Bedford Select Board to Explore Options after Fire Station Plans Derailed

The Bedford Historic District Commission rejected the town’s application for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the building at 139 The Great Road and replace it with a fire station. Courtesy Image

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.”

A rendering of a proposed design for a new fire station at 139 The Great Road was presented last month to the HDC. Image: Kaestle Boos & Associates

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.

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Curt Dudley-Marling
January 4, 2024 5:25 pm

I propose replacing the current Bedford Fire Department with a 19th century style fire brigade complete with horse drawn fire engines. We might even convince firefighters to grow those cool handlebar mustaches. Of course, the fire brigade wouldn’t be very efficient — or cost effective — but it would definitely be”historic.” And we might be able to use the current structure at 55 Great Road to board the horses. Best of all, I’m sure this will meet with the unanimous approval of the Historic Commission.

Scott White
January 4, 2024 12:39 pm

It is a sad sad day, when A) The voice of just a few rules over the many B) Someone on a committee who missed 4 of 5 sessions is the swing vote and feels no need to comment C) We prioritize aesthetics over public safety and finances.

Joan Dyer
January 4, 2024 10:29 am

I am ready to move on from obsessing over the preservation of past appearances and practices to the detriment of current needs for public services and housing. The balance has tipped too far.

Dawn LaFrance-Linden
January 4, 2024 2:07 pm
Reply to  Joan Dyer

Agreed. The HDC has prioritized bad history (non-historic building) over safety (firefighters’ and townspeople’s as well) and condemned current firefighters to substandard conditions for the foreseeable future. They could have chosen to collaborate in making the voters’ choice more in line with their aesthetics, but the majority could not be bothered.

Sincere thanks to the minority who were able to perceive the value of moving forward now, giving the firefighters the working conditions they deserve where the voters of the town want it. I am so sorry that such a straightforward task has become such a burdensome process for you, full of external interference and internal strife. I hope you take to heart that your vote faithfully reflects the majority of Town Meeting. Building something is always harder than wrecking or thwarting it.

It’s well past time to take a hard look at whether or not the HDC as constituted truly serves Bedford or is merely a vanity project for hobbyists who are accountable to no-one.

I value “historic preservation” less and less the more I see the process in action. I am appalled.

Ted T. Martin
January 4, 2024 5:45 pm

Well said; Dawn LaFrance-Linden

Neil D. Berman
January 5, 2024 5:02 am

Here’s a wild suggestion….. Is it feasible to extend the present fire station property onto Elm street and maybe consume some of the grassy area in front of the church to widen the fire station property enough to make renovation of the present fire station practical? Maybe re-align the Great Road end of Elm Street so that it doesn’t become a dead end or hinder access to the church. Or is that park area sacred ground? I believe the town already owns that land. It would retain the advantage of flat ground, good sight lines and not increase the response time or distance for an emergency. The needs of the town have changed over the past 200 years.

Ted T. Martin
January 5, 2024 8:58 am
Reply to  Neil D. Berman

Neil D. Berman; “Wild” idea, you are correct; though not totally wrong, it might block the view of the church too much. Since it has been said a “sub station” will be needed at some point, how about just leave the current station where it is and build a sub station on the north end of town…

January 5, 2024 1:44 pm
Reply to  Neil D. Berman

The firefighters union recently shared ideas on how to rework the present firehouse to make it much more suitable to today’s needs. That would allow the town to then finally construct a substation on town land to make protecting underserved areas of east Bedford part of an overall solution, instead of deferring it indefinitely.

That is one of a number of good, time-saving, and cost-efficient options that could still be considered. But overbuilding and overspending on the project that the HDC disapproved would have prevented a comprehensive solution.

The most important consideration before the HDC was not only the Bacon property but the overall character of the historic hill. It was good to see that the firewall around the Historic District held under intense emotional pressure so that people in the future will be able to share in what some people today may be taking for granted.

Last edited 5 months ago by Margaret Donovan
January 5, 2024 3:45 pm

The only thing being taken for granted that I see is the idea that this decision by the HDC is the end of this process. The Select Board has already announced an Executive Session for their meeting on Monday to discuss appealing the decision. I don’t believe for a second that the Town will simply give up on 139 Great Rd, and frankly they would be subverting the will of the people if they did. Town Meeting, which guides Town policy, has repeatedly voted for this site. Having invested several years and at least $2 million in this project, it would be a waste of Town resources to simply give up on making this work now.

John McClain
January 5, 2024 4:13 pm

Are these ideas documented somewhere? Any external change to 55 Great Road would require HDC approval, which would require a design (and the order of $100s thousands to millions of dollars) — we have an idea in this thread of blocking the primary view of the Church, running a street across the common, and taking down all the town trees. I am guessing the HDC isn’t going to approve that either (also suspect that would’t get a majority vote from TM, much less 2/3rds).

Saying they are “ideas” without actually describing them doesn’t advance the conversation. The unspecified alternative always sounds better than a plan that has actually be worked out.

Dawn LaFrance-Linden
January 6, 2024 6:38 pm

Are these ideas any where in the public record with the authors clearly identified? If not, just another red herring from the person who has not lived here for half a century.

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