WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the Board of Selectmen on Monday reacted favorably to a proposal by the Fire District to acquire a 3.7-acre Main Street parcel where officials hope someday to build a new fire station.
The chairman of the three-person Prudential Committee that oversees the Fire District addressed the board to bring it up to speed on plans for a special Fire District meeting anticipated for next month. The district will ask voters to approve the $400,000 purchase of the so-called Lehovec Property on Main Street (Route 2), next door to the soon-to-open Aubuchon Hardware location and across from Eastlawn Cemetery.
"The [Water Street] station we have now was built in 1949 and has served the district very well," John Notsley told the town officials. "We have had two additions since it was built coming out toward Water Street. But trucks, as you know, have gotten bigger and wider and higher."
In particular, district officials want to acquire a tanker to serve Williamstown homes not covered by town water and the hydrant system. A tanker is not a possibility in the already cramped Water Street location.
"What we're looking for right now is to buy the land," Notsley said. "Looking down the road a year or two, we'd come back to the voters with a proposal for a new station if we're successful in purchasing the property."
Two of the five selectmen on Monday expressed an opinion on the proposal — both encouraging the district to go forward with the plan.
"I like the strategy," Jeffrey Thomas said. "It sounds like what you want to do is create the possibility of a new station … and there's an opportunity with this property being on the market. It seems like a pretty economical decision.
"Is it correct that if for some reason it didn't make sense to put a fire station there … you could put the lot on the market and get your money back?"
"Yes," Notsley said, joking, "then we'd be in the real estate business."
Chairman Hugh Daley agreed with Thomas that this was a prudent first step for the district but asked Notsley to coordinate plans for a fire station with the town. The Fire District is a separate taxing authority apart from town government with the ability to acquire property and, potentially, bond new construction on its own through a special district meeting.
"I classify this as land banking," Daley said. "The real big thing to me is to make sure the district and town, through the town manager, work closely on this to make sure the numbers are right. We just recently took on a lot of debt with the [renovated Mount Greylock] high school. The police station is coming. You need to weave your station into the existing debt services."
"That's utmost in our mind," Notsley said, indicating that the district has been in communication with Town Manager Jason Hoch. "We want to do the right thing and want everyone to be fully informed."
Notsley reminded the board of the district's history with the Lehovec property, which fire officials identified as the best potential site for a new station in a process that began in 2005. In 2013, the Prudential Committee negotiated a purchase-and-sales agreement with the estate of Kurt Lehovec, only to have district voters twice reject the purchase in special district meetings where the majority favored acquiring the land but it failed to secure the needed two-thirds "super majority."
At the time, some town officials argued that the district should work with the town on a combined public safety building to house the Fire Department and Police Department, which was looking for solutions to its inadequate space at Town Hall. A joint town-district Public Safety Building Study Committee failed to identify an available parcel in town that would accommodate a joint facility, and this spring the town announced its intention to move the police to a renovated and expanded rooming house on Simonds Road.
Meanwhile, the Lehovec parcel was eyed for a potential hotel, but the developer failed to receive the required special permits it needed from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Notsley said fire officials were "elated" when the Lehovec site came back on the market in the spring.
He said the district's price this time around, $400,000, is significantly less than the $575,000 sought in 2013 for the acquisition. In fact, this time the Prudential Committee is not looking for a bond to acquire the property; it is comfortable paying for the land out of its free cash account.
Selectwoman Jane Patton, who chaired the Public Safety Building Study Committee, asked Notsley whether the Fire District had seismic testing done on the Lehovec site. By state law, public safety buildings must be constructed on more secure ground than other structures, and the study committee was frustrated in its efforts to get on the same property to do seismic testing when it considered the site.
Notsley said part of the testing had been done, and, in answer to a followup question from Thomas, that the rest would be completed before the district finalizes the land purchase.
The district hopes to close on the property by the end of next month, assuming that the acquisition is favored by two-thirds of voters at the special district meeting, Notsley said.
On Thursday, the Prudential Committee plans to continue its outreach effort with a meeting for residents who live near the Lehovec site. The committee plans at least one information session at the firehouse for all town residents prior to the special meeting.
Notsley also said the committee plans to meet with the town's Planning Board and Conservation Commission to discuss permitting and site work. One of the district's first priorities if it acquires the site would be to clean it up and begin acquiring fill; as a practical matter, Notsley said the district would like to obtain low-cost fill from some of the ongoing construction projects at Williams College.
As for the prospects for a new station, Notsley said the Prudential Committee is working with an engineering firm that specializes in fire stations and is interested in input from residents.
"We did have a consulting engineer we utilized in 2013, but things have changed in four years, and we're going to take input — a fire station building committee, if you will — to take input from others other than us 'in the business,' " Notsley said. "We feel that if we can latch onto the land now, within the next two years we can come up with a plan and come back to you at intervals to tell you where we stand.
"We're not really thinking about the station itself at this point."
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