WEST NEWBURY — A clear majority of the 174 voters who turned out for a Special Town Meeting favored a $1.85 million restoration project for a cherished landmark in town, but the funding request was approved by just one vote — cast by the moderator.
Because the project to restore the 119-year-old Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall — also known as the Carr Post — will rely in large part on borrowing money, the proposal on the Town Meeting floor Monday night required approval from two-thirds of voters.
Once Town Moderator Kathleen “KC” Swallow determined the vote was too close to call by a show of hands, she asked for a hand count. Proponents and opponents of the project took turns raising their hands and after several tense moments, the counters relayed the totals to Swallow.
She announced the final tally as 115-57, noting it was a tie in terms of a two-thirds vote. Swallow then said, “Moderator votes ‘yes’. The motion passes.”
Richard Baker and other voters who opposed the motion began challenging the vote, loudly demanding a recount. But after a brief consultation with town counsel Michael McCarron, Swallow responded that there was no mechanism for a recount under Town Meeting rules.
“Your only recourse is to sue,” she repeatedly stated to the shouts coming from a few disgruntled voters gathered in the Town Annex.
Bob Janes of the Carr Post Committee said on Wednesday that the panel will likely meet next week to discuss the next steps for the project now that voters have authorized the funding.
The classic Gothic revival brick edifice at 363 Main St. was constructed as a Civil War memorial in 1900. The hall, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places since 2016, served as a local library for 12 years and for many years as a meeting space for military veterans and community organizations.
Voters have invested about $99,000 in Community Preservation Act funding to stabilize the aging structure, and on Monday night they approved spending an additional $1.5 million in CPA money to preserve the iconic structure.
The motion called for tapping $250,000 in historic and undesignated CPC funds to cover costs for schematic design plans, construction documents and bid specifications.
The town will borrow the additional $1.25 million to complete the project. Calculated using an estimated 2.5% interest rate, the annual note on the bond would be approximately $80,000 — funded with current and future CPC money. The total project cost with interest is an estimated $1.85 million over 20 years.
Several voters who rose to speak against the motion questioned the timing of the request as well as the price tag and lack of a definitive use for the building.
Tom Salvo said it wasn’t fiscally responsible to spend $1.8 million on something that isn’t addressing a pressing need in town. He believes the Civil War veterans for whom the structure was originally erected would have preferred using the money for something more practical to benefit the town, such as an elevator at the library to increase access to its second floor.
Rich Baker suggested creating affordable housing for veterans, which he said was urgently needed statewide.
“It’s a much more rational choice than what we are seeing here today,” Baker said.
John McNamara wanted to know why the issue was being rushed. The McNamara family has strong ties to both the town and the military — in 1857, his grandfather was born in the house next door to where the Soldiers and Sailors building is now located, and his siblings fought in Normandy and other arenas during World War II.
He served in the U.S. Army in Berlin from 1962 to 1965 and as a reserve officer until 1973. Still, McNamara urged a “no” vote on the motion. He liked Baker’s suggestion and called for bringing a project with that focus back to Town Meeting next spring.
But in the end, most voters seemed to agree with the sentiments of Sandy Berkenbush, who offered a brief history of the decades spent trying to preserve the building for future generations — an effort spearheaded in part by her father, the late Richard “Dick” Berkenbush.
“Our veterans deserve all the money and respect that we can give them,” she said, “It’s time for this town to step up and make (the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall) the pride it should be.”
Tom Flaherty called the renovation “long overdue.”
“This is not about money — it’s about our community,” he said.
According to Janes, who also serves as chairman of the Historical Commission, as many as seven soldiers from West Newbury died in the Civil War and several died afterward of injuries suffered during the war.
Among these soldiers was Isaac Boyd, who fought in every major battle of the war only to die in a smaller skirmish just two days before the war ended.
The building was originally named the Isaac Boyd Post 151 in recognition of his bravery and service. Another soldier, Gorham Coffin, was killed during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Janes recalled. In total, about 250 Civil War veterans are buried in cemeteries in town, he noted.