BURNHAM — Burnham is a town divided.
Burnham Village and Burnham have always been separated by distance, but more recently they have been split by opinion.
The issue between the two communities, which are in the same municipal boundary but miles apart by car, is the fate of the former Burnham Village School building.
On the eastern side of town, many want to sell the building and keep the Town Office where it is — in their community.
On the western side, many residents want the Town Office moved to the vacant building — in their community.
To accommodate a town office, the former school building would need more than $100,000 in renovations. The current office needs more than $100,000 in repairs.
Some say moving the office to the school will double the size of their community center, others say it could double the cost of yearly operations and maintenance.
The issue has been going on for more than a year, played out in public hearings, a straw poll, petitions and an Election Day vote.
Next month, however, the issue might be settled once and for all.
Under legal advice from the Maine Municipal Association, the town will put the question to vote again on March 15, the night before Town Meeting. Voters will decide whether to move the Town Office or sell the Village School.
New school vs. old school
Selectman Stuart Huff walked through the vacant school building and pointed out two classrooms that would be converted into the Town Office. Sunlight poured into the former classrooms, but the air was cold and his voice echoed through the empty space.
Huff said that in the ongoing debate, “I have my opinion, but I keep it to myself.
“I’ve got to do what the people want,” he said. “I don’t have any say.”
The school was built as a two-room schoolhouse in the 1950s, Huff said. There was no lunchroom back then; kids ate sack lunches at their desks. The entire staff was two teachers — one of whom also was also school principal.
In 1967, a wing with more classrooms was added. Then, about a decade ago, the school underwent $300,000 worth of repairs and upgrades. In 2010, the town acquired the 5,000-square-foot building from the school district after the kindergarten through grade four program was consolidated elsewhere. A year later, the town tried to sell the building for a high bid of $50,000 — a move that was rejected by voters during a special town meeting in June 2011.
Then, the possibility of moving the Town Office arose.
According to a 48-page study by architecture students at University of Maine at Augusta, the school is a good fit for the Town Office and is twice the size of its current space.
“The unused school holds much potential for future development as a town hall. Not only does it provide ample space to increase town services, it also has the additional advantage of renting/leasing the extra space. Relocating also creates new possibilities to form an improved town center, enhance public gatherings, and encourage a stronger sense of community,” according to the study.
A separate study performed by contractor Edward Porter of Pittsfield found the building will need $113,000 in repairs and upgrades — including a new furnace, a vault for vital records and roof repairs.
The same study found that the town will have to spend $114,000 if the Town Office stays put.
Town Clerk Carolyn Hamel pointed to the back wall of the current Town Office on South Horseback Road. The wall is bowing in about 4 inches because of foundation problems.
“The building is beginning to show its age,” she said.
The ornate building, also a former school, was built in the early 1900s. During the past 30 years, the town added modern windows, a new roof, blown-in insulation and more.
The study from UMA found that the building is inadequate.
“The current town office of Burnham is too small to meet the needs of a growing municipality. The old schoolhouse, though significant for nostalgic reasons, lacks adequate space for storage of important documents and can no longer provide an effective workplace for town officials,” the study said.
East vs. West
On the west side of town, Burnham Village is a mix of open fields and light manufacturing businesses scattered among hardwood trees and the Sebasticook River. It is home to the post office, the fire department and a redemption center.
On the east side, Burnham is a mix of old-growth fir trees and summer camps along Unity Pond. It is home to the Town Office, an auxiliary fire station and the town’s lone gas station and store.
The communities used to be separate. More than a century ago, the western village was called Clinton Gore and the east side was Winnecook. Although the two were incorporated into Burnham by the 20th century, those old boundaries remain in the hearts and minds of present generations, some say.
“There’s two towns in one,” said Sammy Reynolds, 84, a lifelong resident of Burnham Village. “That’s half the problem.”
Reynolds wants the Town Office to move into the village school building. He said the practical advantages of a larger space should outweigh any inconveniences the east Burnham residents will experience if the office moves.
“I’ve got friends over there, but they’re not thinking,” Reynolds said.
Dion Rossignol, 37, manager of Patterson’s General Store, across the street from the Town Office, doesn’t agree.
“I do not want to move the Town Office to the other side of town because I think we’re being misled on how much money it’s going to cost,” she said. “It’s a much bigger building. It’s going to be a lot harder to heat and keep maintained.
Rossignol would rather see the school building sold, saving the town from the $113,000 expense and putting the property on the tax rolls.
“Somebody might use it for a business or something that might bring more money to Burnham. Who knows? There are endless possibilities of what can be done with it,” she said.
Rossignol is a lifelong resident of Burnham and the present site of the Town Office holds sentimental value for her.
“I grew up right across from the Town Hall and I don’t like changing,” she said.
Eric Conrad, communications director for the Maine Municipal Association, wouldn’t weigh in on the Burnham issue, but said nostalgia often plays a big role in Maine’s voter choices.
“They can be tricky decisions because people have an emotional attachment to them,” he said. “That might not be the wisest thing when you’re thinking about a long-term financial investment.”
Selectman George Robison doesn’t share Huff’s reticence to make his opinion known. Robison wants to move the Town Office.
“When you compare the amount of money needed to repair each facility, they’re basically the same number,” he said. “Why not get more (floor space) for the money?”
Whatever the outcome, Huff is certain of one thing.
“I’ll be glad when it’s done, one way or the other.”
Ben McCanna — 861-9239