The Bedford Select Board on Monday will explore potential next steps, following a 3-2 vote by the Historic District Commission that will impede or even inter plans to construct a fire station at 139 The Great Road.
On Wednesday night, the HDC rejected the town’s application to demolish the current building at the location and replace it with a fire station. The HDC is empowered to regulate the exteriors of buildings and grounds in the Bedford Center Historic District.
Alan Long and Karen Kalil-Brown, who have expressed various degrees of aversion to the site since it was first brought to the HDC’s attention almost two years ago, were joined by Sal Canciello in opposition. The two votes in favor were by Jennifer McClain and Karl Winkler.
Select Board Chair Bopha Malone said Thursday morning that she was disappointed in the outcome. Malone said it is premature to discuss possible responses; the subject has been added to the agenda of Monday’s Select Board meeting. The discussion will be in executive session, she added, as allowed under the Open Meeting Law to discuss strategy regarding potential litigation.
The vote throws the marathon fire station replacement effort into uncertainty. The current facility at 55 The Great Road is more than 75 years old and has size and other inadequacies.
Town Meeting was preparing to vote on acquiring 175 The Great Road in March 2020, but that was precluded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eventual warrant was stripped of all but basics, and there was no fire station article at the 2021 Town Meeting. Later that year, 139 The Great Road came on the market, representing a savings of at least $6 million in the purchase price.
Now there are several possible avenues, but any or all of them would negate the project timetable. Town officials had planned to present an article at March Town Meeting for financing construction, and, if passed, follow up with a request for bids. Construction would begin in September with an opening targeted for early 2026.
All of that came to a halt on Wednesday. The decision came at the close of a public hearing on the application, and culminated several months of conversations among the commission, the Fire Station Building Committee, and professionals.
Sean Schmigle, the lead architect on the project, led off Wednesday’s hearing with a 30-minute presentation that covered everything from the overall site plan and renderings from different angles to details of various architectural features, landscaping, and lighting. Schmigle said the presentation was “a quick summation of items we’ve been looking at for the past few months.”
Brown repeated her concern about retaining walls needed to accommodate changes in grade on the 64,000-square-foot lot.
“We’ve got a long, thin lot and now we are putting a wall around it,” said Brown, labeling the design “an uninviting fortress.”
McClain said, “I’m more interested in the main things facing the front. I don’t see the wall as a deal breaker. I’d like to hear what people think about the building itself.”
Asked about reports that the need to move underground wiring in front of the site has the potential to result in major delays, Schmigle said plans obtained from Eversource don’t show the presence of a vault. That was contested by former Selectman Don Corey, who declared, “You are looking at years before the utilities find out what they have to do and get around to doing it.”
Brown said she will not support demolition if there’s a possibility of a long delay.
“I don’t want an empty lot sitting in the middle of town.” Winkler replied, “We want to be able to move this forward, and we can add contingencies” to the approval.
Ali Hon-Anderson, the alternate, non-voting member of ghe HDC, urged the rest of the panel to “remember what is in our purview.” She added, “Everyone has done a great job to create something I think looks great.”
Before comment was opened to the public, Long stated, “I have a huge concern about this whole project. They did a great job designing a building on a challenging site.” But he added that “it’s a huge structure completely out of character for a historic district. There’s no way I can approve demolition or the building.”
Hon-Anderson pointed out that this reflects Long’s position even before design began.
McClain said that the wiring issues are “a red herring. I trust there are other mechanisms in place to keep track of this issue and resolve it.”
Brown disagreed. Before voting on demolition, “we need to know there’s a solution.”
Winkler recommended a provision in the motion stipulating that “the building will not be taken down until this has been resolved.”
Canciello suggested adjournment, to allow time for input from town counsel on the wording. But then Long suggested a straw poll; if there are three against the proposal, it would preclude further discussion, he pointed out.
Brown said, “I just have a problem with the site. We are putting huge walls on either side of it. People are going to wonder, ‘What is this building?’”
Then the proposed straw vote became the actual vote, followed by adjournment.
About a half-dozen people spoke during the public comment session, and only one was in favor of the HDC certification. Interim Fire Chief Paul Sheehan said that to deny will mean a delay, and “if you spend another couple of years, it would be a huge disservice to your excellent firefighters.”
Among those with question and objections, most were familiar names. One new to the debate was longtime resident Robert McClatchey, who noted that the plan replaces green space with cement and asphalt. “Why is that an appropriate thing to do?” he wondered. “How does the character of this building have any consistency with the historic part of Bedford?”
Winkler pointed out in response that “Bedford is not a single snapshot in time in our Historic District. We have multiple generations of different architectural styles.”
Corey repeated past assertions about the historic value of the existing structure and its protected status as a “contributing element” in a National Register of Historic Places district.
Former Selectman and HDC member William Moonan said the proposal “is having a major impact on the Historic District and on the entrance to the Historic District from the east.” His wife Carol Amick followed, saying the current building is “one of the best parts of the town center.” Moonan and Amick live contiguous to the south boundary of the property.
Also speaking was Richard Hughes, spouse of Margaret Donovan, who was ill. Donovan has been one of the most active and visible opponents of the plan. She and Hughes reside in New York City. “I don’t think you know what you have here,” Hughes said regarding the Historic District. “Sometimes you need somebody from outside who loves it more than some of you do.”
Editor’s note: This is a third updated version of a story that originally appeared Wednesday morning.