WILLIMANTIC, Maine — A four-member volunteer committee has been doing extensive research on just how the town should proceed with improvements to the Willimantic Town Hall to comply with Maine construction codes.
Through a “misunderstanding,” town officials failed to obtain a construction permit from the State Fire Marshal’s Office before authorizing a major renovation project last year, which included moving the building onto a new foundation and adding a new roof.
When a couple of residents concerned about the project notified the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the office issued the town a stop-work order and inspected the property.
As a result of that inspection, the use of the town hall is limited. While selectmen can conduct normal business there, they cannot use the upstairs or basement, and because there is only one exit, no more than 30 people can be in the hall at one time.
Town officials said they were surprised there was a problem because they had been told by both the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the local planning board that no permit was needed before the work.
Rich McCarthy, senior plans examiner for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said Friday that a Willimantic official had called to inquire about a permit before the work. But at that time, McCarthy said he was told the building was not going to have a full basement, just a crawl space, which meant it would not have required a permit.
“If we had known there’d been a basement, we would have asked for a permit, so I think it was a little misunderstanding,” McCarthy said. “Yes, they did call ahead, they were told it did not need a permit, but then it sort of got out of the scope of what they had asked. That’s where a lot of the problems started.”
Rather than provide the town a list of everything that was wrong with the building, McCarthy said the town was advised it needed to go through the construction permit process.
Asked if it was abnormal for a small town to begin construction without a permit, McCarthy said “no.” While it’s not specific to Willimantic, McCarthy said, “[In] a lot of small towns, everybody has an idea and then they start doing things, and then it becomes something that it maybe shouldn’t become.”
To comply with the law, Selectman John Tatko said the town submitted a check on Aug. 27 for the construction permit. The board now holds any meetings that are expected to draw a crowd at the Monson Community Center. They also organized a volunteer committee to continue to address the issues. “We felt in the best interest of the town, the selectmen should not be involved with the project,” he said.
Although McCarthy said it was his understanding that the town has hired an engineer for the project, Tatko said that’s not the case. Residents had authorized the use of $78,018 from the town hall improvement account, a $3,000 Davis Family Foundation grant and donations for the improvement work, but no funds were appropriated for an engineer.
Tatko said the committee is doing its best to figure out the best use of the building. The committee will submit a recommendation to the board, and any further action on the building will be presented to residents at a town meeting.