Locals rally around the Orwell town hall
ORWELL — Jean Audet has always been enamored of the historical significance and visual beauty of the Orwell Town Hall, a stately, Greek Revival edifice that has stood vigil over the village green during the past 179 years.
But when she passes by the Main Street building these days, she hears the echo of a verse from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 tune, “Big Yellow Taxi.”
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Audet is among a group of Orwell residents concerned their town hall might soon be razed and removed as part of a plan to fix and-expand the adjacent town school (see story). Around $6 million out of a proposed $59.5 million Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) bond has been earmarked to renovate the Orwell Village School and equip it with a new, 8,200-square-foot addition with a cafeteria and gym. Around 140 students in grades K-8 currently cross the driveway to eat and exercise at the town hall building, which has fallen into disrepair. Deficiencies include a subpar heating system, antiquated electrical wiring, and insufficient access for people with disabilities.
Should voters in the SVUUSD-member towns of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven pass the bond on March 3, one of the project scenarios for Orwell Village School calls for removing the town hall at an estimated cost of $355,829. The site would be paved for parking.
Audet and fellow Orwell residents Bob Bogdan and Tim Short are part of a petition drive aimed at convincing the Orwell selectboard and SVUUSD officials to retain and improve the local town hall as part of a solution to the village school’s space needs. The petition, advisory in nature, refers to the town hall as the “cornerstone” of Orwell’s historic village.
Bogdan wasn’t sure how many signatures the petition had garnered as the Independent went to press on Wednesday. It had been posted at Buxton’s Store and Country Ag Services, among other businesses.
“I think everyone wants to have a better school environment for the kids,” Bogdan said. “I think pitting the school against the town hall is not the way it should go. It would be great if it could work out improvements to the school that are needed and at the same time take this (town hall) building — which has been neglected — and bring it to its rightful place in the landscape of the town’s history.”
Meanwhile, SVUUSD officials stressed they aren’t wed to the notion of demolishing the town hall, which is encumbered by an ancient deed that town and school district lawyers are still trying to sort out. Peter Stone, an Orwell delegate to the SVUUSD board, said that while the local school building needs around $1 million in repairs, the matter of how to accommodate cafeteria and gym services is not yet a done deal.
“Nothing is set in stone,” Stone said. “At this point, we don’t even know if we can tear (the town hall) down. Legally, we might not be able to… If the bond passes, we have to figure out (the deed), and at that point, we will talk to the town.”
Stone said he’s concerned that some Orwell residents believe their town hall is destined for the wrecking ball.
“If the bond passes, it doesn’t mean the town hall will be torn down,” he said. “If we pass the bond, we get much needed upgrades at our school and we will either get a new gym/cafeteria or remodel the one that’s sitting there. I think it’s a win-win for Orwell and a win-win for the district.”
While Stone personally would like to see the building razed, he concedes, “I’m not sure which way the town wants to go.”
WHICH WAY TO GO
Short believes most residents will want to keep their town hall. He’s gotten that sense while gathering signatures for the petition.
He and other supporters pointed to an assessment of town hall repairs conducted in 2017 by Keefe & Wesner Architects LLC. That report provided a “very preliminary” estimate of $1,696,200 to renovate the 4,940 square feet of existing space (at $150 per square foot) and create a 3,184-square foot addition, or $2,437,200 for all new construction.
“These are very rough, preliminary budget numbers, but they give an idea of the potential cost impacts of re-using versus replacing the existing building,” the report concluded.
While those numbers are now somewhat out of date, Audet, Short and Bogdan believe Orwell and other SVUUSD voters could get a better deal by making the essential repairs to the local school, while renovating and expanding the town hall to allow it to better serve students in grades pre-K to 6.
“I’ve been looking for a ‘Plan B,’” Short said. “How do we get a ‘win-win’ situation? It sounds to me like (the Keefe & Wesner recommendation) is the win-win situation. You could preserve your historic niceties of the town hall, make a better building, bring it up to code and put an addition on it so there’s more room for storage.”
The end result, he believes, would be “the necessary improvements to the school, and to the town hall, and come in way under $6.3 million.”
Audet and Bogdan said a prime Orwell village vista will be forever altered if the town hall is removed.
“When you drive into town, it’s a dominant structure that gives a tone to the town that tells of its Vermont-ness and its historical legacy,” Bogdan said. “It seems to me to be one of the key historic markers of what the town is.”
He identified the other historic village markers as being the school and the First Congregational Church of Orwell.
“If you go into Orwell and you take pictures, that’s what you take a picture of,” he said.
Audet said that in 1961 Orwell residents agreed to sell the town hall to the then-local school district, in order to provide more room for programming. Townspeople invested another $5,000 at the time to fix up the building for the school, putting in the cafeteria, kitchen, locker rooms and showers, she added.
“At that time, it didn’t matter if the money came out of the left pocket or the right pocket,” Audet said. “As near as we can tell, that was the last time anything was done (to upgrade the building).”
Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the SVUUSD, said she hopes Orwell voters don’t go to the polls on March 3 thinking a “yes” vote for the bond is also a vote to remove their town hall.
“When you put forth a bond, it is really for an ‘amount not to exceed,’” Olsen-Farrell said. “If the cost is less and the town wants to move forward with renovating the town hall, that’s still a possibility. A vote for the bond doesn’t mean the town hall is gone, and vice versa. I think there’s still room for that conversation to occur. I don’t speak for the board, but I think the board has a willingness to have that conversation.”
SVUUSD board Chair Julie Finnegan confirmed that willingness.
“We are not saying we want to knock it down,” she said. “The town of Orwell can do whatever it wants with that town hall.”
She declared her preference to add on to Orwell school, “because the town hall is no longer able to function appropriately for what it is providing for students.”
A legal interpretation of the deed will provide additional clarity, according to Finnegan.
“Who knows, when you dig into that deed, what the reality is,” she said. “We would be more than willing to do whatever legally needs to happen to turn that building over to the town. I’m not sure what that is, at this point.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.