Renovations at Starling Hall in North Fayette, including a new front entry and foundation, are shown Friday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

FAYETTE — Residents at the annual town meeting Thursday narrowly voted to spend up to $15,000 in town money to help pay for an engineering study of Starling Hall, which needs major renovations to make the building fully accessible to the public.

Starling Hall on Route 17 in North Fayette is considered the oldest building in Maine  to have been built as a Grange Hall.

As the group Friends of Starling Hall continues to raise money for ongoing, substantial repairs to the town-owned building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, some residents say they do not want town funds spent on a building they believe has limited potential for expanded public use.

By a nine-vote margin, a majority of the 147 voters at the town meeting agreed to spend the money from the town’s surplus account to match private funding for an architectural and engineering study that officials said will define what is needed to bring the historic building up to current building codes for a public building.

Michael Carlson, a selectman and member and treasurer of Friends of Starling Hall, a nonprofit fundraising group, said the study will help establish what needs to be done to return the building’s three levels to full public use. Currently, only the middle floor — where voting was just held in town elections and the statewide primary — meets the requirements that public spaces be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

The second-floor meeting room at Starling Hall in North Fayette, photographed Dec. 1, 2022. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Carlson said most of the $300,000 that has been put into renovations previously has been privately raised money. The work has included moving the building onto a new foundation, a new heating system, new electrical work, construction of a historically accurate front entrance and having a new septic system and well put in.

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Several years ago, Carlson said, residents at town meeting voted to borrow $100,000 for renovations to Starling Hall, with the understanding the Friends group would raise funds to pay back that bond. He said some of that bond is still outstanding but the Friends group has continued to meet its obligations to pay off the debt.

Carlson considers the money put into the building as an investment to protect a town asset that is used for public events now and could be used for more if access is built to the beautiful upper floor. He acknowledges there are strong feelings among residents on both sides of the issue — those who want to preserve and restore it, and others who see it as too costly for taxpayers to continue to fund.

The costs of making Starling Hall in North Fayette accessible by modern standards have included this ramp at the rear door. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He said officials recognize that, and will continue working to find alternative funding sources for restoration of the structure, built in 1879.

“I won’t deny this is an emotionally-charged issue, it’s unfortunate it’s come to that, but it is what it is,” Carlson said. “There is a group of passionate people who want to see this historic building restored and used, and another group that are just as strongly opposed to spending tax dollars to do that. (The town) agreed to accept the building from the Grange, however many years ago, because they saw the value of the building. We’re trying to fulfill that desire. The goal is to improve this asset and provide the value taxpayers deserve.”

Brent St. Clair, chairman of the Fayette Budget Committee, said he is against having taxpayers pay for the restoration of Starling Hall.

The second-floor meeting room at Starling Hall in North Fayette, photographed Dec. 1, 2022. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

He is skeptical that many members of the public will be interested in using the building even if the funds are spent to make the upper floor accessible to the public .

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“I’ve been strongly opposed to having people in town pay for a community center that is not going to be used by anyone other than a select few older people,” said St. Clair, who in 2022 led a successful petition drive to limit town spending on the building to $5,000 a year without residents’ approval. “The young people don’t seem to be interested in gathering, and doing stuff, in these places during the day. If there are people who want to do it, more power to them. Go get the funding, get grants, get that money and do it. But don’t ask people in town, who aren’t using the hall.”

Historically and currently, according to Town Manager Mark Robinson, the town has paid for the annual operating costs for the building, including heat and electricity and basic maintenance, while the Friends group raises funds for its renovation.

Renovations at Starling Hall in North Fayette, including a new front entry and foundation, are shown Friday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

It is used as the site for polling in elections, for meetings of town officials, rented out for private gatherings, and used for Friends of Starling Hall fundraising events such as yard sales and community dinners.

St. Clair said the building would need a costly elevator and sprinkler system. Carlson said access improvements to the upper floor are needed, but that could possibly be as simple as a chair lift. He said that is something the planned engineering report can help determine.

In 2022, residents rejected a request that the town help provide $500,000 to match a $500,000 federal grant for the building.

Robinson said there was extensive debate at the June 13 town meeting before residents approved spending the $15,000 to match private funds for the engineering study.

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Residents at the town meeting also approved:

• An ordinance regulating short-term housing rentals in town.

• Spending items that make up the town, school and county budgets, totaling $3.3 million.

• Changes and updates to the comprehensive plan and land use rules.

• Borrowing $1.5 million in a bond for road repairs.

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