Bryce beach donation scrutinized

The “warehouse” aesthetic of a proposed 6,000-square foot structure to replace the aging pavilion at Georgia Beach drew some criticism at a planning commission hearing last week. (Courtesy Ruggiano Engineering)

A new 6,000-square foot structure awaits assembly at Georgia Beach, ready to replace the deteriorating pavilion less than a third of its size.

But before the $350,000 donation from local businessman Jim Bryce can become the new focal point of the town park, the planning commission must approve it. After the project drew some criticism from neighbors at an hour-long public hearing last Tuesday, the commission has yet to issue a decision.

The selectboard announced Bryce’s intent to donate the building in late January, five years after the Arrowhead Industrial Park owner bestowed to the town a $1 million fire station.

Preliminary site plans were displayed at Town Meeting Day, and board members hoped work could begin in the spring. As selectman Ric Nye noted, though, “permits take longer than construction.”

Site plan review at the town level is the first step; the new building will also require state shoreland, demolition and building permits, plus an Act 250 administrative amendment. The project already obtained a state wastewater permit, allowing for septic tank relocation.

At the hearing last week, several neighbors to the lakefront park took issue with the proposed structure’s aesthetics: The 60 by 100-foot steel enclosure sided in cedar is in keeping with the pre-fabricated buildings that populate Bryce’s industrial park.

At 17 feet, the new building will be two feet taller than the pavilion it’s meant to replace. Site plans show a 120-square foot open space bordered by a kitchen and snack bar, two bathrooms and four storage areas.

But a wall officials say is intended to keep out the biting westerly wind drew much of the scrutiny last week.

“I have a problem with going to an event and not being able to see the lake,” planning commissioner Suzanna Brown said to a smattering of applause.

Materials for Bryce’s 6,000-square foot structure were delivered to the park last week, despite the project still undergoing site review by the planning commission. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

“The building’s not even giving you a view of the best resource we have,” resident Fred Grimm added. He further contended the structure’s “warehouse design” doesn’t fit with shoreline zoning district regulations.

“The planning commission does not play the role of the aesthetics or design police for the town – that’s not our function,” chairman Peter Pembroke reminded the room. “Some of us might like ranches, and some might like Victorians; that’s neither here nor there.”

He wondered, though, whether a municipal structure for long-term collective enjoyment deserved more public input than offered by typical site review.

Nye, who helped secure the donation over several months, thought not.

“Mr. Bryce feels this is the appropriate building for the community,” he said. “This is the offer on the table.”

Town administrator Mike McCarthy said Bryce’s plans consider functionality, increased space and weatherproofing.

“He felt the beach was a viable opportunity for his generosity,” McCarthy said.

Grimm argued the fire station’s 2011 construction was a more collaborative process. He accused the selectboard of keeping residents – especially those neighboring the beach – in the dark.

John Schnupp, who lives across the street from the park, agreed.

“I see everything that happens,” he said, including last Monday morning’s delivery of the structure. “I’m here to tell you I’m not opposed to this new building; it’s very much needed … [but] we felt slighted to only learn about this two weeks before.”

Brown questioned whether a dialogue with townspeople ever occurred despite plans being displayed on Town Meeting. Selectboard chairman Chris Letourneau said he heard varying reactions to the building.

“We were offered this particular building free of charge,” Nye said, noting Bryce is cutting the check for all related costs – labor, materials, engineering – save for permitting, deconstruction of the old pavilion and wiring the new space. “This was a huge opportunity for the town to replace an aged facility with something that will last us a long time.”

After resident Heather Grimm cautioned officials the structure’s western wall will prevent parents from watching their children on the playground while inside the building, neighboring landowner Doug Bergstrom suggested swapping the playground with the current volleyball court and adding an access road to keep visitors from driving over the septic system.

Letourneau said beyond an extra $60,000 in the budget, the board hasn’t considered additional park renovations. He agreed Bergstrom’s idea warranted further research.

“We’re certainly not opposed to improving the facilities around the building – we thought we would get the building up first,” Nye said. “This donor is used to making things happen in a hurry.”

For planning commissioner Tara King, therein laid the problem.

“Couldn’t there be a conversation, not just, ‘I’m king and this is what I’m putting in?’ The community wants to see it work,” she said.

“I can assure you the town of Georgia doesn’t have $350,000 for a building,” Letourneau countered.

Later, others echoed Bergstrom’s concern the beach has evolved into a baseball park. The proposed building’s only open side faces the fields used predominately by Little League, recently outfitted with permanent fencing and larger, updated scoreboards.

The snack bar and serving window is another gift to Little League, residents said, worrying the kitchen and storage space would quickly be spoken for.

“I would like to see it opened up for everyone to use and not just limited to this sport that only lasts a short period of time,” Bergstrom said.

Heather Grimm said the gift is “phenomenal” but needs to benefit the whole town.

“Sometimes what is best for our pockets is not what’s best for our whole community,” she said.

The planning commission will continue deliberations on May 23 at 5:30 p.m., when it meets next in the Georgia municipal building.

News stories brought to you with support from: