WILMINGTON, MA — Last year, at this time, the Historical Commission was asking the Board of Selectmen: “What harm would it do for residents to wait one more year before deciding whether to demolish the Whitfield School?,” arguing that voters didn’t have the necessary information to make an informed decision.
At the 2014 Annual Town Meeting, the Historical Commission got its wish, when a resident’s motion – to table a vote to approve funds for the demolition of the Whitefield School until the 2015 Annual Town Meeting – was approved.
At last week’s Board of Selectmen Meeting, the Board was asking the Historical Commission Chair Kathleen Black Reynolds: “What good has it done for residents to wait a year before deciding whether to demolish the Whitefield School,” arguing that very little new information is contained in a recent report on the Whitefield School issued by the Historical Commission. [Update-3/24: The Whitefield School report can now be found online HERE.]
A Board United
“The big line [from last year’s debate] was ‘what would a year hurt?,’” said Selectman Lou Cimaglia. “Well, we waited a year. We put an RFP [on the Whitefield] out that no company responded to… There’s no dollar amounts or specifics in [this report]…. And I don’t think there’s anything in [the report] that would change my thinking.”
“I’m exactly where I was one year ago today. Frankly, other than seeing a list of suggested uses, I don’t see where we’ve gotten in the last year,” said Selectman Mike Newhouse. “We’re now a year down the road, and I don’t see any information that’s changed.”
Besides the suggested uses, “there really isn’t anything new from 12 months ago,” concurred Town Manager Jeff Hull, later in the meeting.
Selectman Newhouse raised several additional issues he had with the report, including “missing data.”
“It’s the Historical Commission’s position that this report is informational,” said Newhouse. “I don’t take issue with what’s in here, but if we’re going to be disseminating this report on behalf of the town, I have a problem with what’s NOT here, such as [any mention of] the $3-$5 million that it will take to renovate [the building].”
When Newhouse asked Historical Commission Chair Kathleen Black Reynolds if the Historical Commission disagreed with the Town Manager’s estimate that a renovation would cost $3-$5 million, Reynolds said she could not say, and that the Commission did not have any estimates to provide.
“When it was represented to this board, and to the general public last year, that some folks challenged the Town Manager’s $3-$5 million figure, frankly, that’s an assessment that should have been done and included in this report,” replied Newhouse.
“My opinion has not changed since last year,” declared Selectman McCoy, before delivering his trademark line – “We can agree to disagree.” McCoy continued, “That building is in rough shape. I have not strayed from that… Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s historic.”
“I, personally, feel that the town has come to the conclusion that the [Whitefield] is ill-suited for any [town need]. I find myself aligned with that way of thinking now, as well,” said Selectman Mike Champoux, the only Selectman who supported the Historical Commission’s request last year to delay the vote a year. Champoux had indicated then, however, he did, ultimately, envision himself supporting the demolition of the 111 year-old building.
Selectwoman O’Connell reiterated that her position has also not changed from a year ago. “If anything, [the year wait] has garnered more support for the building to come down than stay up.” O’Connell pointed out that, this year, it is the Town Manager, and not a Selectman, bringing the demolition article forth to Annual Town Meeting.
O’Connell also addressed the perceived strained relationship between the Historical Commission and the Board of Selectmen, noting that “when disparaging comments are made in public towards some of the Board of Selectmen, and then to say things haven’t become personal, it just isn’t true at this point.”
A Historical Chair Strong In Her Defense
“Based on principle, [the Historical Commission] has to oppose demolition of the Whitefield,” said Historical Chair Kathleen Black Reynolds. “It’s a historic building. Our charge is to preserve our historic resources. We think there’s good reason to preserve this building.”
“Our Commission understands that this board feels the property is more valuable without the building standing,” continued Reynolds. “We get that, but our charge is to preserve historic resources, and that’s the position we have to take.”
“I don’t think our goal for this report was to change anyone’s minds. It was to provide information,” clarified Reynolds. “The community, I felt, deserved additional information. They were given a short period of time to have a debate [last year]. We felt they needed more time.”
Reynolds also respectfully disagreed with the opinion held by the Town Manager and the Selectmen that the Commission’s report provided nothing new, besides a list of suggested uses for the building, pointing out that most community members are likely not aware of the specific preservation funding resources available, as thoroughly outlined in the report.
Reynolds emphasized, throughout her remarks, that the Historical Commission has faced many limitations when exploring alternative funding sources to preserve the building.
“The biggest limitation that we see is the town’s lack of an overall master plan for its town-owned resources, including its historic resources,” said Black. “It’s kind of a vicious circle. Before we can apply to any funding source, we have to have a proposed project with an intended use for the property. And, without that, we can’t really even apply for grant funding.”
(Town Manager Jeff Hull had recommended an article at last year’s Town Meeting to fund such a plan, but the Wilmington Finance Committee indicated their disapproval during the budget process, and the Town Manager ended up pulling the request.)
Reynolds listed several other limitations making grant-seeing difficult, including: no future or planned use for the Whitefield; the Whitefield being town-owned; the lot remaining town-owned; the building being in a residentially-zoned area; the Whitefield still being under the school system’s purview; the Whitefield being vacant with no upkeep; the Whitefield needing roof maintenance and potentially other repairs; and asbestos present in the Whitefield’s shingles.
“The fact that we don’t have preservation mechanisms in town also creates a hardship for the [Historical] Commission to do what it would like to do,” said Reynolds, who indicated support for a ‘demolition delay bylaw” and the adoption of the Community Preservation Act in Wilmington. Reynolds also called for improved communication between the Historical Commission and the town’s Public Buildings Department.
The Historical Commission, according to Reynolds, had local architects and contractors tour the Whitefield and provide assessments of potential future uses for a revitalized building. All agreed the building is “structurally sound.”
Upon hearing Selectwoman O’Connell’s remarks about disparaging comments being tossed at Selectmen, Reynolds replied, “That’s a shame. I’m not taking things personally. No one on the board should. I haven’t made disparaging comments about the board to anybody. There’s no reason to take things personally.”
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