Voters give New Salem Selectboard blessing to sell 1794 Meetinghouse

  • Resident Amy Fagin makes a motion to amend the warrant article she crafted regarding short-term rentals in New Salem. The motion was adopted, but voters ultimately took no action on the article at Annual Town Meeting on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

  • Brad Foster, a Shutesbury resident and the executive director of the 1794 Meetinghouse in New Salem, addresses voters at the New Salem Annual Town Meeting on Monday during discussion of a warrant article pertaining to the meetinghouse. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 6/15/2021 4:28:04 PM

NEW SALEM — Voters at Monday’s Annual Town Meeting adopted a petitioned warrant article authorizing the Selectboard to sell or bestow the 1794 Meetinghouse to a private entity.

Gathered in the basement of Town Hall, residents voted overwhelmingly to transfer to the Selectboard ownership and control of the performing arts center and its land at 26 South Main St., and to authorize the board to accept proposals to sell or bestow the property “to an entity or organization that will hold and manage the property so as to preserve its historic values.”

Selectboard Chair Randy Gordon previously explained that the town owns the 1794 Meetinghouse, making it more difficult to acquire grants, and repairs for the performing arts center are roughly twice as expensive as they would be if the property was owned by a private organization due to the state’s prevailing wage laws, which require that covered employees on public works projects be paid a minimum hourly rate set by the Department of Labor Standards.

“Basically, the town has several buildings that might be better off in custodial care of people that really love the building,” Gordon said in the basement of Town Hall, adding that the article’s adoption allows a third party, likely the meetinghouse board currently operating the venue, to purchase it. “We’re creating a process for which we would allow a body — preferably the one that we’ve been talking with — to take over the building, to care for it, to pay for the costs of renovations.”

Gordon said the purchase would come with a caveat that, if the buyer fails to maintain the building, the town can buy it back “at a similar price, and we’re talking about, you know, $5, $10.”

On its website, the nonprofit Board of the 1794 Meetinghouse has announced its intent to buy the property.

Brad Foster, a Shutesbury resident who serves as the 1794 Meetinghouse’s executive director, addressed voters Monday evening to say the board was founded nearly 30 years ago to help care for the building, which its members soon got back into operation. He said the meetinghouse has held programs for about 25 years.

Foster said it is a great building to use as a performance venue, and serves as a town landmark.

“I love the acoustics in there,” he said.

Resident Ricardo Conde said the request-for-proposals process “is a little bit riddled with peril” because anyone can bid on the building. He is concerned a party with a lot of money could come in, make an offer the town can’t refuse, and change the meetinghouse. Conde said the town should have the right of first refusal.

Town Coordinator Nancy Aldrich explained the Selectboard would set the criteria by which they would look at proposals and evaluate the parties that meet that criteria.

“The money really doesn’t enter into it,” she said.

Gordon acknowledged the town would have to consider all serious proposals but would not accept a bid from an outside entity without consulting with townspeople.

Voters took no action on the warrant’s final two articles, which pertained to short-term rentals in town. Both were petitioned articles.

The first of the two articles asked if voters would agree to accept the provisions of a proposed zoning bylaw to define and regulate the use of residential housing as short-term rentals in town. The second was in regards to a 6 percent excise tax on the transfer of occupancy of any room in a short-term rental in New Salem.

Amy Fagin, the author of the first article, made a motion to amend the article’s language pertaining to zoning bylaws, and Zara Dowling, who said she rents rooms in her house to help pay her mortgage, made a motion to change the short-term rental definition (from 90 days to 30). Both motions were adopted.

However, a lengthy discussion that went off on several tangents ultimately resulted in motions to suspend the final two articles. A consensus was reached that it would be best to establish a committee that could draft a bylaw.

Earlier in the meeting, voters adopted a $3.1 million omnibus budget that includes $1.8 million for schools. Gordon said virtually all the money will be raised through taxation, with $100,000 coming from free cash.

Voters also agreed to raise and appropriate $41,160 for the loan payment on door and window replacement at Swift River School, $50,050 for the fiscal year 2022 loan payment on a fire truck, $5,000 for turnout gear for the Fire Department, and $5,000 to replace fire and police radios and add-on equipment for vehicles and stations.

Annual Town Meeting was initially planned for behind Town Hall, but was moved inside due to the weather. Fifty-eight of the town’s 793 registered voters showed up.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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