BARTLETT — The Bartlett Historical Society cleared a major hurdle in its bid to put a museum in the former St. Joseph Church when the Bartlett Zoning Board of Adjustment voted unanimously Aug. 6 to approve its request for a variance.

The society learned June 3 that a museum is a permitted use only in the town's commercial district. In order for the property to be zoned commercial, the building would have to have access to Route 302, a state road. That led historical society officers to seek a variance to override that condition.

ZBA members Richard Plusch (chair), Peter Gagne, Anita Burroughs, Julia King and Peter Pelletier (an alternate filling in for historical society/board member Norman Head, who recused himself) spent 80 minutes going over a laundry list of requirements for the variance, then approved it 5-0 at the Bartlett Town Hall in Intervale before an audience of 14 citizens.

The official board ruling was: “The variance is granted on the condition that the Bartlett Historical Society purchases the St. Joseph Church property from the Bartlett School District. This variance will allow the former St. Joseph Church to be used as a museum.”

Following the ruling, Phil Franklin, president of the historical society, said, “We’re obviously thrilled with the decision. This was a big hurdle for us, now we’ve got a few steps that we still need to overcome. Those steps are now possible thanks to the ZBA.”

On Tuesday, Franklin shared by phone that there are essentially three steps left to take.  “First, we need to finalize the sale of the building with the school board.  ... I think we’re talking a few weeks on that rather than months.

“Secondly, we need to re-energize our fundraising effort,” Franklin said.

“Finally, we need to get the contractors into the building and remove any remaining asbestos, mold and lead paint. Then we want to try to get a new roof on, get the building weather-tight and make sure the structure is stable.”

Voters at the annual school meeting in March had voted to sell the former church to the historical society for $1, and the society is engaged in a $475,000 capital campaign, with more than $200,000 raised as of early June.

The society put some more money into its coffers after last week's giant yard sale at Josiah Bartlett Elementary School.

“We did very well,” Franklin said. “We had a lot of people attend and they were buying things."

St. Joseph's was built in 1890, making it the oldest Catholic church in the Mount Washington Valley.

“I’ve had a few people ask, 'Why are you trying to save this building?” said Franklin. “I think it’s important because of the history it holds for the town. It’s a fantastic little building. Our hope is that we can put it back into some semblance of what it once was.”

Prior to the ZBA hearing, the Bartlett School Board, the planning board and board of selectmen urged ZBA members to support the variance.

In their letter of support, selectmen noted that the property is within 400 feet of U.S. Route 302 and would have been considered as being in the commercial zone but for the lack of frontage on the road.

They also noted it would preserve a historic building in town. And finally: "The purpose of a variance is to provide an avenue on a case by case basis to allow uses that the originators of the Zoning Ordinance could not have possibly have taken into consideration. This is the perfect example of a valid variance. This does not set precedence nor change the Zoning Ordinance. The decision is specific to this situation.”

At the outset of the hearing, Plusch tipped his cap to Franklin, telling him, "Our attorney (Donahue Tucker & Ciandella PLLC of Exeter) said this is one of the best applications he has ever seen."

In order for the ZBA to grant a variance, all of the following conditions must be met: “a) The variance will not be contrary to the public interest; b) Owing to special conditions, a literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance will result in unnecessary hardship; c) The spirit of the ordinance is observed; d) Substantial justice is done, and e) The value of surrounding properties will not be diminished.”

King asked Franklin, “What would happen if we grant a variance and you don’t succeed?”

“We currently feel we have the funds to do the first phase of the renovation, which would be to get the hazardous materials out of the building and to get the roof weather-tight and the building structurally sound again," Franklin said.

"If it takes us another year or so to raise the capital to continue with the renovation, to put in all the mechanicals and do the finished work and finally open the doors, at least the building is not in danger of the roof falling down as is right now,” he said.

Franklin called it a "true grassroots project” and said donations have ranged from $5 to $20,000.

Nancy Kelemen, chair of the Bartlett School Board, said the townspeople want to see the building saved. Four years in a row, there was a warrant article to raze the building, but each time citizens balked at that idea.

Scott Grant, planning board chair and school board member, said it would cost $100,000 to demolish the building today. He supports the sale of the building to the historical society. “We’re in the education business, not the real estate business,” he said.

George Howard, who grew up in Bartlett and now lives in Jackson, wrote a letter of support for the variance.

“The village has deteriorated for a lot of reasons — economics, times change,” he said. “It has continued to decay with very little emphasis on how to sustain a village that will provide services to residents of the village require. Sure, they can go to North Conway, that ain’t easy," Howard said.

"I see a way to get (the revitalization) started, and it’s with this museum. It’s a new initiative, it says that something is new in our town, and we’re going to build it. Without it, there is nothing. This is a huge opportunity to get the village up and running again.”

King made the motion to grant the variance, and Burroughs seconded it. The board then voted to approve it.

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