Historic District Commission Discusses 139 The Great Road as a New Home for the Fire Station

March 16, 2022

The Historic District Commission may thwart the construction of a new fire station at 139 The Great Road.

Property at 30 North Road—currently the Bedford Motel—emerged in HDC members’ view as the obvious alternative location.

Although purchase of 139 The Great Road won’t be decided until Annual Town Meeting on March 28, commission members convened Monday to review their role in the process.

The property, a 19th-century residential building plus annexes, is owned by Utah State University, which intends to sell it. The town and the owner have agreed on a $1.55 million purchase price.

Although commission member Sal Canciello asserted near the end of the one-hour conversation that “everyone here has an open mind,” the tenor of the discussion was not favorable toward allowing demolition of the existing structure, let alone approval of a design

Normally there are five members of the HDC. But one of them, Chair William Moonan, is an abutter to the property in question and legally has to recuse himself from the process. Also normally, there are two alternate members, but both of those slots are vacant.

So a majority of the five-member board must approve a certificate of appropriateness for demolition. And only one of them, Karl Winkler, indicated that he would strive to find a solution in which the firehouse could be built while respecting the historic district’s character, “for the public good.”

But his colleagues weren’t buying. Canciello emphasized state guidelines that discourage demolition only as a last resort. Alan Long maintained that the panel’s sole responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the district. Karen Kalil-Brown repeatedly claimed that town meeting two years ago approved eminent domain proceedings to acquire 175 The Great Road for a firehouse site. That proposal was indefinitely postponed at a pandemic-shortened annual town meeting.

All of the participating members spoke favorably about town officials’ pivoting to the Bedford Motel at 30 North Road, which is also in the Historic District but is not a historic structure. That address was not on the list of potential locations because it is beyond the boundaries of balanced response time to the town’s extremities, along The Great Road from Loomis Street to Willson Park. However, it is only a few hundred yards north of the park.

Despite their split, the commission tried to find common ground for a general statement to town meeting. “Even if we can’t predict how our vote will go, it’s important for the town to understand” the role of the HDC,” Long commented. “The fact that we have been talking so much at this meeting about alternatives should be a signal that maybe some of these other sites that they’ve considered shouldn’t be just tossed off.”

Canciello, the architect on the commission, noted that under state law, the HDC has to consider demolition and new design together. Long remarked that it’s regrettable since the town would spend money to plan a facility that may not be allowed.

Winkler questioned the historic value of the current building. “I am asking the question about how historic this structure is. Was the original house torn down and rebuilt at that location? It really doesn’t appear to be a converted carriage house.”

But Long countered that there is significance in “its proximity to adjacent structures,” and Canciello pointed out that state guidelines for commissions mention not only architectural character and historic features but also “the history of the people who built and occupied it and its importance to the town.”

The address was part of the estate of Jonathan Bacon, a prominent 19th-century resident whose primary residence was the building just to the east.

Winkler said he worries about the time it would take to identify and consummate an alternative location. The property at 139 The Great Road is available now.

“Many of the variables are the town’s problems. Our job doesn’t have to do with any of those things – our job is what will this new fire station look like if it ends up in the historic district?” Winkler replied that cost-effectiveness should be a consideration, but Long said only in his role as a taxpayer, not a commissioner.

“I think all of us understand that we need a new fire station,” Long declared. “We have to decide whether we are doing the right thing for the town in protecting the historic nature of the district. It has nothing to do with the amount of time it takes to build a facility.

“I’m very concerned about what the entrance to our historic district will look like to everybody,” Long said. A fire station at that location “kind of casts a shadow on the commitment we have as an HDC.”

“The fabric of that part of town has a very specific character,” Canciello observed, incorporating houses, the green space between them, the “streetscape.” He expressed concern about “a giant curb cut” to accommodate the driveway and paved apron. “Where would the human entrance be? Squashed next to four garage bays? Around the back is not a good arrangement for a civic building in a historic district.”

“Until we see a design, it’s a challenge to visualize all of these nebulous things,” the architect said.

Kalil-Brown was the first to bring up 30 North Road as an option, pointing out that it is three-tenths of a mile from the current firehouse. Winkler agreed, and added that perhaps signalization of the intersection of North, Concord, and The Great Roads could make the site more acceptable. Maybe lights could be coordinated with the emergency light in front of the station, Long said. “We would have to talk to the experts about what is the tradeoff of moving a little farther away from the town’s industrial area east of Route 3,” Canciello said.

“Having a fire station instead of that motel and ex-package store, with appropriate input from the HDC on the design, could be a huge improvement to that end of town,” commented Long. He said it would represent trading one commercial use for another. Canciello remarked, “Anything would be an improvement.” Winkler agreed with that sentiment.

“One variable is the ability to act quickly with this property,” Winkler asserted, which is especially important because it is a challenge to attract and retain personnel “who are living in a Third-World-country environment.”

He said, “We need to consider that as part of the greater good.” But Long responded, “I don’t believe the public good enters into our charter.” He commented, “I don’t think there’s a public safety issue here. I don’t believe there’s a hardship to the town issue either,” because two years ago it was proposed to spend $7.5 million to acquire 175 The Great Road.”

Winkler also suggested that the current building, if historic, could be relocated, or even converted to residential space for on-duty firefighters. “I’m trying to come up with other alternatives if we have to stay at the location.”

He also pointed out that the commission could require a landscaped buffer to separate neighboring residences as well as the view from the street.

Winkler observed that “architecturally, there are styles that could fit very well within the fabric” of that section of the district. Canciello noted that “we are not supposed to copy historic styles. It should respect the original buildings and fit in with the scale, proportion, character, size, and material, but not try to emulate style.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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