Bedford Special Town Meeting on Monday rejected a petitioners’ article that called for reopening the search for a fire station site.
The vote was 226 to 105. Moderator Betsey Anderson declared the article defeated after viewing raised hands, then assigned tellers to count the results.
“I think it’s defeated, but I want to make sure everyone sees this is fair,” she said.
The proposal, which also specified that a site study report be presented to the March 2024 Annual Town Meeting, was submitted at the warrant deadline in October. There were issues with the wording, and Anderson announced at the start of discussion, “We have an opinion from Town Counsel that this will be a non-binding resolution.”
A former resident, Margaret Donovan, was the driver behind the petitioners’ article. Donovan has been a vocal opponent of the planned site at 139 The Great Road because she said a fire station there will destroy the integrity of the historic district.
But Michael Seibert, the former Finance Committee chair who presented on behalf of the petitioners, did not emphasize that concern.
“All the people who signed the petition had their own reasons,” he said; the article is intended “to fix the plan’s weaknesses. A broad view is absent from the Select Board planning of this project.”
By calling for a renewed site evaluation, Seibert said, the article will help identify a “Plan B,” and “having a fallback does not stop work.” He said the process would be “a response to anything that could cause problems.”
Seibert enumerated some of them: a defeat at Annual Town Meeting of construction costs; rejection by the Historic District Commission of the proposed firehouse design; and relocating utility poles in front of 139 The Great Road, complicated by the emergence of underground wiring at that location.
Seibert pointed out that response times for emergency equipment are inadequate when calculated to the town’s extremities.
“Regardless of how much we overbuild it or how much we equip it, the response times are not going to decrease,” he said
But Select Board member Emily Mitchell, who has been the board’s point person for the fire station project at three town meetings, said, “The ideal location is right in the heart of our community.” She acknowledged that a substation to serve residences and businesses on the perimeter needs to be considered, but it was decided by the board last year that the new central headquarters is a higher priority.
The Fire Station Building Committee and the project architect have been identifying weaknesses, she said. “We have already found solutions to many of the challenges and working on others.”
This project has thousands of stakeholders, Mitchell said, and not everyone will get everything they want. “It’s time to summon our collective conscience and make the choices we need to make.”
Concerns about the Historic District took a back seat to the utilities at Monday’s Town Meeting.
Former Selectman William Moonan, who resides on property contiguous to the southern boundary of 139 The Great Road, stated that the location “disregards the need to preserve our history.” But most of his comments were about what he said will be a necessity to move three utility poles and extend the underground wiring that now emerges in front of the site.
Former Selectman Don Corey, who brought up the utilities issue a year ago, told Town Meeting, “There are going to be technical problems that almost certainly will be encountered and will delay or even prevent a viable Fire Department there.”
He recalled problems encountered during the original wire burial, when “the work dragged on and on.” He said after that, the Select Board “voted unanimously not to support any future wire burial projects along The Great Road. Based on the town’s actual experience major delays should be anticipated.”
Mitchell said town officials “are in discussions with Eversource and National Grid about relocation.” She acknowledged that “poles will have to be moved slightly west,” but “we don’t see any specific wiring issue per se, nothing that indicates this is an unsolvable problem.”
Former School Committee member Anne Bickford, a transportation systems professional, said in her experience that “when it comes to scheduling the utilities crew to come to the site to meet a design schedule, it is nearly impossible. This could set back the opening for years.”
Jeff Cohen, chair of the Fire Station Building Committee, said “communications with Eversource are ongoing. The design team and Building Committee are well aware of all the concerns and unique challenges and we are working diligently through them. This site can support a fire station that meets present and future requirements and site constraints are not insurmountable.”
Bickford also urged the Select Board that before the vote to fund the new firehouse, “We should know what the full picture is for emergency response capital needs. Will this be the only fire station we need or will we be asked to approve funding for a substation?”
Fire Department Lt. Mark Daly asserted, “This town needs a substation,” as well as an expanded central station “for recruitment, and we need it for retention. I don’t love the property but it might be the only location.”
Daly, president of the firefighters’ union, is a member of the Building Committee. He noted that the union presented some worries about the site, and the committee “has done everything to try to quell our concerns and they have addressed the majority of issues.” The ones that remain “we won’t know until the day we go in. Our biggest concern is functionality – for us and for all of you.”
Some speakers were emphatic about the need to proceed with the plans. There has not been “a visible groundswell of opposition” to the plans, said Seth Cargiulo, who lives on Hillside Avenue not far from the location. “We have been doing this for two years.”
Erin Sandler-Rathe pointed out that “it’s not the role of Town Meeting to choose sites for public buildings. Town meeting’s role is to appropriate money for projects proposed by the Select Board. The idea that there must be a backup plan is incompatible with standard capital building projects and Massachusetts procurement laws. Costs go up. Delays happen. But that doesn’t mean the project was poorly planned. It is time to move on.”
Bickford also stressed the importance of accurate three-dimensional renderings of the proposed firehouse when the time comes to decide on funding construction. “We need to understand what this project in the final design is going to feel like. It would behoove us to look at detailed estimates of modifying the current fire station and compare it to this one.”
Mitchell stated that the town has no plans to sell the current facility, where “the footprint is too small to be an adequate fire station.