Williamstown Fire District Puts Land Purchase Back on Table

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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Prudential Committee Chairman John Notsley and Fire Chief Craig Pedercini still want to purchase the Lehovic property.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. —  The Fire District's Plan B looks a lot like Plan A. 

The Prudential Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to pursue another vote this fall for approval to purchase the 3.7-acre Lehovic property — the same proposal voters rejected just two weeks ago.

But this time, there are some significant differences.

The district is adding language specifically saying they are open to the idea of a dual-purpose police and fire station.
 
"At Monday's monthly meeting, the officers and firemen of the district were unanimous that the district hold a second special meeting," Prudential Committee Chairman John Notsley said in a prepared statement he read into the record before the panel discussed the prospect.
 
"Unless a benefactor emerges and purchases the Lehovic property and donates it to the district before the yet to be scheduled next meeting, we should think about possibly using some of the free cash and a small loan to finance the purchase of this valuable, one-time property. ... Acquisition of this property is essential for protection to the residents of Williamstown for years to come, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain this land."
 
The Prudential Committee is asking attorneys from Kopelman & Paige to draft a new warrant that would incorporate the language on a public safety feasibility study and include specific dollar figures that would be requested. Neither were in the warrant for the Oct. 15 town meeting.
 
"We never had a warrant article, in all these years, that did not have a dollar value in it," Notsley said, agreeing with those who questioned the omission on the Oct. 15 warrant. "I went back 10 years. Every one had the amount in there."
 
The other piece — the mention of a possible dual-use building — was welcomed by the chairman of the town's Public Safety Building Study Committee, a panel created by the Board of Selectmen.
 
"John [Notsley] never opposed the possibility of a joint facility ... but it would be helpful if the Prudential Committee was on the record saying it was willing to work on the possibility," Andrew Hogeland, a member of the Public Safety Building Study Committee, said at Wednesday's meeting.
 
Hogeland applauded Fire District Moderator/Clerk/Treasurer Corydon Thurston for comments indicating more openness to the idea of a combined facility.
 
"As far as I'm concerned, nothing is fixed other than buying that land while we have the opportunity," Thurston said.
 
However, Town Finance Committee member Daniel Gendron, an outspoken critic of the plan to purchase Lehovic, said while he understands why the district wants another vote, the committee should be doing more to engage other town boards and committees first. 
 
And Gendron bristled when town resident Michael Steele used the floor to assail those — like Gendron —  who questioned the land acquisition in the weeks leading up to this month's special meeting.
 
"I was somewhat appalled and somewhat embarrassed at the way people insulted [the Prudential Committee]," Steele said. "If I was up there, I probably would have been sitting in the slammer because I would have taken it as an insult... People were saying, 'You're all doing this in secret.' ... It was insulting. It was insulting to everyone, and I hope in the future we don't have a recurrence of this."
 
Steele went on to repeat an accusation that Gendron's colleague on the Finance Committee, Charles Fox, was negotiating with the now deceased Kurt Lehovic to buy the Main Street parcel at the same time the Fire District was considering its acquisition.
 
Fox, who attended Wednesday's meeting, told Steele that accusation was untrue, but as he did so, Gendron stormed out of the meeting, saying, "I've had enough. This is nonsense."
 
"Why don't you call me up and we'll discuss it," Steele called after the departing Gendron.
 
Mostly the tenor of Wednesday's meeting was polite, and the audience — largely populated by firefighters — was supportive of the Prudential Committee's decision.
 
One resident with no formal connection to the Williamstown Fire District who spoke in favor of the request at the special meeting used Wednesday's meeting to again voice his support.
 
"This is a need that's been identified for a long time," realtor Paul Harsch said. "It's a need that is particularly acute for people who live outside the [areas served by town water]. There's also a need for people in town... We owe it to [the firefighters] and to the residents of the town to make sure we get a decent, proper, up-to-date fire station."
 
Fox, who called a special meeting of the Finance Committee last fall to shine a light on the district's plan, said again Wednesday that he understands the problems facing current station. But he joined the call to have the Prudential Committee work more closely with the town in light of looming capital projects: a police station, a new Mount Greylock Regional High School and the fire house.
 
"The concern of people involved in the Finance Committee is we have to be concerned about the tax rate of Williamstown for all taxpayers ... because we have two distinct political authorities with taxing authority," Fox said, referring to the Prudential Committee and the Board of Selectmen. "It's important that whatever the Fire District plans be coordinated intimately with other projects, especially the high school and the police station. ... Affordable housing in the mix also."
 
Thurston said the member of the Prudential Committee is focused on keeping taxes as low as possible.
 
"You can't find a more frugal group than these three guys," Thurston said. "[The district is] not in debt, never in debt, always paid cash for our equipment. It's a lean, mean machine. They don't want to waste money either."

Tags: fire district,   fire station,   land sales,   

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