Oona's renovations: Two years is too long

Brattleboro Reformer, Vermont/December 5, 2008

Rockingham - The Basin Farm is in violation of the town's zoning bylaw and stands to be fined $100 a day for its failure to renovate the former Oona's restaurant in downtown Bellows Falls.

The Rockingham Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday rejected the religious group's appeal of an Oct. 3 violation that the town issued because the group has failed to refurbish the fire ravaged building within two years, as required in the town's zoning code.

Rockingham Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo said the building owners, who are members of the Twelve Tribes religious group, have waited long enough and she hoped the zoning board's ruling, and possible subsequent fine, would motivate them to clean up the property.

"It has been two years. We have been patient enough," DiBernardo said after the zoning board posted its decision. "It is unacceptable."

Oona's Restaurant was considered a cornerstone of the renaissance of downtown Bellows Falls and the building is an important part of the village's historic district.

A fire on Sept. 30, 2006, destroyed the restaurant, as well as two other businesses in the block and the building has not been occupied since.

The Powell family owned the property at the time of the fire and was issued a permit on May 31, 2007 to demolish the structure.

Ownership of the building was transferred to Brett and Maura Sutton, two members of the Basin Farm, on Aug. 2, 2007.

The zoning bylaw that requires owners to restore their property within two years of a fire was discussed as early as November 2007, according to official town notes, and members of the Basin Farm have come before the Rockingham Selectboard at least twice to explain why they have not been able to begin work on the building.

DiBernardo said the dilapidated structure reflects poorly on the whole town and she said the town should do everything in its power to encourage the owners to fix the space or sell it to someone who will.

"We have spent so much time and so much money renovating downtown. We had hopes this group would get a business in there and nothing has happened," said DiBernardo. "If they can't do it then they should sell it to someone who can."

The building's owners have 30 days to appeal the zoning board's ruling.

If they do not appeal, the town would have to ask the Vermont Environmental Court to hear the case before levying the $100 fine.

Municipal Manager Jim Mullen and Zoning Administrator Ellen Howard said they would have to wait the 30 days before deciding how to proceed.

Brett Sutton said the Basin Farm group has wanted to fix up the building and open a restaurant.

He would not say whether the group would appeal the zoning decision and reiterated that they would do what they can to protect the structure from the elements.

"We want to be at peace with our neighbors," Sutton said. "I know the zoning office is trying to encourage us to take action and our people are discussing the matter."

When the code violation was issued, the Basin Farm had seven days to submit a new plan with a reasonable time frame for completion of the renovations.

The group failed to file the plan with the town.

In the board's ruling that was issued Wednesday, the zoning administrators said that while everyone involved wants to protect the building, it was necessary to move forward on the code violation to jump-start the process.

"It appears the goal of the town is the same as that of the appellants, to restore the building," the ruling said. "However, the town zoning bylaw places limits on the time allowed for action so that properties do not remain derelict or nuisance properties. Despite approvals for renovation having bee issued, the building remains a shell, open to the weather."

Lamont Barnett, the owner of a village business and the president of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, said regardless of a board's ruling or a group's ability to appeal, it was important for everyone to get together to save the historic property.

"Bellows Falls can not afford to lose any more buildings," Barnett said. "That building is a landmark and it is critical to the historic fabric of downtown. I think everyone needs to come together and determine if there is a plan in place to get it fixed. It has gone on for long enough. There should have been a roof put on. Two years is too long."

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