BARRE — The City Council has taken a leap of faith that could one day change the face of Church Street.
In a move that may facilitate the sale of a building now owned by the Barre Granite Association, councilors agreed this week to take any steps legally necessary to waive decades-old deed restrictions that have been in force since the city parted with the property in 1945.
Among other things, those restrictions limit the possible uses of the property to three — religious, education and office.
The 140-year-old building is located between the local Congregational and Episcopal churches, got its start as a school, and served as the headquarters for the Barre Granite Association from 1950 until the local trade organization moved its offices to the Vermont Granite Museum two years ago.
The building has been on the market ever since and the deed restrictions were blamed for derailing a sale that was close to closing over the summer. The prospective buyer — former mayor Thomas Lauzon — confirmed in August the deed restrictions were a sticking point.
Representatives of the Barre Granite Association recently sought to iron out that wrinkle by asking the city to waive restrictions it considered “obsolete,” and a shorthanded council did what it could to oblige Tuesday night.
The council didn’t vote to waive the restrictions, but did instruct City Manager Steve Mackenzie to work with City Attorney Oliver Twombly and the lawyer for the Barre Granite Association to ensure they are extinguished in “a legal manner.”
If the lawyers conclude a provision of the city’s charter trumps applicable state law that could happen sooner than later. If not, it will require the posting and publication of the proposed change at least 30 days before the proposed quitclaim deed is executed.
Either way, councilors agreed to lift the restrictions after conferring briefly with Twombly during their weekly meeting.
Twombly told councilors he couldn’t speak with certainty about why an earlier council imposed the restrictions as a condition of the sale in 1945, but could offer a first-hand account of the thinking that went into a similar transaction involving the 11-year-old sale of the city’s former firehouse.
Located on South Main Street, the old firehouse abuts the row of Church Street churches that overlook City Hall Park and the Barre Granite Association’s building that is tucked between two of them.
Twombly said the conditions contained in the firehouse deed were voluminous.
“The council felt that the property around City Hall Park was something of importance to the council and viewed it as important to the city’s culture,” he said.
Twombly predicted the same thinking was likely responsible for the deed restrictions crafted when the city-owned schoolhouse was sold in 1945.
“The character of the area is probably what that council had in mind,” he said.
Asked if he saw any “negative impact” that might result from lifting the restrictions, Twombly said that was a judgment call – one that ultimately must be made by the council.
“It’s not a legal issue, it’s a policy decision,” he said.
Twombly did note the deed restrictions provide a level of protection that exceeds zoning regulations that didn’t exist in 1945.
“The building could be modified in a way that conformed with zoning that these (deed) conditions would not allow,” he said.
In addition to drastically limiting the number of uses that would otherwise be allowed under either existing zoning regulations or those that would be proposed, Twombly said the deed limits the front setback of the building in a way zoning wouldn’t and imposes restrictions on parking and signage that far exceed what zoning allows.
“There are some differences there, but years have gone by and it may not be of concern to this council,” he said.
It was, and it wasn’t.
Though Sue Higby and Rich Morey were unable to make the meeting, the five remaining council members voted to authorize Mackenzie to take the steps legally necessary to waive the deed restrictions.
That included Councilor Michael Boutin, who briefly lobbied for a 30-day waiting period even if the lawyers conclude one isn’t legally necessary.
Boutin said his preference would be to provide a window for the public to raise concerns about a change that was twice warned on the council agenda as: “approval of deed conditions re: sale of BGA property.”
In the end, Boutin abandoned his request and Councilor Brandon Batham said he was placing his faith in the Development Review Board and zoning regulations that are in the process of being rewritten.
“I am going to implore the DRB to use discretion if and when this issue comes before them,” Batham said.
“It’s a beautiful building, there’s a lot of history and I’d hate to see that squandered,” he added. “This is not a space that you want to tear down and put a Dunkin’ Donuts in.”
Though that is unlikely, permitted uses range from restaurants to retail, and bars and nightclubs could be conditionally approved by the review board.