HARVARD -- Some time after selectmen took on the role of quasi-building committee for the Town Hall renovation project, a clear path has finally been set: "1B," the affordable option the board voted for several weeks ago.
But there's a fork in the road that selectmen have agreed to explore as well: Moving out.
Tuesday night, that alternative direction, call it a "road not taken" opportunity too practical to pass up, sparked some surprising public comments.
The 1B option was among a handful of choices the architects came up with in response to the selectmen's directive to downsize the Town Hall building project, which had gone $1 million over budget, so it could be completed with the rest of the construction nest egg.
With the original plan off the drawing board after Town Meeting said no to more funding and selectmen took over the project, they recently have been moving forward on 1B, via a two-phased approach in which exterior and structural problems would be fixed first.
In this "bifurcated" version of the chosen path, interior reconfiguration targeted to municipal "programs" would be tabled while the board explores moving to leased space.
Town Administrator Tim Bragan introduced this bold new idea at a previous meeting and got a green light to start the "procurement process" aimed at finding suitable long-term lease options for town offices, with or without school administration sharing the space.
Town Hall, meanwhile, buttoned up, battened down, structurally sound and historically preserved, would stand as a landmark in the town center and could be used for other community purposes, as it was in the past.
Last week, several residents spoke in support of Bragan's proposal.
Paul Willard said he recalled when Town Hall housed no municipal offices at all.
Many years ago, the police chief worked from home, as did the dispatcher and the town clerk's office was across the street, he said.
In those days, Town Hall was a community gathering spot, with staged performances and other "fun" things he'd like to see reprised. "Let's get town offices out of this building," Willard said.
His brother, Wendell Willard, agreed. "Moving town offices into leased space is one of the best ideas that's come along in a long time," he said. Noting how some older, longtime residents struggle to stay in town as taxes continue to rise, he said saving money is a "grand" idea. Besides, it will make this building a better asset, he said.
Former selectman and retired fire chief Peter Warren, citing his support for the Town Hall project and his disappointment that it hasn't happened yet, said he'd warmed up to the notion that town offices could "conceivably" be located elsewhere, in "a very visible" spot on Ayer Road.
"Not so long ago, several offices were not here," he said. But the building was still a community resource, used as a volunteer facility, to host plays, even for town meetings.
Barely adequate for municipal functions now in terms of space, the landlocked building lacks expansion potential, Warren noted.
That could be a problem down the road, with the disposition of Devens looming, he said.
If the town takes back jurisdiction of its historic boundaries within the former military base, assuming responsibility for infrastructure maintenance and providing public services for its businesses and residences, it would mean added employees, Warren reasoned and some of the new hires would need office space. Town Hall won't be big enough to accommodate them, he said.
Bottom line, he supports the "most economical" choice, Warren said.
But Pam Marston, speaking for the Historic Commission, disagreed. The HC feels the 275-year old building should be restored and remain the seat of town government, she said.
Yet another stand was taken by 276 townspeople who signed a citizen's petition generated by resident Paul Richards.
Richards presented the document to the selectmen at last week's meeting.
The petition reads, in part: "We, the undersigned...believe the recent decision by the Board of Selectmen to disregard the (former) building committee's input and take over all planning and decision-making regarding the Town Hall project will not result in a best-value outcome for the town hall."
Basically, the petition calls for a do-over via a "return to the original Town Hall planning and design process" endorsed at Annual Town Meeting, 2012, with $3.97 million in funding.
At that time, the plan included razing and rebuilding the "apse" addition, one of several costly items that have since been scratched.
The petition - which did not seek a special town meeting - also asked selectmen to appoint a new building committee with "qualified individuals" to investigate available options within the existing budget. The new BC would then hold "at least three public forums" before presenting four schematic designs "for BOS approval," the petition states.
Richards said a "large segment" of the public does not support the "dictatorial" style of this board. Any move other than the one sketched out in the petition would jeopardize "this and future projects" and "send the wrong message to volunteers," he said.
He asked the selectmen to suspend work on "1B" and appoint a new building committee before moving forward. "Together, we can improve our outcome," Richards concluded.
Discussing the issue later in the meeting, Selectman Marie Sobalvarro wondered whether the "eight-mile" radius (of the town center) that Town Meeting originally set for temporary rental digs during renovation would also apply to a long-term lease.
Bragan said no because this would be a "different process."
As for appointing a new building committee, all agreed it was a must.
"No question, we need to have a building committee," Chairman Stu Sklar said. He also said it was imperative to move ahead on "1B" while exploring the alternative path Bragan has been authorized to pursue.
"The beauty of 1B is it achieves three important things," Selectman Leo Blair said. It fixes and preserves the building, which townspeople have clearly indicated they want, and it will result in a historically restored building the community can continue to use if town offices move elsewhere. Finally, "we can do it with the money we have," he said, with the schematic design budget used up and mostly construction funds left.
Short of giving up, "this is the last best choice," Blair said.
Currently, selectmen await the results of a building envelope analysis of the addition and adjoining walls, which will be ready for review by the next meeting, July 8, Bragan said.
The board also needs to set parameters and marching orders for the nascent building committee, tentatively to consist of three members with specified experience and skills.
Selectman Ron Ricci agreed to draft a charge for the board's approval at the next session.