Williamstown OKs Fire District's Land Purchase
Four years after district officials twice tried and narrowly failed to achieve the needed two-thirds majority vote in favor of the acquisition, voters Tuesday night approved the measure by a margin of 194-22.
The positive vote enables the Prudential Committee, which oversees the district, to complete a purchase-and-sales agreement for the so-called Lehovec property for $400,000. The committee plans to pay for the property purchase out of its reserve funds.
A grateful chairman of the Prudential Committee said that unlike in 2013, there were fewer unknowns for the town's voters to think about when the district made its appeal.
"I think probably the major thing four years ago was you had the school," Notsley said, referring to the then-prospective Mount Greylock Regional School building project. "They threw the school at us. They said the sewage plant needed upgrade, and the library needed an addition. They threw everything at us.
"It was too much."
Selectman Jeffrey Thomas, who four years ago was one of those saying the town should pump the brakes on the land deal, Tuesday spoke from the floor of the special Fire District meeting to advocate for passage.
"I have a friend who's done a lot of work in China and likes to quote a Chinese expression: 'Better on time than early,' " Thomas said. "I voted against this three years ago because we had big things on the horizon.
"Now, the school is under way. The police station is on track. Now, it's time."
Another difference this time, Notsley agreed, is that the Prudential Committee took pains to make its case directly to Town Hall, appearing before the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee to explain its intentions. Four years ago, some in town said the Prudential Committee lacked transparency in its approach.
At Tuesday's meeting, the committee reminded voters of those sessions and a pair of informational meetings hosted at the Fire Department's current home on Water Street.
There still were some questions on voters' minds on Tuesday night.
Resident Alice Young led off the interrogatories by asking what would happen if the district bought the land and the voters did not approve a bond to build a building, and, noting concerns about property taxes, she asked whether the Prudential Committee had an estimate for how much a building would cost.
On the first point, Notsley replied that the district likely would have to put the Main Street (Route 2) site back on the market.
On the latter, the district does not have a price tag — or even an architectural design. Four years ago, it had a ballpark estimate of between $8 million and $9 million, Notsley said. And there likely would be a request to town voters to bond the project in a couple of years when plans are finalized.
Williamstown Fire District Clerk/Treasurer Corydon Thurston said the district would aggressively seek donations and grants to reduce the burden on taxpayers. In answer to Young's follow up question, Thurston said that Williams College, long a financial supporter of the fire district, will be among the local institutions targeted for appeals.
Conservation Commission member Henry Art asked the Prudential Committee whether it had considered the Lehovec property's physical characteristics, specifically the fact that a quarter or more of the site is in the flood plain for the Green River.
Prudential Committee member Ed Briggs explained that local engineering firm Guntlow & Associates and a Connecticut engineer that specializes in public safety buildings both have reviewed the site and assured the committee that there is enough land outside the flood plain to make it work for the district's needs.
Charles Bonenti asked the the Prudential Committee review the reasons why other potential properties in town were rejected, specifically citing the former Town Garage site down the road from the current fire house.
Notsley noted that the Prudential Committee has reviewed more than a dozen sites over the last 10 years and found that no other site has the combination of size and centrality that the district needs.
"One of the key factors is a central location," Notsley said. "In addition to fire suppression, our first goal as a Fire Department is to save lives."
As for the town garage site, the Prudential Committee found it was too small to meet its needs, Notsley said.
The president of the Village Ambulance Service Board of Directors, Dr. Erwin Stuebner, asked the committee if the district would consider working with the merged VAS-North Adams Ambulance Service to design a new fire station that would include space for the ambulance service. Thurston gave Stuebner an "unequivocal yes."
Thomas and BOS Chairman Hugh Daley both used their time at the podium to remind the meeting that the Prudential Committee was asking to take a first step on a long road: acquiring the land.
"This is an opportunity for us to secure a site for a fire station that will be designed and scoped in the future," Daley said. "You will have a second opportunity at that point to look at it and see if it fits in with the financial plan of the town. In the last six months, I have seen a willingness on the part of the Prudential Committee to work with the town.
"They're not going to drop this thing out of the sky on us. Yes, they are a separate taxing authority. There are a lot of things they could do. They're not doing them."
Nine residents total addressed the meeting from the floor. The most emotional appeal of the night came from Paul Harsch, who also spoke in favor of the land acquisition four years ago.
"These gentlemen and ladies of the fire department know the limitations they're up against with this facility," Harsch said. "The facility is obsolete. It does not serve them. They cannot even house all of the equipment they need today.
"We need to support them. … If we turn this down, I wouldn't blame them for giving up or even leaving the department. It would show poor support for what they do."
Tags: fire district, fire station, land sales, prudential committee, special meeting,
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