases. "If we stop this and start over again, that's another two years - and a whole new ball game," Mr. Hearn said on Wednesday. "As far as I'm concerned, I think we owe it to the town and the people who want the building here to move forward," he added. "If we delay it even a month, that's another month of cost increases."

Capawock Road resident Les Cutler, who proposed the nonbinding town hall resolution on the floor of the January town meeting, told both the building committee last week and the selectmen on Wednesday that the current project would cost far more than what the architect suggested.

"If you go forward, you will spend more money to find out that it can't be done - when the real world already tells you that right now," Mr. Cutler said, referring to a Jan. 22 Boston Globe article which noted that public renovation projects in Massachusetts are running much higher than bid costs.

Flat Point Farm owner Arnold Fischer Jr. suggested to the building committee last week that the town center has moved to the North Tisbury business district and that the town hall should follow. He said the current town hall building could be sold to the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. "It's a no-brainer to me," he said.

Tiasquam Brook Farm owner Linda Hearn and Elias Lane resident Marjory Potts argued that the town center remained in the historic district, and that the Preservation Trust already owns enough buildings in town.

Building committee member Stephen Berlucchi last week suggested that replicating the current town hall as a new building would be more cost effective than a renovation, which might discover more structural damage than is already assumed. But the project architect, Ms. Durland, said she believes demolition is out of the question.

"From my understanding of the town, this is a cherished historical building in the center of the historic district. I think a demolition would cause an uproar," Ms. Durland said last week.

"We have an uproar right now," Mr. Berlucchi responded.

First built as a school in 1872, the three-story mansard-roofed building sits in the heart of the rural West Tisbury village, bordered on one side by Music street and on the other side by the Grange Hall. Mr. Hearn noted this week that many town residents - including his wife Linda - attended elementary school in the building.

Mr. Early has said on more than one occasion that he believes the building must be renovated.

"I firmly believe that this is the proper location for the town offices of West Tisbury," he said. "I think that this building is significantly historical, and should be renovated and made to work as a town hall. But apparently a lot of people don't feel that way."

Solviva Road resident Anna Edey presented the building committee and the selectmen a preliminary proposal with her own design for a single-story solar-heated town hall addition. Both boards took the proposal under advisement.

"It's time for us to get outside the box," Ms. Edey told selectmen on Wednesday. "Because the box we're in is not functioning."