Guest column: Moving Hadley’s senior center forward

  • The Hadley Senior Community Center at Hooker School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

On behalf of the Hadley Select Board
Published: 10/1/2018 8:07:06 AM

Hadley voters have repeatedly voted to move forward with building a new senior center and library in the town center. The plan was to have the senior center begin construction behind the current senior center (the old Hooker School). Once completed, the old building would be torn down to make way for the library in its place.

The library project has a $3.9 million supporting grant that requires certain milestones be met. It also restricts how the library plans can be changed, such as increasing or decreasing the size of the project or moving the site location. Violating any of the grant requirements could lead to a loss of the $3.9 million in funding. Taxpayers will fund the remaining portion of the library project and the entire senior center project.

In April, a joint site plan for the library and senior center was presented to the Planning Board in accordance with their site plan review process and issuance of a special permit requested. For this action to succeed, a supermajority vote of at least four members of the Planning Board is required. It was evident after the first meeting that the Planning Board felt the site plan did not meet the requirements outlined in our current bylaws for parking — 2 square feet of parking for every 1 square foot of building space — and other aspects.

Although the current bylaws regarding parking, green space and other requirements can at times be confusing or difficult to understand, the bylaws were approved by voters and are still on the books. The Planning Board has the responsibility to apply the zoning bylaw in a consistent manner, regardless of the applicant, and to approve or deny a project that does not comply with those bylaws.

To be clear, the Planning Board is made up of five elected officials, and neither the Select Board nor any other board or committee has the authority to coerce them to take a particular action.

The building committees went back to work with the project managers and architects to continue a redesign process that would meet the zoning bylaws. A variety of options were considered in order to make the project work, such as applying the Dover Amendment — a law that exempts educational facilities from bylaws such as the 2-1 parking requirement — in order to make the projects meet the zoning requirements using the confines of the site location. This effort was further complicated by the filing of a lawsuit against the town of Hadley by the American Legion; this lawsuit is in the process of being dismissed after the town and Legion members reached an agreement over the use of parking and other items of interest.

It was evident at the Aug. 21, 2018 meeting when a straw poll was taken that the project in its current state would fail to achieve the supermajority vote in order to proceed. If that vote had been taken, our only recourse would have been to pursue litigation against our own Planning Board — the town of Hadley suing ourselves. This litigation would not only be costly for the taxpayers but would have delayed the project possibly for years. The bond underwriters providing financing for these projects have made it clear they would be unwilling to lend any money for the projects while there is pending litigation. Meaning that if we went the litigation route, and this was tied up in court for years, we would almost certainly lose the $3.9 million in grant money for the library.

On Sept. 5, the Select Board made the difficult decision to order a reduction in the size of the senior center from over 12,000 square feet to 10,350 square feet or less. Each month that construction is delayed, the town is incurring thousands of dollars in escalating costs due to materials, labor and associated services. This decision was not taken lightly by the Select Board, but with the overall responsibility for town buildings, it was clear that this was the only path forward without risking litigation, years of delays, loss of the $3.9 million in grant funds, and the possibility that neither project would ever be built.

At their Sept. 18 meeting, a straw poll indicated that the Planning Board would support the resized project at least 4-1, possibly 5-0, as long as it meets the strict letter of the zoning bylaws. The library and senior center building committees are moving forward and working together to make changes to the site plan and present to the Planning Board by Nov. 20 at the absolute latest. In the meantime, lots of work is happening behind the scenes to ensure that once site plan approval is obtained, we are ready to break ground as soon as possible and get these projects moving forward.

Every single member of the Select Board strongly supports building both the library and the senior center project. As elected officials, it is our duty to make sure that the voters’ wishes are honored and that our actions are in the best interest of the town within the confines of our bylaws. Compromises are never easy, but they are required in order to move things forward. Now that we have a clear path toward a common and unifying goal, we encourage all stakeholders to put personal agendas aside and make the process as efficient and smooth as possible for the benefit of Hadley’s residents.

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