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ZBA still mulling museum’s special permit application

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HARVARD — Although a multi-session Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing surrounding Fruitlands Museums, ongoing since April, was officially closed on June 14 with no decision made.

Instead, after Fruitlands had presented all of its evidence and neighbors had their say, the board decided to close the hearing and begin pre-vote discussions at its next meeting.

On June 21, the board deliberated for three-and-a-half hours — this time with no input from Fruitlands or the public — but did not vote. The matter will be taken up again at a future meeting.

Chairman Christopher Tracey later outlined the board’s current colloquy and explained why this application is such a tough call.

“It’s like trying to peel a huge onion,” Tracey said.

The issue is to determine the extent of expansion for permit purposes. For this, the board needs a starting point for the pre-existing non-conforming use. Was the original number of tearoom seats 40, 60, 80 or more?

Other benchmark issues tough to quantify range from hours of operation to the number and frequency of events to the extent and manner in which liquor has been served in the tea room and tent over the years.

To decide on future use, the board needed an accurate picture of the present and past, according to Tracey. But because evidence is sketchy that is easier said than done.

In the wake of a protracted presentation from Fruitlands, the board has been digging through layers of complex issues raised during the hearing to get to the core issue.

For example, take the seating numbers. There would be 100 spots for the tea room and 180 for the tent.

The fire chief and building inspector approved an architect’s conceptual drawing of a reconfigured seating plan for the tea room and neither of them has a problem with the tent number.

But the board is struggling with the implications of those numbers, said Tracey.

Fruitlands representatives have said the tea room and tent restaurant and functions held there are essential funding sources. There are no expansion plans and the museum only wants to continue operating the restaurant when the it is open and to hold functions such as wedding receptions, fund-raisers and other events, as it does now.

Supporters have testified that Fruitlands is in synch with other museums, which also rely on revenue from sidelines such as restaurants.

The restaurant does not seat people for lunch during functions. To make her point, she cited constraints such as a small kitchen and traffic flow issues, said Deputy Director Peggy Kempton.

The board does not dispute that assessment, Tracey said, but it is not the point.

In his view, the issue is not how the board or anyone else feels about the applicant, its purpose or if the museum profits from the tearoom and tent. The question before the board is whether to grant or deny the special permit application based on an objective application of the town’s zoning laws, which provide very clear guidelines on what is allowed, according to Tracey.

“I believe that is the right perspective,” he said.

Building commissioner Gabriel Vellante determined that the tea room and tent, as a pre-existing, nonconforming use in a residential/agricultural zone, needed a special permit from the ZBA. Its original, 40-seat capacity had expanded, he said, based on higher numbers noted in a recent Board of Health permit for the museum’s new, larger, septic system. Vellante so informed the museum in writing.

However, Tracey said the board is leery of the restaurant-versus-museum concept, especially since alcohol is part of the mix.

It is no secret that the museum plans to seek a full liquor license from the Board of Selectmen, but Kempton has said Fruitlands does not have a bar and will not have one in the future.

Responding to neighbors’ concerns, she said the tearoom, operated by the catering firm Seasonal Specialties, will not become a full-service restaurant with extended hours.

However, the board is worried about angles. Tracey said the board has a duty to ensure that the parameters of the special permit align with the zoning law, part of which is that the neighborhood should not be adversely impacted by changes in the uses the special permit allows.

Outstanding concerns Tracey cited include more questions than the board has answers for. Say, for example, the restaurant operated from 12 to 5:30 once upon a time, would it do so again, even when the museum is closed? Was liquor served in the tea room as well as the tent?

Fruitlands, for its part, has said it is historically in the right and no substantial changes have been made since the tearoom opened in 1935. The museum submitted an anecdotal timeline to trace its use and establish its capacity.

Tracey and other board members wanted to draw a precise line from 1958 to the present. But documents showing attendance figures specific to the tearoom/tent only go back 10 years.

To bridge the gap, the applicant provided a spotlight chronology prepared by Frank Coolidge, a former trustee. The timeline, which draws extensively from the founder’s notes, was backed by testimony from Coolidge, who was appointed by Sears in the 1950’s. It shows that crowds of 100 or more have been entertained in the tearoom over the years. The tea room and tent became “nonconforming” in 1958, when the town enacted zoning laws.

The zoning board hopes to vote on this application by the end of July, Tracey said, pinpointing an extended filing deadline for the administrative appeal decision.

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