Voters at the Special Town Meeting on Monday night rejected efforts by petitioners to suspend preparation for construction of a fire station at 139 The Great Road and send the site selection process back to square one.
Articles to halt expenditures for the project and to establish an ad hoc committee to survey residents on prospective sites lost on a vote that wasn’t close enough to prompt a request for a recount.
Fewer than a dozen voters spoke.
The two articles landed on the warrant by a petition drive, led by longtime local historian Don Corey, whose involvement in elected and appointed boards spans almost 50 years.
Acknowledging that replacement of the current fire station is “a critical priority,” Corey introduced one new variable: the utility poles in front of 139 The Great Road. He contended that because of agreements to bury utility wires along The Great Road, relocation of the poles “would delay construction of a fire station there by years, if ever.”
Elizabeth McClung of the Finance Committee and former School Committee member Ann Bickford asked about that issue. Select Board Chair Emily Mitchell said the poles and wires will be addressed as part of the design process. “I just can’t speculate further on this,” she said.
Corey enumerated a number of other reasons why he advocates halting the current process and restarting the site search:
- Detailed analysis “of the proposed site at Annual Town Meeting was limited by debate rules.”
- “The public was shut out of the siting decision process.”
- “The proposal undermines the intent of establishing the Bedford Center Historic District and would revert to conditions that led to its creation.”
- Federal funds were illegally allocated to change part of a district listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
- Construction of a fire substation serving the Middlesex Turnpike corridor could change the siting priorities for the main station. The need for a substation has been discussed for almost 50 years and “should have been a part of this discussion from day one.”
- Site preparation costs will be substantial, including “massive cutting and regrading” and possibly blasting.
- “The damage to the value to the surrounding property value and to the character and integrity of the historic district will be irreversible.”
- Recently released executive session minutes indicate that the Select Board preferred 175 The Great Road.
- The project will necessitate traffic signalization at The Great and Bacon roads, and “the cost and inconvenience of traffic have never been discussed.”
- The Historic District Commission could deny a permit to demolish the existing building at the address.
“These questions combined to make proceeding with the Select Board agenda seem ill advised,” Corey said. “These are the reasons the funding should be stopped because the issues of this site are avoidable anywhere else.”
Mitchell, noting that approval of the articles would delay the project and increase costs, refuted some of Corey’s complaints. “The process was detailed, thoughtful, and appropriate,” she said, with the board following “standard municipal protocols” to protect its negotiating position during acquisition talks.
Since Annual Town Meeting approved funding the acquisition and design, she said, the town has engaged a historic preservation consultant who has determined that the existing structure is only a little more than 100 years old. An owner’s project manager is on board and residents are applying to join a building committee, she said.
There will be public meetings as the design process unfolds, she continued, and the intent of the town is “to preserve the integrity of the historic district.” She said the Historic District Commission will be partners, along with neighbors and firefighters.
A substation was part of the discussion, Mitchell said, but the need for a new headquarters was determined to be more urgent. She said the executive session minutes “demonstrate how seriously, thoughtfully, and carefully we took our responsibility to our constituents.”
The only speaker in support of the petitioners’ articles was former Select Board member William Moonan, who noted that in 2020 the selectmen preferred the property at 175 The Great Road as a fire station site, but Town Meeting never voted on it because of the arrival of the pandemic.
Moonan said in retrospect, he feels the board acquiesced to recommendations by staff for possible fire station locations. He also said he has recused himself from discussion of 139 The Great Road because “my wife owns an adjacent property,” but he did not mention that the property is where they reside, contiguous to the firehouse site.
Erin Sandler-Rathe, Karl Winkler, Nancy Wolk, and Karen Dunn all spoke of the urgency of improving working conditions for firefighters. Acknowledging Corey’s decades of service, Sandler-Rathe said that nevertheless, “passing these would be a step backwards.”
Wolk said, “We may eventually need a substation, but right now we need a fire station.”
Lucille Wilson added that the petitioners’ articles subvert the decision made at Annual Town Meeting.
Corey unsuccessfully moved that the decision be made by secret ballot, because “these petition articles have a fair amount of controversy surrounding them and a fair degree of emotion on both sides of the issue.” He said the privacy would acknowledge that “some individuals here are concerned about reprisal.”
Ann Bickford agreed, saying after her vote on the fire station at Annual Town Meeting, she received “verbal abuse.” But Jerry Pfeffer, former Finance Committee member, said the secret ballot would result in “an unnecessary delay. I don’t want to make a career of Special Town Meeting.”