Well over 100 people filled the gym at the Waitsfield Elementary School to voice their opinions on where the new town offices should be located.

The December 11 meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd to discuss whether the town should renovate the old Methodist Church in the village or build a new town office on a parcel of land north of the old church.

After two years, the town’s Town Office Task Force has narrowed the choices down to the church and a parcel of land known as the Flemer Farm Stand. This week’s meeting let proponents of historic preservation speak for renovating the church and proponents of building fresh speak for the Flemer Farm Stand.

The issue of cost was discussed at great length and at several times during the almost three-hour meeting. An engineering and cost analysis comparing the cost of building new town offices to the cost of rehabbing and upgrading the former Methodist Church in Waitsfield Village reveals that rehabbing the church would cost about $720,000 to $820,000 more than rebuilding new. Those cost estimates have the cost of building new to be $1,612,588, including purchasing the land for $100,000.

To renovate the church, the cost estimates come in at $2,435,224, including purchasing the building/land for $500,000.

The issue of how the costs were estimated was of much interest to some in the audience who had worked on historic preservation projects before. Waitsfield resident Sandy Lawton repeatedly questioned the $800,000 cost differential while task force architect Bill Maclay repeatedly explained that the task force asked for cost estimates that assumed both buildings would be built/rebuilt to the best possible energy efficiency standards.

Bob Burley and Bill Moore and several others also raised the question of whether or not state, historical or federal grants and monies could be had to offset the cost of rehabbing the church. Task force chair and meeting moderator Brian Shupe explained that there were fewer such funds available now than at other times in the past. Burley said he had done some research with the state’s historic preservation office and was encouraged to pursue the project.

“The church presents a lot of opportunities. It is closer to the downtown business district. I think the town would be a much better steward for this building and I think the church says a lot about who we are and what is our past. Sometimes you have to work harder to do something as exciting as this,” Burley said.

Bob Shaffer and several others present asked the task force if it were possible to do a best cost comparison by equalizing the fact that the church is 6,100 square feet and the new offices would be 4,800 square feet. He wanted to know if in fact it was cheaper to renovate the church than build new.

The per-square-foot cost of rehabbing is $200 while the per-square-foot cost of building new is $225, according to the task force. Maclay explained to Shaffer that, on paper, the argument that the church could be partially rehabbed and then shown to cost less could be made. But the reality, he said, is that the building could not be renovated piecemeal because structural elements (a new foundation and the condition of the tower) had to be done at once as did items like electrical wiring and plumbing.

Pete Reynells, who owns several units in the Main Street Condos, north of the church and south of the Flemer Farm Stand site, spoke out against the farm stand, raising concerns about people parking at the new town offices to access the Flemer Fields, which are adjacent to the farm stand parcel.

Mike Sharkey suggested that it would be easier to launch a fundraising drive to rehab the church than it would to get people to donate to a newly built town office, or, he said, “You could ask the Methodist Church of America for some money.”

“The Methodists haven’t done much for that church lately,” Shupe responded.

“Have you seen the movie, The Money Pit?” Charlie Kettles asked the crowd.

“That’s what that church is. I’d rather see town offices closer to the fire station or the Wait House. Or why doesn’t the town just condemn the church and take it by eminent domain?” He asked.

Leo Laferriere asked those present to consider what other things the town could do with the $800,000 it did not spend on rehabbing the church and task force member and select board member Charlie Hosford listed off a few projects including two culvert projects at $250,000 apiece, plus rebuilding Joslin Hill Road for $300,000 and a $250,000 upgrade to the town garage.

Former town clerk Sandy Gallup explained the potential tax implications of both sites, based on properties valued at $200,000, $300,000 and $400,000.

The tax impact of the farm stand project on homes valued at $200,000, $300,000 and $400,000 would be $74, $111 and $148 per year (respectively) for 20 years. The tax impact of the church renovation on properties valued at $200,000, $300,000 and $400,000 would be $106, $159 and $212, respectively, for 20 years.

Dick Kingsbury suggested that the town relocate its offices to the Wait House or purchase the building that formerly housed Northern Power in the Waitsfield Industrial Park.

Another woman present wanted to know how the church could possibly be worth $500,000 if it is going to take $200 per square foot to renovate. Task force members explained that that is the listed price and that the task force has not negotiated a price for the property, but they expect it could be purchased for $400,000 to $533,000.

Local realtor Neil Johnson asked why the town was not considering other currently available options such as the former Troll Shop at the intersection of Bragg Hill and Route 100, or the former Egan’s Restaurant at the intersection of Route 17 and Route 100 or space in the Valley Professional Center.

Shupe explained that the task force, with a great deal of public input, felt the town offices should be in the village.

Russ Bennett suggested that the church is the best option for the town, and that if it has more square footage than the town needs, it can be rented to offset costs. He also said he opposed developing the open green space where the farm stand sits if there is another option.

“To the point that we have expensive projects before us, we will always have expenses before us. We will always have a road or culvert that needs to be fixed. We can afford this. We’re not the poorest village in the nation,” he said.

“By renovating the church we can make it be a contributing, beautiful, well-maintained, architectural member of the community,” Bennett added.

Laura Caffry asked if it would be possible to renovate the church without losing the three apartments that are currently there. She suggested maintaining some residential aspect of the building would keep life in the village, keep children walking to school and help offset the costs as well.

Maclay said that was possible, but that it would be challenging and said renovating for housing would be more expensive than renovating for office space.

Ellen Strauss said that she felt the costs for renovation, based on her experiences as an architect renovating buildings in Warren and Granville, could be less than projected.

Maclay responded, comparing the church to the recently renovated Warren Town Hall. He said that there were significant differences between the town hall and this church. The town hall had been maintained in reasonable condition by the town of Warren over the past 100 years. “Not so the Methodist Church,” he said.

“If you walk into the Warren Town Hall today, it looks the same as it did before. The church would require big changes. The Warren Town Hall did not have to have a new foundation, which the church does. The Warren Town Hall was renovated when there was a different energy code than what we’d have to build to now,” Maclay explained.

Laferriere asked the task force for more concrete costs, noting that taxpayers need firm numbers to make up their minds, and Mike Kingsbury suggested that it was too ambitious a timeframe to try to bring something to voters by Town Meeting in March.

Kirsten Siebert spoke in favor of adaptive reuse of the church suggesting that it would be cheaper in the long run and that there would be state and federal support and that it would protect the only remaining piece of open agricultural land in the village.

“This building really speaks to who we are as a community in terms of our cultural heritage and historic adaptation protects a beautiful building,” Siebert said.

As the meeting wound down, people were picking up and filling out a straw poll survey about their preferences for which site. Those surveys can be picked up at the town offices and can also be downloaded and printed from the town’s website (www.watisfieldvt.us/townoffice). Surveys must be completed and returned by December 19.