Editorial: Preserving Orwell's town hall

The $59.5 million proposed school bond for the Slate Valley Unified Union School District is an ambitious project with a few fine points to work out regarding its proposed changes for Orwell’s K-8 Village School.

As stated in current plans, the district project would commit significant dollars to renovating Fair Haven Union High School, build a new district middle school, and commit significant resources to upgrading the district’s other primary schools. Among those projects is a $6 million renovation and 8,200-square-foot addition with a new cafeteria and gym to the Orwell school. The historic Orwell Town Hall, which sits adjacent to the school, has served as the school’s cafeteria and gymnasium since 1961, when the town deeded the building to the school. The current plan sets aside $355,829 to raze the building and turn it into a parking lot.

Admittedly, renovations to the Town Hall building are needed to improve what is described in today’s story (see Page 1A) as “a sub-par heating system, antiquated electrical wiring, and insufficient access for people with disabilities.” But tearing it down and turning it into a parking lot is devoid of any historic sensibility.

Town residents still use the Town Hall, built in a classic, stately architecture of the times, to hold Town Meeting and other community activities. It is, without doubt, the architectural centerpiece of Orwell’s small downtown —an iconic building that reminds all who pass of Vermont’s earlier history and the prominence of Vermont’s small towns during an era when rural farms were the essence of the state’s economy. Such connection to the town’s history is partly why dozens demonstrated this week in front of the Town Hall to protest the option of tearing it down.

We’re not suggesting the school district toss out its plans to improve school facilities in Orwell, but an alternative suggestion has been made to renovate the Town Hall and add an addition to it that would cost closer to $4 million — and, not only save the current Town Hall, but renovate it to better uses by both the school and town communities. (See a companion story, also on Page 1A.)

Certainly, that sounds like a win-win scenario. But how can that be done this late in the game? The bond language for the Town Meeting vote has already been drafted; there is likely no legal provision to create an amendment that would guarantee such leeway.

Orwell residents are, in short, in a bit of a pickle. Perhaps the best bet for Orwell is to ask the district school board members to agree in principle at its next meeting to allow town resident to decide how to renovate their Village School, if the bond is passed, including renovation of the Town Hall for school purposes with no more than the allotted $6 million.

Such a board motion likely would not have legal precedent, but it would be a good faith measure that might give residents enough confidence to support the bond, knowing they would have some control over the fate of their Town Hall. Otherwise, those Orwell residents devoted to survival of the Town Hall might recommend defeat of this bond proposal until a different draft could give them that security.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent