Wescustogo Hall restrictions complicate North Yarmouth planning

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NORTH YARMOUTH — Future use of the former Wescustogo Hall property, made murky by legal complications, may soon be addressed by a new committee.

Residents agreed to a set of stipulations when they voted at Town Meeting in 1997 to accept the Grange building for community use.

Now, after the 60-year-old Walnut Hill Road structure – North Yarmouth’s meeting and voting place – was destroyed by fire last August, and with various ideas being floated about what to do with the property, there are questions about how tightly the town is bound by the 1997 agreement.

“Should the building become damaged or destroyed, or outdated or need replacement, the Town shall replace it with another which will serve the same function of a meeting hall with a large open room, kitchen and dining functions,” one stipulation states. It says 65 percent of the property must be maintained as open space.

“After the year 2025, the Townspeople, through an annual town meeting or public referendum, may by a majority vote change the use of the property if (it is) determined to be no longer necessary for the use for which it is being conveyed to the Town,” the stipulation continues.

The Economic Development and Sustainability Committee has called for the Wescustogo Hall lot to be offered to the North Yarmouth Historical Society, allowing the group to either move the Old Town House there from Route 9 for storage and meetings, or to raise funds to construct a new building on the site.

The committee has proposed that insurance proceeds from the fire should be used to build a new structure, either attached to or near Town Hall. Like Wescustogo Hall, it would provide space for elections, meetings and weddings.

Meanwhile, with North Yarmouth Memorial School to close next month and be turned over to the town, the 1976 school building’s gym is being eyed by some residents as a replacement for Wescustogo, thereby avoiding rebuilding of the former Grange.

“The building’s destroyed, but not much has been done about it,” said Selectman Paul Napolitano, who wanted the matter discussed at Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting. He suggested that a three-member group, composed of Blaine Barter, Clark Baston and Lincoln Merrill, and established in the 1990s for oversight of the hall, be reorganized and determine whether the hall should be rebuilt, and what form it would take.

“The three people from the Grange would have some flexibility to change the agreement,” Napolitano said.

Selectman Clark Whittier noted that the fate of the school is a key consideration, and that if the town uses its gym as a new meeting place, rebuilding the hall could be a waste of money. He also pointed out that the agreement does not impose a time frame, and suggested the board table the matter for a year, “until we know more of what’s going to happen with the school.”

“I think everybody is in agreement that there should be a new functional Wescustogo Hall, somewhere in town,” Selectman Mark Girard said. “… But how that goes about, and how that recommendation is formed … should remain a pretty unified planning process.”

Napolitano noted that the town has an obligation to the 1997 agreement, and would show good faith if it looked into the cost to replace the building, and had that information to consider when deciding whether to take over the school gym.

Steve Palmer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, argued that other community members should be involved in a new committee, not just the Grange members and two selectmen.

“I do think you need to show good faith to the community, that we are trying to do the best we can to move forward with an old agreement, and how that agreement should be adjusted to meet the needs of the future,” Palmer said.

Merrill, a longtime member and president of the Grange, said he has sought input in recent days from former members of the association.

“I believe that legally, and morally, the only option is actually to rebuild the hall in the same place,” he told the Board of Selectmen. “… I don’t necessarily say I agree with that, but I think that is the intent of the agreement.”

If the town wishes to go in a different direction, that alternative should be brought forward at least to the oversight committee, Merrill said, “to let us have conversations with the group and see if we would consider that to be an acceptable change to the conditions under which we gave the hall to the town originally.”

Mark Verrill, a former selectmen, said the agreement should be honored.

“I think you folks have dragged your feet on this way too long, confusing two separate issues,” he said. “Wescustogo Hall, and the North Yarmouth Memorial School, are two separate issues. … If Wescustogo Hall hadn’t burned down, would you be thinking about keeping the Memorial School?”

Audrey Lones, a member of the economic development committee, noted that this situation shows why the town needs a professional planner, to look at addressing all the needs of the community in a comprehensive manner.

“It’s not Plan A versus Plan B … it’s a big plan,” she said. “… It’s very holistic; there are lots of options.”

Palmer said the board will revisit the matter, but that he first planned to speak with Charles Lawton, to see what advice the economist can offer concerning planning and economic development opportunities.

“I just want to make sure that whatever decisions we are making make sense in terms of cohesive decisions,” Palmer said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.