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ZBA, Fruitlands hearing: early permit debate focused on numbers


HARVARD — Fruitlands Museums and the Zoning Board of Appeals are still at odds over two petitions: an administrative appeal and a special permit application.

During an ongoing hearing on May 17, the appeal was denied. The permit application was supposed to be considered when the hearing continued on May 24.

During the protracted hearing process so far, the board has been sorting through a mass of documents and struggling with slew of issues to get to the heart of the matter.

At the recent meeting, Attorney Robert Cox, representing Fruitlands, accused the board of dragging its feet. He warned that if the hearing did not end soon, the case could be decided elsewhere.

The obvious allusion to litigation didn’t rattle Chairman Christopher Tracey, who continued on course despite this and other, subtler, moves by the museum’s attorney to direct the proceedings.

”We are just as anxious to settle this as you are,” said alternate board member Robert Capobianco.

The clock is ticking for both sides.

Town counsel Mark Lanza has attended four hearing sessions and will likely be there until the end. He has also reviewed documents and conferred with Cox. Legal time costs the town money. And in the coming weeks, some board members will be away, raising quorum issues for future meetings.

Fruitlands, meanwhile, is worried about lost revenue and time taken from the museum, which recently opened for the season.

Citing documents submitted to the board, Cox said the museum’s attendance and rental income were down last year. He indicated that shortfalls might relate to prior compliance problems, since being resolved by the installation of a costly new septic system.

In a season that runs May to October, this is a prime time for weddings and other events that bring in revenue the museum uses for educational goals. That premise is central to the Dover amendment in state law, which Cox claims exempts the museum from local zoning and makes both applications moot. He has been hammering home that argument all along, but the board did not buy it.

The three-member voting panel — Joseph Sudol, Christopher Tracey and Steve Moeser — agreed unanimously to deny the administrative appeal.

Now, the issue is a special permit application to cover the tearoom and tent for seating capacities of 100 and 280, respectively.

Establishing a 100-seat capacity for the tearoom is critical to obtaining a liquor license. But that anticipated application will come later, before another board. Now, the permit the museum needs from the ZBA hinges on numbers, and the two aims may clash.

Building commissioner Gabriel Vellante said he did not oppose the permit based on the higher numbers, but fire Chief Robert Mignard said he has “a real problem” with the 100-seat tearoom floor plan.

Mulling an architect’s drawing, he said the configuration won’t work, even if measurements meet code specs on paper. Too many tables and chairs that are too close compromise aisle access, and in an emergency, people can’t exit safely, he said. A crowded room poses a “nightmare” for firefighters, he said.

Tracey asked Mignard and Vellante to work with the architect to come up with a more feasible floor plan for the next meeting.

Fruitlands has said the 40-seat setup will not change, and the higher number is conceptual. But when the museum goes to the Board of Selectmen for a liquor license, it must show the 100-seat capacity to comply with a new town bylaw, which stipulates that liquor licenses may only be granted to permanent establishments seating at least 100 people.

The hearing will continue on May 24, at 7:30 p.m., in the Town Hall meeting room.