What do you want to be?

Now that we know what you are, we only need to settle on price, an old joke’s punch line. You might say that Durham is that old joke but I never would.

Durham is in the final construction phase of their new Town Offices and should move in soon. I admit to being a normal taxpayer, rarely reading to the umpteenth page where many bury the headline. I would have sworn that Durham cut a deal to buy the old bank building across the street and sell the current Town Office for what was approximately a wash economically to the Town. To my great surprise, we needed to gut the old bank building, expand it considerably and then redo what seems to be everything except the external brick; 2.9 times the purchase price. I now surmise we will need to repave the parking lot. The rumor on the street is our new Town Office is referred to as Todd’s Mahal.

Over the last few weeks we have also been informed that, not only, has the current Town Office not been sold but that the anticipated price is in flux. The potential buyer wants to destroy the building and redevelop the site for a drug store. According to the Town website:

“Actual purchase and sale price is $1,300,000 contingent upon the approvals for a pharmacy at the 15 Newmarket Road location. If the approvals are not granted, the sale price will be less and the remaining revenue needed will likely be in the form of another municipal bond.”
“On Thursday evening, July 10, 2014, Scott Mitchell, the prospective purchaser of the old Town Office site, will be appearing before the Historic District Commission (HDC) to begin the process of discussing the redevelopment of the 15 Newmarket Road property as a pharmacy use.
Mr. Mitchell will ultimately need the approval of the HDC for both the demolition of the old Town Office site and the approval for the design of any redevelopment there.
Mitchell will also need relief from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to allow a pharmacy drive through (the Durham Zoning Ordinance only allows financial institutions to be permitted by right to have a drive through use) and possible other items. These days, pharmacies insist on the inclusion of a drive through.
Finally, Mitchell will need approval from the Planning Board for the overall plan.”

Durham has a long-standing Ordinance that prohibits drive-thru windows for any business other than banks. That ordinance made sense to the residents when enacted and given the current euphoria over Durham transitioning to a ‘walking community’, it may even make more sense now.

Why wasn’t the purchase and sale agreement (specifically the price) resolved before finalizing the bank building purchase? Why did the prospective buyer delay filing for permits until the reconstruction of the bank building was almost complete? Is it really as simple as offering $200,000 for the Zoning Board of Adjustment to acquiesce and grant a variance?

If the going rate for a variance is $200,000, then I bet we could have done better on the base price negotiating with McDonald’s or Burger King. I’ve driven past the Freeport, Maine McDonald’s on numerous occasions and can attest to their willingness to satisfy local zoning architectural style guides. If we had one of those charettes the Town is so fond of, I bet residents would have clearly favored a McDonald’s over a drug store, more so if we had conducted a professional public opinion poll.

We now find ourselves out-of-pocket $2,906,160 and our principles are on trial. Where was the Town Council while this was going on? Ignoring everything else, does the Town Council really think the taxpayers want a $2,906,160 Town Office complex?

I am also intrigued with the lack of commentary surrounding the annual operating costs of the ‘old’ versus the ‘new’ Town Office. Was that ever factored into the discussion? I get the impression that the Town likes to talk about 1st cost but never wants to discuss life cycle costs and the implications those bring to a present value analysis of any project and the lifetime burden placed on taxpayers.

It should also be pointed out that various other budgeted Town projects have been cancelled, including road work, to accommodate the new Town Office. These projects may or may not get into the next year’s budget. It does become problematic when budgeted projects get deferred or cancelled in favor of pet projects. It makes you question the whole budget process and whether or not the projects are truly necessary or if the Town is simply securing the funds they knew could be raised via property taxes; essentially making budgeted projects no more than placeholders for seconded funds.

Terrible way to run a railroad.

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