Tempers flared during a public information session for the fire station proposal last night.
Residents packed the to listen to and ask questions of Town Manager Paul Cohen, Chelmsford Permanent Building Committee Chairman Pat Maloney, as well as other town officials regarding the town’s proposal to build a new central fire station at 50 Billerica Road, adjoining the town offices.
A ballot question asking for resident support for the proposed fire station passed by 297 votes in .
Maloney began the meeting by outlining a feasibility study initially discussed by the Permanent Building Committee in 2008 regarding the fire department's fate, including replacing the floor of the Center Fire Station, adding on to the existing building, and a 5th option—the ultimate recommendation of the Permanent Building Committee—the construction of a “full headquarters."
While many locations have been suggested for the proposed fire station in recent years, including land on Drum Hill Road, the corners of Wilson and Chelmsford Streets, and the old Chelmsford Police station, these have fallen through for reasons varying from cost, delayed response time, to feasibility of construction.
The argument for a 50 Billerica Road construction is several fold, according to the presentation: the proposed building will take advantage of approximately 3,000 square feet of office space in the town offices, will save cost and space, and will keep the fire station centrally located and close to the current building’s location.
The current Center Fire Station, built in 1955, has many structural and space concerns, including cramped and inadequate storage and facility space, crumbling and cracked foundations, and flooding in basement areas.
The new building hopes to solve those issues with a new construction that will more than double the useable space from 8,915 to 19,489 square feet, including more storage, office, work, and maneuverable room for vehicles and equipment.
According to engineering firm hired by the town for the project, the estimated cost for the construction is $7,766,795, accounting for $6.1 million in building costs and $1.665 in remaining “soft” costs: print, advertising, furnishings, testing, and a contingency budget.
Passions were at a high, with both proponents and opponents taking the microphone to ask questions of town officials. Residents who didn’t live near the proposed station were concerned with traffic related to location, how the fire station might interfere with town hall proceedings, and the ability of fire trucks to navigate Summer and Wilson Streets, among other things.
For resident Kevin Ross, who lives directly adjacent to the planned station, the proposal hit a little closer to home: literally. According to Ross, the fire station will disrupt the community that he lives in, interfere with sleep, the general peace, and the beauty of the neighborhood. He also believed that town government didn’t give residents in his neighborhood enough warning about projected building plans, nor did he believe that the delegation were taking the homeowners’ desires into full consideration.
“Come to our neighborhood, ask us what we need,” he said to the presenters. “Once you open Pandora’s box there’s no putting it back in. It looks like a good plan, next to your house maybe? I don’t understand how it got this far.”
“You can mitigate until the cows come home,” said another resident who lives on Billerica Rd. “They say it’s location, location, location, and this is the wrong location.”
Bob Joyce, a town meeting representative from Precinct 1, said he "is for the fire station," but believes the ideal place is at the previously discussed location at the corner of Wilson and Chelmsford Streets.
Joyce believes that the 50 Billerica Road location has inherent disadvantages. The plan for the building doesn’t take future growth into account, and doesn’t have “sufficient space for further expansion,” according to Joyce.
“Fifty years from now, we want to expand the station because we’ve got 19 ambulances, you can’t expand, it’s full up,” he said as an example. “A fire station should have drive through bays."
Bill Griffin, a town meeting representative from Precinct 9, voiced his support for the progress in the plans and for what he believed was addressing a key concern in the town’s infrastructure.
“The town has taken several important steps as a community to try to address those needs,” he said. “This is a need-to-have,” he said of the new fire station, “and what disappoints me is that I see a community here that almost doesn’t know what it wants.”
Maloney made sure to tell residents that what they were seeing was not set in stone.
“In the end, what you’re seeing is a concept, there’ll be changes along the way,” he said. He also spoke to criticism about the Building Committee’s perceived lack of communication with the neighborhood, saying that the members had tried to work with community concerns.
“We hear these things, so, is it the perfect place? I can’t tell you that,” he said. “This was what the next step was after Chelmsford and Wilson Street failed (…), this is where we went.”
“The conclusion is, no site is perfect,” said Town Manager Paul Cohen. “Had there been a perfect site and a perfect cost, it would have been done years ago, either five years ago or twenty years ago. What we have we believe is the most economical and most effective plan that we believe will get support in this community.”
You can look at more documents for the proposed fire station here.