Church must replace vinyl siding in historic district

Parishioners say decision will add thousands to $400,000 renovation

March 27, 2008

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

It wasn't good news Tuesday night for the parishioners of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church. The Williston Development Review Board told the church it must replace the vinyl siding on the rectory when planned renovations begin.

"It's disappointing," said Larry Assell, parish spokesman. "It's hard to believe the flexibility just isn't there. We didn't think we'd run into so much push back."

The board approved the overall application for the rectory's renovation, but would not allow the old, existing vinyl siding to be replaced with a newer vinyl.

The design review guide for the Williston Village Historic District states buildings should adhere to the historic nature of the original structure and fit with the architectural character of other buildings in the district. For exterior walls, the guide says, "Materials should be brick or narrow wood clapboard."

"We don't write the rules," said Kevin McDermott, chairman of the DRB, during the meeting. "We're here to enforce them, unfortunately."

Assell, who works on the parish's finance committee, estimated the total cost of the renovation at around $400,000 if the board approved the vinyl. He estimated the cost of using new clapboard to be close to $30,000.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Church rectory is an Italianate-style farmhouse built in the 1870s. The building is listed on Vermont's historic registry.

Town Planner Lee Nellis said the DRB's motion on the siding may not force the church to use clapboard. Based on the conditions of approval, the church must remove a vinyl section of wall on each side of the house while a town staff member is present. If clapboard is present beneath the vinyl, the church must then replace or repair the wood siding; if the clapboard is not present, the church can use a cement-based fiberboard to replace the vinyl.

Assell said if clapboard exists underneath the old siding, the $30,000 cost of new clapboard might prohibit a continuation of the exterior renovations.

Yet McDermott argued the clapboard cost was less than 8 percent of the church's total renovation budget.

"In my humble opinion, 7.23 percent isn't a large proportion," he said.

About 20 people attended the meeting, and several parishioners who spoke disagreed with McDermott's assessment of the additional cost. Williston resident Kerry Enright explained churchgoers' wallets are already tight when it comes to money.

"We've all made financial sacrifices here," Enright said.

Caroline Harris, also a Williston resident, explained the upkeep of clapboard would require time and money and wondered if the town would rather see peeling paint than vinyl.

"I take offense that you don't like vinyl siding," she told the board.

Scott O'Neil, a parishioner from Richmond, said that since many of the churchgoers to the Immaculate Heart of Mary are older, they would have to pay an outside contractor to keep the wood siding freshly painted, never mind insurance costs if parishioners took up the job.

Parishioner George Gerecke said the rectory had vinyl siding since as long as he could remember. Assell added the church did not have records going back to when the original vinyl was installed, but he believes it happened more than 40 years ago.

"There has been a bias against vinyl by the town and I'm not sure why it exists," Gerecke said. "My argument is whether or not vinyl or wood even matters to the image for the buildings for the people coming into the village."

But McDermott said the board has not made exceptions in the past to other churches in the village that have wanted to include designs not in keeping with the historic code.

"I by no means want people to think they're being singled out like this is some sort of anti-Roman Catholic Church thing," he said. "It puts us in a tough spot."

Assell said the church wants to find a middle ground with the town so it can begin the planned renovations in May. Besides adding new siding, the church plans to turn the rectory's upstairs into a three-bedroom apartment for Rev. Donald Ravey, while turning the downstairs into a meeting place for parishioners.

The church now plans to weigh its options. Assell believes cement fiberboard might be something the church could work with, but it all depends on what lies underneath the old vinyl.

"This has been a much larger issue than we ever anticipated it would be," Assell said. "We'd like to see flexibility in our local government. It's OK to say things can change a little."