MONTVILLE, Maine — For the first time in memory, and maybe in history, the Montville annual town meeting scheduled for this Saturday will not take place in the Montville Town House. It won’t even take place in Montville.
Instead, townspeople will gather at 10 a.m. at the Walker School in the neighboring town of Liberty for what promises to be a well-attended and acrimonious affair.
The Board of Selectmen decided in late February to close both the Town House and the Union Harvest Grange Hall across the street after they invited an inspector from the state fire marshal’s office to see if the buildings met state fire code. That visit led to a list of violations in both of the 19th century town structures, which local officials are now trying to determine how to address.
A major concern is that the inspector set a 90-person occupancy limit on the Town House, which was built in 1827 and listed last April on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been used for public meetings and town business since it was built.
The annual town meetings in recent years have attract well over the number of people allowed, including 150 residents last year.
“That decision wasn’t made lightly. I feel very emotional and sad to move the town meeting for the first time,” Selectman Cathy Roberts said Tuesday. “But we’re protecting the town” from potential lawsuits.
After the annual town meeting, Montville residents historically have trooped across the street to the Grange Hall, which also is known as the Montville Community Hall, to have lunch. While Roberts said that she hopes the community will share a potluck meal at the elementary school after the meeting — “It always helps to have food,” she said — the closure of the Grange Hall is sitting heavily on many residents.
One of those is G.W. Martin, who has been at the forefront of efforts to resurrect the Union Harvest Grange organization over the last year.
The 1875-era Grange Hall is used by grange members and residents for meetings, dinners, baby showers, monthly contradances and more. While it may not have running water or indoor plumbing, it does have great importance in the community, Martin argued, and needs to remain viable.
“It’s essential. It’s traditional New England style, to have a common house that we all get to meet in, free of political pressure,” the Montville farmer and entrepreneur said last week. “It’s our house.”
He questioned the town’s decision to contact state authorities on both the Town House and Grange Hall.
“The rule of thumb is to not call the fire marshal,” Martin said. “These are our only buildings. We’ve always used them this way”
But the town could be liable if someone was injured in either building. Leslie Woods, a member of Montville’s Building Use Committee, wrote in an email to the BDN earlier this month that the town’s insurance through the Maine Municipal Association does not cover nonmunicipal groups, who must provide coverage themselves.
“Boy Scout troops may be covered by the national organization, but homeschoolers are not. The Christmas craft fair is not,” she wrote. “The list of groups using our buildings began growing and many had no insurance … Most towns are in the same predicament, but probably don’t know it. We held events for years, decades even, in complete, blissful ignorance. Because nothing bad happened.”
After the building committee began asking questions about how the buildings were used, Fire Chief John York asked the state inspector to review the Town House, the Grange Hall and the town office. The town office was the only structure that passed inspection for continued use.
Rich McCarthy of the state fire marshal’s office said that the inspector gave Montville reports about the the two buildings’ deficiencies. The Grange Hall, a two-story building, has no smoke detectors, alarms or sprinkler system. In order to be brought up to code, it needs attention in regards to means of egress, cooking equipment and the fiber board used as wall covering, among other things.
The report stated that the hall shouldn’t be occupied until the problems have been fixed, though it did not condemn or officially close the structure.
The Town House, where the annual town meeting is held, is less problematic, according to the report, with violations that include flammable wall coverings, a wood stove that doesn’t meet code and missing handrails from the exit stairs.
Roberts said that at the Tuesday night regular selectmen’s meeting, town officials planned to present information from an architect about how Montville could mitigate the inspector’s concerns, at least for the Town House.
“The Grange Hall is a different story,” she said. “That’s a town decision, whether or not we want to spend the money to fix the issues.”
On Wednesday, a town office official shared with the BDN Montville’s response to the two reports from the fire marshal’s office. The town is in the process of retaining an architect to address the code violations for both structures, with the officials anticipating it will take 10 months to correct the violations for the Town House and a year to correct the violations for the Grange Hall. No cost estimates were given.
The Grange Hall will not be occupied until the conditions are satisfied, officials wrote in their response.
According to the minutes from the selectmen’s meeting, officials discussed how to expand the capacity of the Town House. The architect thought that by “rearranging the seating and adding folding chairs the town could get the capacity up to 160 without too much expense,” the minutes stated. “We would need to add a door to the front of the building, which we could do in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The Montville annual town meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 30, at the Walker School at 33 West Main St. in Liberty. The registrar of voters will be available half an hour before the meeting to register new Montville voters. For information, call 342-5543 or 342-5544.