Whately voters endorse Highway Garage study, prepping old school for sale

Residents approved all seven articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant Tuesday night at the Whately Town Offices.

Residents approved all seven articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant Tuesday night at the Whately Town Offices. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 11-29-2023 2:36 PM

WHATELY — Just over a dozen residents joined the Selectboard and other town officials Tuesday night to approve all seven articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant.

In their approval, 13 residents authorized the town to undertake a feasibility study of town properties to find a suitable location for a new Highway Garage, prepare the former Center School for sale and pay off the remaining balance on a Water Department loan in an approximately 30-minute meeting.

Most of the articles were passed with little discussion, but several residents raised questions about the Highway Garage and Center School.

“To me, a feasibility study is typically related to the feasibility of a [specific] structure or a site,” said Planning Board member Judy Markland, adding that these “parameters seem quite open.”

Selectboard Chair Fred Baron and Highway Superintendent Keith Bardwell explained the feasibility study, which will be paid using $26,000 from the Town Buildings Stabilization account, will take a look at the Highway Department’s needs for space and what places in town would be suitable for a new facility.

“We will hopefully be able to work with the contractor doing the study to figure out what our needs are, how big that building will have to be and how much acreage it would need,” Baron said, adding that the former Villa DeMaio Restaurant lot on Routes 5 and 10 may be a possible site. “We’re looking to see what we can do about the Highway Department and get them out of their inadequate facility, and this is the first step in that process.”

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Others, including Historical Society President Neal Abraham and resident Jenny Morrison, asked if the town could turn this into a study of the town’s parcels and their suitability for other departments.

Bardwell noted other buildings like the Police and Fire departments may be cramped for space, but they are still in “very good shape” structurally. He explained the Highway Garage was built on cinder blocks that are deteriorating due to the constant use of salt by the department.

“The building continues to sink, settle and crack,” Bardwell said. “The building was built in 1960 and it’s in rough shape.”

The other main discussion point of the evening was Article 6, which asked residents to give the Selectboard care, custody and control of the former Center School at 218 Chestnut Plain Road “for the purposes of sale or other disposition.”

Abraham expressed concerns about the phrase “other disposition,” which he said could include demolition. The Selectboard emphasized there is no intention of demolishing the school and the request for proposals for the sale of the building include a historical preservation restriction.

The town spends approximately $4,600 a year on insuring the unoccupied building and exterior lighting, according to Town Administrator Brian Domina and Historical Commission Chair Donna Wiley.

As the discussion continued, Morrison, who chaired the Center School Visioning Committee a few years back, urged people to think about the consequences of selling the building.

“I know people are anxious to do something with the Center School, but once it’s sold, we never get it back,” Morrison said. “I personally don’t want to see the town sell it at this point and I feel like my opinion was supported pretty strongly in the town survey.”

The Center School Visioning Committee issued its report in March 2020 and concluded, following a survey taken by 149 residents, that the best course of action would be for the town to retain ownership of the building and lease it to another company. A request for proposals for a long-term lease was issued in the past, but the town received no response, which led to the town looking to sell the land.

Voters at Tuesday’s meeting, though, ultimately approved giving the Selectboard care, custody and control of the building. The request for proposals for the sale closes Dec. 13.

Other articles approved include appropriating $5,800 for unpaid bills from the prior fiscal year, transferring $102,313 from the Water Department’s Enterprise Fund Retained Earnings account to pay off a loan and reducing the number of members on the Recreation Commission from nine to seven members.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.