Out-of-date town building forces Strafford listers’ office into lister’s home

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-19-2023 8:24 PM

STRAFFORD — Under orders from the fire marshal, the listers’ office has moved out of the town offices and into a private residence.

A circa-1883 building erected by 19th century statesman Justin Morrill has housed offices for the town clerk and other officials since the early 1970s. Conversations about updating the offices, which do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and provide cramped workspace for town officials, have dragged on for two decades. Previous proposals have fallen victim to pandemic delays and voter opposition.

But noncompliance with state fire code forced the town’s hand in April, when the state fire marshal took issue with the steps leading up to the listers’ office on the second floor of the building.

“So instead of spending a fair amount of money to get that fixed up while we try to do the larger construction project,” the listers’ office has moved into one of the listers’ homes, Selectboard member John Freitag said.

The town is renting space in Ross Gortner’s house for $275 a month on a temporary lease. So far, housing the office in Gortner’s home has “worked out really well,” Freitag said.

Gortner couldn’t be reached for comment by Thursday afternoon.

Public meetings of the listers will be held downstairs in the current town offices, at 227 Justin Morrill Highway, or at the Morrill Homestead historic site. The listers’ office hours are Monday from 9 a.m. to noon and Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m. They can also be reached by appointment.

In 2019, the Selectboard put together a $400,000 proposal to renovate the town offices, but the plan was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and never went before voters.

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By 2021, the Selectboard had formed a committee to look at town office options, and at the 2022 Town Meeting, voters rejected an article to allocate $300,000 for a feasibility study of moving the offices to the Tilles property, which is near Barrett Memorial Hall in South Strafford.

The owner of that property has since backed off the deal.

“The big thing with that vote was that voters would have given the town approval to potentially spend $300,000 without actually even having a conceptual plan or hard costs,” Freitag said. “There was no plan, no breakdown of costs, and I think that’s what the Selectboard is trying to rectify in hiring this firm and getting some hard costs.”

The town has since employed gbA Architecture & Planning, of Montpelier, to draw up conceptual plans for a renovation.

The early estimate for the work — which includes removing the exterior staircase leading to the listers’ office, reorganizing interior walls and creating an accessible restroom addition — is around $1 million.

Additional property for the offices would have to be acquired by the town to make the necessary renovations. A neighboring property owner has offered to give the land needed for the addition, but the transfer would sliver his property down to less than an acre, making it a nonconforming lot.

The possibility of a land swap with another property has been raised, Freitag said.

“The (Development Review Board) felt they couldn’t give a variance because they were pretty strict on the 1-acre rule for other people,” he said. “The Town Office Committee is still looking at various proposals, so stuff is still up in the air in trying to nail down some options for that land.

“It’s a pretty small sliver of land. But the thing is, these days, nothing’s really that easy.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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