WILLIAMSTOWN -- At the first Special Fire District Meeting in perhaps 50 years, voters rejected a motion to purchase and prepare a 3.7-acre property on Main Street for the purpose of building a new fire station.
Community members voiced their concerns in light of other capital projects on the horizon, including a new police station, a new high school, affordable housing projects and possible renovations at the Milne Public Library.
The single motion at the Oct. 15 meeting required a two-thirds majority vote to pass. It proposed a $575,000 loan to acquire the site and $400,000 from the District treasury to demolish the existing structures and prepare the site for construction. The result was 151 in favor and 94 opposed, 13 votes short of approval.
The District has been pursuing a new station since 2006, when it acquired a new fire engine and realized that the current facility could not support continued growth. The District also hopes to acquire a tanker truck for use in areas of town not served by hydrants.
A 2008 study by the Maguire Group of Foxborough, Mass. detailed the Fire Department's current needs and identified the Lehovec property on Main Street as the best site for a new station. District representatives have emphasized the need for a central location that can accommodate for future growth.
"I don't think it was an issue of whether we did or didn't need a new station," Edward McGowan, former district chief and a member of the Prudential Committee, said Friday.
Prudential Committee Chairman John Notsley acknowledged at the meeting that for some, the District's proposal may have come as a surprise.
"Due to the fact that the Fire Department has done such an outstanding job since its inception, we have flown under the radar for many residents of the town of Williamstown," he said. He provided a brief history of the Fire District, which was established in 1912 and operates as its own governmental entity.
Notsley also serves on the Public Safety Building Study Committee (PSBSC), which is exploring options for a new police station and possibly a joint police-fire or police-fire-ambulance facility. Notsley has stated that the Lehovec site would probably not have room for a joint facility, but also that it was too soon to know for sure.
The PSBSC recently issued requests for proposals for a consultant to conduct a space needs assessment for the Police Department and to evaluate several sites in terms of their suitability for a police station or a joint facility. The proposals are due by Nov. 12.
On Oct. 8, the Finance Committee discussed the work of the PSBSC and met with members of the Mount Greylock Building Subcommittee to discuss the school's entry into a state- and community-funded building project. The meeting gave way to a heated debate between Finance Committee and PSBSC member Daniel Gendron and members of the Fire Department over whether a new station should be pursued without knowing how it will affect the other projects.
At the Oct. 15 meeting, Notsley defended the Fire District from assertions that it had strayed from the public interest in its pursuit of a fire station.
"I feel that the district has been in excellent hands all these years as indicated by our inspection and review [by Insurance Services Office] and we have hired experts in their field, when necessary, to guide us," he said. "I am offended when we have been criticized by a few who attempt to dictate how we operate the Department."
Gendron and other members of town boards spoke at the meeting in support of continuing to pursue a joint facility. Ann McCallum, a member of the PSBSC and chair of the Planning Board, argued that a combined facility would benefit both the police and fire departments.
"Both of them want to have largish meeting rooms for training sessions and that means large parking lots for all the people who are going to come to these training sessions," she said. "Those are two areas where we could share facilities and there are others that we will find out."
She suggested that the District's desire for a drive-through station, as laid out in Maguire's conceptual site plans, could mean the difference between whether the site could support a joint facility or not. (The drive-through design would lower the risk of injury within the station, where injuries are most likely to occur.)
"If this luxury is not absolutely necessary - of coming in from the back - I can see how there would be ample room to add a police station to the back," she said.
Gendron cautioned that without carefully managing the town's multiple projects - which he estimated would total at least $30 million dollars - increased taxes could alter the demographics of the town. He noted that higher apartment rental rates and taxes for homeowners could force people to seek housing elsewhere.
"It's clear to me that compromise must and will happen concerning the four major projects that we face as a town," he said. He suggested that the District could cooperate with other towns for training, which would eliminate the need for an onsite training facility.
McGowan and other District officials have indicated a willingness to consider a joint facility, but have questioned how easily a centrally located site could be found.
"We're having enough trouble finding a lot to build a police station on," McGowan said. "We had plenty of trouble finding the right place to build a fire station. And we continue to talk about a public safety building, which I certainly would look at, but somebody's got to tell us: If you can't find a lot for one building, how are you going to find a lot for two in the center of town?"
District officials had expressed a sense of urgency in acquiring the Lehovec property. District Council Mark Rich of Kopelman and Paige, who responded to public comments at the Oct. 15 meeting, said the Lehovec estate had indicated that other buyers are interested in the property.
"The idea of putting the brakes on this project to slow it down in order to look at other projects would in fact result in the loss of this property for this use," he said. "There is no question this property would be gone."
But Town Assessor William Barkin doubted whether other developers would find the site attractive, since it lies within the 500-year floodplain. A developer would need to demolish the four existing houses and elevate the site, he said. "And that's why in our office we have always looked at that property as being totally, functionally obsolescent, as it stands now."
He believed the most probable use of the property would be for noncommercial purposes such as a fire station or a joint public safety facility.
Finance Committee and PSBSC member Andrew Hogeland said that once the space needs assessment and site evaluation are complete (perhaps in December or January) the PSBSC will begin looking at options for purchasing or leasing property and possibly for negotiating how the two governments would share space.
But that all depends on the availability of land.
"I think people need to realize that there is a limited number of properties for sale around town that might be suitable for police and/or fire purposes," Hogeland said. "So if Lehovec is available, that gives us an option to examine. If Lehovec is not available, we have one [less property] to choose from."