On April 19, 2023

Town plan rule saves North Hartland Park

By Curt Peterson

Richard Thornburn, an experienced woodworker from Woodstock, recently approached the Hartland Select Board with a request to lease the long-vacant North Hartland School on Mill Street. He planned to use the facility for his custom cabinetry, renovation, remodeling and restoration business. 

In the wake of public reaction his plan was ultimately scuttled by land use rules in the Hartland Town Plan.

Local residents said the site, surrounded by residences and located on popular 3.48 acre Currier Recreational Park, with its tennis and basketball courts, baseball field and well-equipped playground, is unsuitable for a business operation. 

Speaking as a North Hartland resident, Stacey Bradley worried about Thornburn establishing boundaries to protect the children who frequent the park, and that efforts to protect his assets might diminish their ability to enjoy the park.

“The kids often use the slope from the building for sledding in winter,” she wrote in a listserv email.

Residents also felt two construction trailers, to be parked at the school when not located at worksites, might be an “attractive hazard.” 

Bradley warned the town might lose the school’s current tax-exempt status if it was leased as a rental income property. While the Select Board can exempt the building from municipal taxes, education taxes cannot be avoided.

Residents predicted Thornburn would be working on weekends and evenings, even though he said he would minimize any noise and keep to normal business hours most of the time.

She also cited the Town Plan designation of the park as “conserved land”, which precludes any commercial use. This was ultimately the key issue.

On Tuesday, April 10, Bradley posted a plea for North Hartland residents to let  Select Board members know their feelings about having a business operating on town-owned park land. It was that afternoon that Phil Hobbie, Select Board chair, announced negotiations with Thornburn had been terminated because of Town Plan protection.

Thornburn had been looking for a new location for his shop, as his current facility is for sale. His brother Chuck, a North Hartland resident, had suggested the empty school. 

“My first reaction was, ‘Good news for the town’,” Hobbie told the Mountain Times. “We have (an unused), heated building with no (Americans with Disabilities Act) access.” He saw Thornburn’s proposal as a way to use an idle asset and defray some expenses for taxpayers. The town keeps the vacant school maintained, heated and electrified.

Thornburn had offered to pay for renovations, including installing 200 AMP electrical service, driveway upgrading, installing a rear double French door for bringing materials inside, installing exhaust fans and a dust collection system, and surveillance cameras and alarms to protect his equipment and unfinished projects.

He would also assume plowing, mowing, providing insurance protection for the town, heat, electricity expenses. 

Asked about hazardous materials used in his work, Thornburn said he would only have a small amount of epoxy and oil paint on the premises.

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