GROTON -- Forced by Town Meeting, selectmen on Monday voted to authorize Town Manager Mark Haddad to prepare the groundwork to demolish the historic Squannacook Hall within six months.
The move comes a week after the second session of fall Town Meeting when members of the Christian Union Church stopped an effort to turn the unused structure into residential apartments by preventing a majority vote in favor of rezoning the property from public use to residential/agricultural.
"The goal of selectmen has always been to save the building," said board member Joshua Degen Monday. "But at some point, we have to cut our losses."
Mothballed by the board months ago, Haddad had been instructed to find a buyer or tenant for the property. He did so in the form of developer Halsey Platt who agreed to purchase the 75-year-old building for $100 and installation by the town of a new $30,000 septic system.
In return, the town would end up with a fully renovated, four-unit apartment building that would generate $10,000 a year in taxes.
Congregants of the Christian Union Church next door objected at Town Meeting. The group used the area behind Squannacook Hall for parking and claimed church members would have no place to park and the church would suffer.
Haddad asked selectmen to let him notify the building inspector of the town's intention to tear down the structure.
Notification was needed due to the six-month lead time required by the town's demolition delay bylaw, created to slow down the demolition process to increase the likelihood of preserving historic buildings.
Approval of the notification for demolition however, did not necessarily mean that the building would be torn down. Over the next six months, selectmen hoped that a number of scenarios would save the building.
In addition to Platt's intention to discuss his plans further with church members, Haddad said resident Brooks Lyman had approached him after Town Meeting. Although Haddad did not elaborate, Lyman said at Town Meeting he had once planned to buy Squannacook Hall and turn it into a residence but changed his mind due to the cost.
Degen, warned that should the town proceed with a demolition, the land upon which the hall stands still had value as a building lot and if not used for any other public purpose, would need to be auctioned off as surplus property. Thus, church members should not expect to automatically benefit from its destruction.
"We just can't have mothballed buildings sitting there with nothing going on," added fellow board member Peter Cunningham, saying that every day the building was neglected, the process of deterioration went on, presenting the town with a liability.
Degen used the occasion as a cautionary tale of low attendance at town meeting having an impact on local issues. A strong showing by church supporters was able to stop a measure that Degen felt would have passed otherwise.
Selectmen voted to allow Haddad to proceed with plans for possible demolition of the hall pending any alternative to the contrary.
In the meantime, the building will serve as a storage place for artifacts owned by the Historical Society, which are kept in two rooms at the Boutwell House.
With the Boutwell House undergoing renovation, another place was needed to store the artifacts while the two rooms were worked on.
According to president John Ott, the society would need about six months before it could take the artifacts back.
Selectmen agreed to the arrangement on condition that the society insure the artifacts against damage and protect the town from liability.