The Groton Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Monday night to demolish Squannacook Hall, a West Groton landmark, because members think that is the best way to save the 19th century white frame building. After a set of articles that would have supported radically remodeling the old firehouse into four apartments or condominiums was defeated at Fall Town Meeting last week, selectmen said they were out of options. When the key article, rezoning the .28 acre lot from public to residential, failed to attract a 2/3 majority of voters — 84 Yes votes and 62 No — several selectmen said demolition was the only way left to go.
The vote triggers the town’s demolition delay bylaw, a six-month waiting period before the demolition can actually take place. It also unofficially encourages people to come forward with proposals that could save the building. Selectman Josh Degen said that at least two or three people or groups “came out of the woodwork” and expressed an interest in the property after town meeting turned down the set of articles.
“To trigger the demolition delay bylaw is an important thing to do at this time, to show that we mean business,” Degen said. “But it is our intent to save the building.”
One of the town meeting articles would have had the town pay for a new septic system before it passed control of the 12,000 square foot building to local developer Halsey Platt for conversion. The four residences would have eventually generated about $10,000 in annual property taxes, officials said. At Monday’s BoS meeting, Town Manager Mark Haddad said that Platt wanted to think over the project for a “couple of weeks” and possibly make changes to his proposal. Until he withdraws the offer, he has right of first refusal, Haddad said. Platt did not return phone calls seeking comment on Monday.
Squannacook Hall was constructed in 1887 to house the town’s second fire engine and serve as a village or town meeting building. The second floor of the hall is a modest hardwood floored auditorium that could seat maybe 150-200 people in front of a small proscenium stage. The building’s fire station role ended in 1958, when a new fire station was constructed across West Main Street. After that, the building served as the town’s senior center, the headquarters of the town’s recreation department, and as a storage building. West Groton Boy Scouts still meet there and store their troop’s gear and the flags that deck Groton’s streets on holidays on the first floor. In 2007-2008, there were proposals to rehabilitate the hall for a renewed public building role, but studies estimated the cost of rehabbing to be above $2M; that price tag was too high for town officials and residents.
Board Chair Peter Cunningham said that he and Selectwoman Anna Elliot would reach out to the Christian Union Church, next door neighbor to the hall, to discuss the town’s position and listen to church member’s concerns about the property. Joan Denaro and Judy Cushman, two members of the church’s board of trustees, spoke from the floor of Town Meeting to lead opposition to the zoning change and redevelopment.
Town Manager Mark Haddad told selectmen Monday that what church officials though was a shared driveway serving both the church and the hall is actually entirely on town-owned land. The church’s septic system, according to church members, is also under the driveway — which would put it on town property.
Selectmen and Haddad said that voting the demolition at this time was not a death sentence for the old building. Funds to pay for the work would need to be found in the current budget or allocated at Spring Town Meeting in April. But by voting in favor of the move Monday, selectmen put a firmer timetable in place to dispose of the property one way or another.
One of the “out of the woodwork” proposals Degen and Haddad mentioned comes from Brooks Lyman, who made and then withdrew an offer to the town several years ago. He sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen last Friday, bringing his proposal back into play.
“I offered to take on the full expense of the new septic system. I received an email from (Town Manager) Mark Haddad stating that they cannot accept my bid as official as they would need to go through the RFP process yet again. That was not unexpected, but I wanted to make sure that they knew that I was interested …
I think that I explained pretty well what I would do (or attempt; let’s be honest, some of the ideas I have could cost more than I can afford at present) with the building at Town Meeting: Use the first floor for my personal office/shop/library, possibly in combination with some meeting space, and leave the second floor as an auditorium for various meetings, etc.,” Lyman wrote in an email.
In the meantime, while the six month waiting period winds down, Haddad and Groton Historical Society John Ott asked the BoS to allow the Groton Historical Society to use the building for temporary storage of some artifacts while the society finishes restoration of its Boutwell House headquarters. Selectmen approved that request Monday.