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Whately’s Silent Majority Turns Out

A plan to renovate an historic town building comes to a crashing halt.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Tom Vannah photo
Whately town moderator Paul Fleuriel

Jonathan Edwards puts his beer down and heads across the street to the Whately Town Hall.

Edwards has been sitting here at the Whately Inn since the polls closed, waiting for election officials to tally the vote. One bar stool over, Paul Fleuriel—decked out in his Stars and Stripes suspenders for voting day—nurses a soft drink, anxious to hear the results.

In a minute or two, Edwards returns.

“They’re still counting,” he announces. “Looks like it’s going to be a while.”

Ten minutes later, he rushes across the street again.

Nearly half of Whately’s registered voters made the trip to the polls, a particularly high turnout for a June election in which all of the candidates for various town offices ran unopposed. The big draw? A ballot question asking voters to authorize the town to borrow $3.9 million to renovate its historic town hall.

“There would only be 100 or so if not for that question,” Town Clerk Lynn Sibley told me earlier that evening, before the polls closed.

 

Before waiting it out at the bar, Edwards and Fleuriel had set up camp under a tent in the inn’s parking lot, across the street from the town hall. Edwards, a selectman and chairman of the town’s building committee, and Fleuriel, Whately’s town moderator, are both leading proponents of the plan to update the old building. At a table stacked with brochures, they spoke with voters—few of them first-time acquaintances—occasionally referring to architectural drawings affixed to a posterboard on an easel behind the table. At that point in the evening, Edwards still sounded hopeful that the vote would go his way.

He also said he expected the vote to be tight.

“Do you have a pair of dice?” he asked when I asked him to predict the outcome. Sibley had said the same thing. So had Fleuriel. So had Selectman Paul Newlin, another staunch supporter of the renovation plan.

One of the oldest functioning town halls in the state, Whately Town Hall was built in 1844 and renovated in 1871.

“A lot of us have a real passion for this building,” Fleuriel told me. It is where the Boy Scouts used to meet, he said; where he and his wife attended square dances before they were married. For Fleuriel, who has been involved in Whately’s civic life for close to 50 years, who laid the concrete pavers that line Town Hall’s parking lot and who still trims the hedges along its foundation, it seemed inconceivable that the building might not always be there.

He isn’t alone. “My great-great-grandfather built the building,” Sibley told me. Her family has lived in Whately, she said, “since it was a town.”

Edwards said the effort to update Town Hall has been underway for two and a half years, part of a public process comprising scores of open meetings, and only made it to the ballot with the support of Town Meeting in April. Despite that, he said, he and other proponents remain concerned.

Newlin said, “Opponents mounted a last-minute blitz.” He pointed specifically to a letter from three opponents—Whately Finance Committee members Joseph Zewinski and Robert Fydenkevez and Whately resident John Wroblewski, a local developer—that appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on June 7, the last Saturday before the vote. The letter also became the subject of a report in the June 6 Greenfield Recorder.

“There are issues with the cost estimates: Experts said there is lead, asbestos, PCBs in ballasts and mouse and bat droppings—but no budget for the removal of hazardous materials,” the letter reads. “Why is an interior door with trim priced at $1,835 when the same door can be bought at a retail price of $473?”

The letter goes on to raise a number of questions without context: “In two years, will we be asked to spend $200,000 to connect [a sprinkler system]? Will insurance be available?” The letter also asserts that “cost-effective alternatives to this proposal are possible.”

 

In the two hours I’ve spent outside Town Hall, I haven’t seen a single “No” button, bumper sticker or brochure. Walking and driving around Whately earlier in the day, I’d seen far more signs in support of the renovation plan than signs of opposition.

Now, as they make small talk with a couple of reporters in a nearly empty resturant bar, Edwards and Fleuriel look tense.

“I think there’s a good chance it will pass,” Fleuriel says. “But we’ve had an influx of residents who are focused on their finances.”

One last time, Edwards heads across the street, this time with Fleuriel close behind.

It’s the last I’ll see of them this evening.

Early the next morning, I learn that town voters have overwhelmingly rejected their plan.

The final count is 213 in favor, 344 opposed.

 

When I reached him by phone after the election, Wroblewski told me he was surprised by the overwhelming opposition to the proposed renovations, though he was “obviously happy with the result.”

“This particular plan was way over budget,” he said. “People saw the writing on the wall.”

Wroblewski said he supports preserving the town hall, and hopes another plan can be brought forward.

Newlin had a slightly different view of the outcome. The vote, he said, “was a clear signal that many people are more concerned about keeping their taxes down than renovating the town hall, at least as currently proposed... Maybe we should have realized that would be the case, but we worked on the plans for over two years, and the opposition seemed to have materialized overnight despite the fact that the plan went through two town meetings, was recommended by all the relevant boards, was explained at various public hearings.”

“Unfortunately,” added Newlin, “all that doesn’t count in the end.”

What will happen to the proud old town hall that sits high on a hill in Whately remains to be seen. But at least one of the people who is trying to save it promised that it will not be torn down as long as he’s around.

Paul Fleuriel said he’ll protect the building from the wrecking crew: “I’ll push them all the way down to Hatfield if I have to.”•

Comments (1)
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As a professional preservationist and designer I have to say the the question about the door was telling. There may be real questions about the soundness of the restoration plan, so that many supporters of restoration may have voted against the plan.

Often architects and others, in too many cases, unfortunately, make assumptions that drive costs of restoration up to the point where the projects become impractical. Many time there are common sense alternatives that are not explored. This is what we found when designing a Victorian house for HABITAT: There are expensive ways to do things, and there are other ways to do things as well if people are creative.

So the lesson of the story may be that its time to be a little more creative, and sensitive to people's feelings of hardship and the need to be frugal, and the a different plan can be designed so that Whately's Town Hall can live to serve future generations.

Posted by David Gaby on 6.19.14 at 12:51
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