WEST NEWBURY — Local planners want to present voters with a zoning amendment this fall that would allow a private landlord to purchase the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, a Main Street landmark, and turn it into a small office space.
The ultimate goal, as voted on at the spring town meeting, is to sell the hall to a private buyer with a retention restriction to maintain the look and style of its historic exterior. But for that to happen, the Residential C zoning in the area where the property is located needs to be changed.
Built as a Civil War memorial in 1900, the building is considered a distinctive local example of Gothic Revival architecture. It served as the meeting place for the local American Legion post for decades and housed the local public library for 12 years. In 2016 it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
City officials know of at least one potential buyer who has expressed interest in the space for his architectural business. The board agreed that the bylaws amendment should be general rather than specific to provide flexibility.
Rather than trying to define exactly what constitutes a “small office,” the regulations should simply allow for use as “an office,” Chair Ann Bardeen suggested. It would be up to the claimant to explain what this means
A task force comprising Planning Board member Ray Cook and Select Board member Wendy Reed – with input from town planner Leah Zambernardi and city manager Angus Jennings – felt the best option was to waive a zoning change that would allow for mixed-use residential/commercial properties. .
Instead, any proposed use would have to go through the special permit process – giving council the power to reject uses that would harm the structure or don’t fit the established vibe of the neighborhood.
“If you add a little to the commercial district, any business could go there in the future without the neighbors having a say,” Cook said during a recent group meeting.
Keeping the area in the RC zone and implementing a special permit process for a particular use is also a smart political choice, he said, adding that other landowners in the area could also apply for a special permit. if they wished.
“I like your approach, Ray,” said colleague Brian Murphey, “Let the candidate present a reasonable proposal.”
Bardeen worried that a special permit approach would leave things open to interpretation. This will require a clear understanding of the property’s history from future planning councils, she said.
Planning Council member Tim Cronin agreed. “We’re going to have to make a serious decision,” he said.
As part of the special permission process, council determines whether the proposed use is appropriate for the site and will not adversely affect the neighborhood. The “health, safety and general well-being” of the community are also factors. A special permit can be approved with conditions, modifications and restrictions – both of time and use of the property.
In January, building inspector and zoning enforcement officer Sam Joslin presented a comprehensive analysis of the iconic landmark’s possible uses that do not require a zoning bylaw amendment; as well as all uses exempted by state law; and uses authorized by special permit.
Uses now permitted only with a special permit include three- and four-family dwellings; commercial greenhouse; riding stable; kennel, animal or veterinary hospital; restaurant or inn; telephone or radio utility; funeral home; graveyard; Rest house; hospital or sanatorium; housing for the elderly; non-profit school or club; public alert system; large solar panel; wireless installation; wind or weather tower; or a sawmill or a cider mill.
Meanwhile, an ad hoc committee headed by veteran Bob Janes is working to find a solution that would allow the city to keep the property at 363 Main St. The newly formed panel discussed the issue from outside first ; then proceed indoors with a phased approach, using volunteers when deemed appropriate.
Possible uses cited for the building would be as an air-conditioned space to display Civil War and other military and civic memorabilia; as a tourist attraction; a non-profit cafe where local art is sold, a community center; a gathering place for the elderly or children; concert hall ; technical studio; location for wedding receptions, municipal training sessions or field trips, or to house a municipal cemetery commission.
“Selling the building – or tearing it down – would shame the memory of the people who gave their lives for this country – that doesn’t say much to us,” Janes said.
This spring, the city assembly voted to set aside $1.25 million of a 2019 $1.5 million appropriation for building repairs. Voters then approved the sale or lease of the building with an attached historical restriction.
But one paper — approving $115,000 to raze the building and install a veterans’ memorial park in its place — fell through.