After two hours of debate, the vote was 268 to 130 in favor. Since the funding will be bonded, a minimum two-thirds majority was required. That means five additional negative votes, or three flipped votes, were the difference.
Town meeting then approved the ensuing article, $2 million for design, by a more comfortable margin, 293 to 110.
Select Board Chair Emily Mitchell said, ideally, the project can move smoothly through design and construction approvals leading to occupancy in early 2025. The construction cost is already built into the town’s six-year capital plan.
But there are obstacles, the greatest of which is the authority of the Historic District Commission to deny a demolition permit for the 19th-century building now on the site. There are also hints from abutters about legally contesting the procurement process that led to identifying the location as “unique” for the station project.
Mitchell set the tone for the discussion Tuesday when she described the need to replace the 73-year-old firehouse in public-safety terms. “These articles address a critical public-safety need. We run the risk of depleting our capacity to respond to emergencies” because it will be hard to recruit and retain firefighters and paramedics to serve in deficient facilities.
The town has spent millions to upgrade schools and other inventory, and “it is long past time to show similar support to Bedford’s bravest.”
Mitchell summarized the deficiencies—basically size and capacity—and projected supporting photographs on a screen There is no room to expand the current station, she said. “Study after study has made clear that our fire station does not and could not meet our public-safety needs.”
The chair identified “response time” as the top criterion for site selection. “We can’t move too far in any direction without putting some part of town at a disadvantage.” She pointed out that almost all of the original site possibility list comprised property in the historic district; 139 The Great Road is ideal because it is a single parcel available through a negotiated sale without depleting the tax base.
Mitchell also mentioned 30 North Road—the Bedford Motel—which has been identified by some residents as a good option. The site is outside the response time envelope and located between two “complex intersections,” she said.
She also addressed the HDC’s key role. The town will engage architects with experience designing public buildings that are aesthetically appropriate. “We are confident that we can propose a design that respects the character of the historic district. We trust that the HDC will give that design a fair hearing.”
After town meeting, Mitchell said she was gratified about the vote “to support our first responders with the facilities they need to continue their exemplary service to us all.”
Finance and Capital Expenditure Committee members added their boards’ support for the articles. Later, the Energy and Sustainability Committee stated its endorsement.
Karen Kalil-Brown, a member of the HDC, read a statement about the commission’s role so voters would understand “our charter that the town has given us to enforce.” She said commission guidelines prohibit demolishing any building of historic merit, and the charge is “to retain as much as possible the look of a small colonial town center.”
During the general discussion, three amendments were proposed. One of them was successful, offered by former Selectman Joe Piantedosi. Voters approved adding to the design article a provision for appointing a building committee that would include the fire chief or his designee, the town facilities director, and citizens at large, with at least three having experience in various key roles in building construction. The committee would take part in choosing a designer and would provide overall oversight. Piantedosi, a retired municipal facilities director, pointed out that building committees are common in all local school projects.
Carol Amick, whose property abuts the rear boundary of 139 The Great Road, proposed that the design article allocate only $100,000 for renderings and schematics, which she said are all the HDC needs to rule on demolition. The amendment implied that if the HDC ruling halts the process, the town won’t have wasted millions on a design that won’t be used. Voters rejected the amendment.
Amick also offered an amendment to preclude the town from taking ownership of 139 The Great Road until the HDC ruled on demolition. Moderator Mark Siegenthaler, after consultation, rejected the amendment, saying in effect it would undermine the intent of the article. The current owner of the property intends to sell it this spring.
More than two dozen residents commented on the article, and their points were polarized: the urgency of public safety and the sanctity of the historic district. No one contested the need for a new facility; opponents of the articles called for situating it somewhere else.
Nancy Wolk, recently elected as an assessor, introduced a focus that was repeated by others: “I’m surprised that we haven’t lost more firefighters with the conditions we ask them to work with. We thank our first responders – tonight’s the time to put our money where our mouth is.” The current building at 139 The Great Road should not be more important than a healthy and safe working environment, she stated.
Seth Cargiuolo, who lives near the site, took that to the next level. “At a certain point the lives, the safety, and the property of the living are more important” than the nondescript building that belonged to a long-deceased resident, he affirmed. Securing another location could add four to six years to the process, he said; what message would that send to first responders?
Asked by Nicholas Howard what the plan is if demolition is denied, Mitchell said the board will have to decide “the next steps to bring to town meeting.” She said she hopes the HDC will be an “integral partner” in the process. Later, HDC member Karl Winkler declared his intention to prioritize “the public good and the public safety of this town” and support the project.
Thomas Judge, a longtime resident who is chief of the Concord Fire Department, called the current building conditions “appalling” and added that “recruiting and retention are a very real thing. These jobs are hard to fill right now.” Those who don’t leave could become “burned out,” he said.
Mitchell’s husband John Mitchell asserted, “The number one priority of local government is always public safety. Our fire station is the most important public building in town. When they say it will be hard to attract and retain firefighters, believe them.”
Helen Pulizzi remarked, “These are public servants putting themselves in harm’s way every day to help everyone in this room.” Jennifer McClain of Maple Street said she has found the fire station to be “a great neighbor.” She said that as a structural engineer, she sees “an opportunity for compromise” at the new site. Erin Sandler noted that if the building cannot be demolished, it could remain vacant, which also changes the character of a neighborhood.”
The most vocal opponent was William Moonan, Amick’s spouse. Moonan began by emphasizing that as a member of the HDC and Select Board (his term expired on March 12), he recused himself from the issue, but now he has been given clearance to speak by a state Ethics Commission attorney.
The HDC was established to prevent “erosion” of the district, Moonan said, and “building a fire station at this site for whatever reason would end up cannibalizing the Historic District,” and encourage other property owners to try to follow. “People choose to live in Bedford for many reasons and one of them is the uniqueness of the architectural buildings in the center of town.” He said a fire station at 139 The Great Road would be “a quick fix that will last a relatively short time and will require a more expensive solution.”
Moonan said that on Sunday he interviewed the owner of the Bedford Motel, and was told that no one representing the town had spoken to him about selling the property. Moonan reported that the owner said he would be willing to have that discussion.
David Trigg, who lives directly behind the site, favored further discussion of 30 North Road as an option.
Another abutter, Michael Galdos, pointed out that two years ago the preferred site was 175 The Great Road. At that time there were concerns about the topography of 139 The Great Road; the ladder truck will have to back in from the street. He also said there is “significant opposition” from town history groups.” If the town approves money for a design and the HDC subsequently denies demolition, “this could become a debacle.” Then the town might have trouble reselling a building with “public records of limitations,” he added.
Don Corey, former selectman and Planning Board member and a longtime scholar of local history, also spoke in opposition. He first acknowledged that more than two decades ago he was revived by first responders after he collapsed at town meeting –“they saved my life.”
But he added, “I don’t think we are doing them any favor by selecting this site right now so impetuously.” A firehouse would “take away from the character of that entire section.” He said saving money should not be a priority over “the right thing to do. “We are on a headlong rush to a cheap fix. We have enough ability for proper due process and make sure the actions taken are in the long-term interests of the town.”
At least one firefighter agreed. Thomas Piccirillo said 139 The Great Road is “the wrong choice.” He called for construction of a substation, which would better serve the eastern side of town. Emily Mitchell pointed out that a substation would inflate operating costs and would not address the physical problems with the current facility.
“There’s nothing impetuous about any of this,” replied Amy Lloyd to Corey. The Select Board, in refining its decisions, “pivoted because it was more advantageous.” Lloyd, a member of the Planning Board, pointed out that a residential developer would be able to purchase the property and build to maximum capacity behind the current structure and thus out of the HDC’s jurisdiction.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763