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$2.8 Million Reconstruction Plans for Historic Ferrisburgh Grange Under Scrutiny

Local Matters


Published August 29, 2007 at 6:40 p.m.

Silas Tower, left. Jean Richardson, right.
  • Silas Tower, left. Jean Richardson, right.

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh Select Board is due to decide this Wednesday, August 29, whether to move ahead with reconstruction of the historic Grange Hall destroyed by an arsonist two-and-a-half years ago. The $2.8 million project appears to enjoy strong support from residents, but according to one local civic activist, that’s only because the opposition refuses to speak up.

Carl Cole, a local realtor, says “a large, silent group” opposes the plan to house town offices in the rebuilt Grange Hall. While stressing that he is not aiming to block reconstruction of the Italianate-style structure built in 1868 as a Congregational Church and deeded to the Ferrisburgh Grange in 1949, Cole argues that the town’s offices — now situated in a former one-room schoolhouse — should be located elsewhere. He says the offices could more efficiently and less expensively be relocated to a new building that could be constructed on available land adjoining the site.

The Grange project’s price per square foot is high, concedes Silas Towler, chairman of the Ferrisburgh Grange Building Committee. But historic reconstructions are always expensive because they involve exacting attention to detail and materials, he adds. The proposed 7700-square-foot building also has great intangible value to the town’s historic identity and its contemporary sense of community, Towler says.

The rebuilt and expanded hall would include space for a community center that would also be used for meetings of the Ferrisburgh Grange, which remains a forum for local farmers. Those functions, along with the building’s presence at the heart of the village, are “critical” to making Ferrisburgh more than a 40-mph speed zone along Route 7, says Grange fundraising coordinator Jean Richardson.

The money for the project is all in hand, Richardson notes. Three-quarters of the amount — $2.1 million — comes from a settlement with Ferrisburgh’s insurer, an arm of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. The town itself would provide $110,000, which is the remainder of a $350,000 bond approved by voters in 2004 for purchase of the property. The balance takes the form of federal and state grants as well as private donations, including small sums from about 500 of the town’s 2700 residents.

If the reconstruction does not win final approval prior to August 31, the project’s manager, Middlebury-based Bread Loaf Corp., will have to renegotiate bids with all its subcontractors. That would delay the rebuilding — scheduled for completion a year from now — and jack up its cost, Towler says.

Cole disagrees.

“Given the climate today in commercial construction, I doubt rebidding would affect the price much, if at all,” he says. “I just don’t see it as a prudent approach to break ground next month.”

Discussions about relocating the town’s offices to the Grange Hall have been underway for several years, Towler points out. And following the 2005 fire, the five-member Select Board unanimously resolved to reconstruct the building, he notes. Towler also disputes Cole’s claim that the allotted office space in the hall could prove inadequate 25 years hence. The building can easily accommodate additions, Towler says.

Cole said last week he would drop his objections to the project if the supposedly silent group of opponents failed to speak up at an information meeting the evening of August 28. Select Board Chair Loretta Lawrence declined to comment on the Grange issue prior to the final vote on August 29.

The Grange was burned to the ground in the early morning hours of February 15, 2005, by local businessman James Husk. He was subsequently ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial for the arson attack.

Some important architectural elements were salvaged from the building and would be incorporated in the reconstruction, Towler notes. Among them are windows, pieces of metal and an unsinged bracket that Towler, a carpenter, proudly displayed at the site last week.