On the Question of a new Fire Station for Williamstown on the Lehovec property
It is unfortunate to be facing another test for the community and one in which differing needs and priorities have been made to appear to be in competition when each is just as vital to the well-being of this community as the other.
The knowns are that the community requires a new high school, a new fire station, a new police station, a larger ambulance building and of course additional affordable housing.
The dedicated and hard-working members and volunteers of our fire department normally go about their dangerous and volunteer services with little fanfare or notice. We take them for granted without our personal concern unless or until we suffer one of the calamities they get involved with - from car crashes to drownings, searches for lost people, underground storage-tank removal oversight, hazardous material spills, and of course, fires. Their task is the preservation of human life and property.
Williamstown faces pressing financial concerns as do communities across the nation but we must not allow the fear of how to meet these pressing needs create competition among those priorities. Who is to say which is more vital? Is saving a human life from a fire or car crash more or less crucial to the community than improving the building in which our children and grandchildren are educated? There is no way to put one above the others and attempting to do so leads to negative and divisive thinking.
The WFD has worked responsibly for a number of years to find a solution to the growing needs of the department the same as have the committees tasked with building a new high school, affordable housing and police station. The FD is well aware of the demands on it to meet not just the town's needs but also increasing regulations. The FD has thoughtfully determined that the Lehovec property is the most suitable from a needs, safety and proximity perspective. Utilizing smaller sites as have been suggested makes little sense when you consider the fact that the present structure has served for over 60 years. The next such facility should be planned for at least that same time frame. There are no other suitable locations currently or potentially available that are as underutilized as the Lehovec property is.
When families grow they look for a larger home. When our computer gets outdated and undersized for the newer programs and features, we purchase a new one as soon as we can. When the college faced its inadequate athletic facilities at Weston Field and when the Clark decided on its mammoth expansion they both set about raising the funds to build new expanded state of the art facilities to meet the coming century.
One argument in opposition to purchasing the Lehovec property is that it takes property off the tax rolls. The present assessed value of the Lehovec property with its six or seven structures is just $251,000 yielding real estate tax to the town of $3,770. The present FD Water Street location could be placed back on the tax rolls if it were converted to private ownership for retail or other purposes. It also might make an outstanding new home for the Village Ambulance service.
The fact that the adjacent property, the former Agway, has been on the market with no buyers for over three years, proves there is not the high demand for large commercial properties in town that justifies waiting for such a buyer. We cannot assume the Lehovec property would face significant demand for other uses and therefore it would not be a prospective high contributor to the tax base.
Some have suggested that it would be a pity to lose the current residential structures on the Lehovec property. Given their present state of relative disrepair it is unlikely there would be an economically viable means of bringing them back into quality housing.
There is the argument offered that the request should be turned down because PD and FD should be housed in a combined facility. Has anyone seen a similar facility? Some cases exist, however, it is uncommon because the two are such different services. Should the new high school be affixed to one of the college’s buildings? There would be some slight savings but who would ever suggest such an approach? The only reason given to build the two as one is for some theoretical savings but since that would be limited pretty much to a break room and bathrooms any savings would be insignificant and hardly justifies delaying or voting against the Lehovec property purchase at this time. If there was a possibility of combining the two uses that can always be researched at a later date, after securing the property.
Another argument for dampening the FD's enthusiasm and squelching their plans is that the town faces too many demands on its finances already and the Finance Committee cannot foresee how the town can pay for all of them. If the needs are there and the commitments made, is it not possible the means will be found? Williams College is by far the largest and most "able" remaining major employer and "industry" in town. Williams has a vital self-interest in seeing the town is properly protected, its students safe and buildings receive immediate fire and other emergency protection when the inevitable comes once more.
Williams is a generous and magnanimous benefactor to the community and its financial support of crucial needs is evident throughout the town from the new elementary school, the Village Ambulance building to the planned affordable housing project for Southworth St. among many others.
Realizing that at this time, with virtually all other industry having departed and the business community so small and struggling, Williams is the most capable entity, along with the likes of the Clark and the area banks, that are in a position to help the community meet it’s critical needs for suitable police, fire, ambulance, housing and schools.
Considering that Williams College successfully raised the funds to rebuild one single athletic facility at a cost of $22 million dollars, how can we not see the more modest assistance that likely will be provided by Williams College and its generous body of students, faculty, alumni and trustees stepping in as may be necessary for the town to move boldly and responsibly into the coming decades.
The Clark Art Institute is under way in a massive $144 million expansion, renovation and program enhancement investment. There are frequent calls for the FD to go there. I have faith that the Clark Trustees would easily recognize the need to add their support to the town's urgent priorities without singling one out over the others.
The Fire Department has negotiated long and hard with the Lehovec family to reach a price on the purchase. If the town votes no on the purchase proposal, the property will be sold anyway and removed from the list of available properties (or perhaps made available at a higher price in the future) and as they have convincingly proven, no other property affords the size or suitability that this site does. Therefore if the vote is no, then the town will lose this option altogether as the estate loses confidence in a sale and turns to other buyers in the meantime.
Is it appropriate to hold up one project simply because the others are on a slower or uncertain time track? Is it also appropriate to prevent the FD from securing the one site they have identified as the only suitable site for the new station when the high school already owns its land and there are suitable sites already owned by the town for a new police station and ambulance service? Acquiring the Lehovec property would put the FD on the same footing as these other future projects in terms of having control over their future site. The FD will still have to secure town approval for the funding needed to construct the future station, just as will the school district for a new high school and town for a new police station and additional affordable housing units.
The Fire Department has proven the current facility is substantially inadequate for the needs of the department and their ability to meet the ever increasing needs for the services they provide. For example, the building will not fit a desperately needed tanker truck. Do the residents realize that for anyone living outside of the reach of fire hydrants the water carried on the existing trucks can be used up in a little over a minute if used at full capacity? What of the handsome million-dollar homes in the outlying areas of town? Without the additional water from a tanker truck those could burn down completely and the firemen would be helpless to stop the fire. With a tanker truck, those fires could be stopped and the property saved but for minimal damage. The new station will be large enough to house a tanker truck. The existing building is not.
None of us can foretell what the future holds but securing the Lehovec site for the FD makes sound sense even if the new facility may take several more years to come into being. The decision before the community at the special meeting involves only the purchase and preparation of the land. Funding for the future station will have to be voted on at a future meeting and therefore those questions and concerns will yet have to be resolved. For now, allowing the FD to acquire the property to secure a suitable location is the prudent step for the community to support.
In the meantime, what is also urgently needed is for the selectmen to appoint a town committee given the same stature and authority as those already formed to face housing and other municipal needs to engage in the challenge of rebuilding the local economy. A stronger local economy and business base will strengthen property values reversing the current downward slide, boost local businesses, serve as a better recruiting tool for the college, increase the tax base and improve the town’s finances with which the town can then confidently meet the future needs of this incredibly wonderful community we call Williamstown and home.
Please support the Fire Department's purchase of the Lehovec property with your YES vote.
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