BRISTOL — With the first of two bond votes slated for Town Meeting Day, public discussion about a proposed upgrade to the Bristol Fire Department’s North Street facility is beginning in earnest.
Bristol residents said there have been significant neighbor-to-neighbor conversations on the proposed major expansion of the firehouse, with some taking sides on preliminary plans that would add 10,000 square feet of space to the 116-year-old building at a cost approaching $2 million.
With criticisms on such things as the location and the character of a bigger building in the historic neighborhood, the Bristol Planning Commission has moved to take a more proactive role in the project.
Porter Knight, a Garfield Street resident, urged Bristol residents to go on the second walking tour of the firehouse, scheduled for this Saturday, Feb. 16, 9-11 a.m., and attend a public hearing to be held during the Feb. 25 selectboard meeting at Holley Hall.
“The town needs a lot more information before we should be asked to vote,” Knight said. “Everyone in town should go to those two meetings.”
The upgrade to the fire department facilities would require two bond votes. The first, which is coming up on March 5, asks voters to approved spending $375,000, which would enable to the town to purchase the historic Duclos House at 2 Garfield St., cover insurance and fund a final site design. Town officials have signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with the homeowners.
A vote in favor of the first bond does not signify a commitment for the town to adopt the concept design depicted in drawings produced by Vermont Integrated Architecture and unveiled by the selectboard last month. Those drawings, which were distributed in brochures and reprinted in this publication, were drawn up as part of the feasibility study.
“That’s a drawing to show that yes, we could do (the upgrade) there,” said Selectwoman Sharon Compagna at Monday’s selectboard meeting.
A vote for the first bond does, however, fund the purchase of the Duclos House and signify a commitment to complete the fire department upgrade on the North Street site.
The second bond vote, which town officials have said would likely coincide with the 2014 general election, would be an estimated $1.6 million to $2.2 million and would cover the construction and insurance costs of the facility upgrade.
“I think what the public really needs to weigh here is whether or not they think that this can work, somehow and some way, or not,” said Town Administrator Bill Bryant at Monday’s meeting. “And if people just don’t think that it’s the right use and the right place, then those people should vote no on this. If people think that the design could fit there, and they think that if it’s worked on enough, with enough public input, that it could be made to feel compatible with the neighborhood, then they should give us the opportunity to purchase the property.”
“I think it’s also important to reiterate to people that we didn’t just jump into this, we’ve been over six years looking at this,” added Compagna. “We have considered and looked at a lot of sites, given a lot of thought to building a new building outside of town. There are a lot of factors that we’ve looked at for a long time. We didn’t come to this conclusion overnight.”
Townspeople will have opportunities at the upcoming public meetings to ask questions about that process and to comment on the proposed plan.
The selectboard has said at past meetings that it is committed to getting the design right, if voters give permission to move forward with the North Street upgrade at town meeting.
“Long after I’m gone and my kids are gone, we want their kids to say, ‘They put a beautiful building there. And it fit the neighborhood. It still fits the neighborhood,’” Selectman and Bristol firefighter Joel Bouvier told members of the public gathered at a special selectboard meeting on Jan. 17 to discuss the proposed firehouse upgrade.
Aside from the price tag, a substantial portion of the public comment on the streets and on Bristol's Front Porch Forum has focused on whether the upgrade fits the character of downtown.
“I believe the location is wrong for the expansion that has been proposed,” Tom Telling, a Mountain Street resident, told the Independent in an email. “The North Street facility has an historic New England character as does the immediate neighborhood. Nearby are the town’s library, several churches, a bed and breakfast, lots of residences, the town green and the downtown. The library was upgraded several years ago but retained its character.”
Other online commentators specifically objected to the removal of the historic home on the corner of North and Garfield streets, which is featured in the Bristol Historical Society’s walking tour.
Bryant said again on Wednesday that the selectboard’s intention was to preserve the Duclos House and relocate and restore it within the village.
“We know of seven possible locations to explore for moving the house within the village district,” he said. “Its preservation is an important component of a successful project for us.”
But whether townspeople will be satisfied with the new look of North and Garfield remains to be seen.
“There is going to be back and forth about that spot being used for the expansion of the fire department because it doesn’t seem to go with the town,” said Sylvia Coffin, president of the Bristol Historical Society. “The village is mostly old houses.
“I would love to see the firemen have a better place for what they do,” Coffin added. “But that wouldn’t be the place I’d pick out, as an older citizen of Bristol … it’s a matter of opinion.”
PLANNERS STEP IN
Other town boards are also weighing in. At its Feb. 4 meeting, the Bristol Planning Commission overwhelmingly passed a three-part motion asking the selectboard to grant the planning commission authority to act in an advisory role as the fire facility moves forward, given the commissioners’ planning expertise and familiarity with the new town plan. Planner Katie Reycroft-Meyer, a North Street resident, introduced the motion; planner Kris Perlee, who is a member of the fire department, withdrew from voting or discussion, according to planning commission chair Chico Martin.
The motion also requested that the planning commission be given authority to host two public hearings and to advise Bristol residents that the March 5 bond vote on the fire facility is not a vote for a specific design, but a vote for the funding required to “develop the best plan for the community on that site.”
Martin presented the approved motion to the selectboard during the board’s Monday meeting. The selectboard declined to adopt the plan. Selectman Alan Huizenga expressed concern that the motion would be precedent setting. It was also generally agreed that it was unnecessary from a legal standpoint, since the planning commission already has broad planning authority under state statues.
Town Administrator Bill Bryant also explained that a portion of the measure — a request for the commission to advise on the size/height of the building, location of the building on the lot, lighting, set backs, landscaping, among other things — came from a statute that required those design elements to be incorporated into “every zoning ordinance in the state” and would be subject to oversight in any case.
“(Those elements are) what the Board of Adjustment would be looking at,” Bryant said. “That would require a zoning permit, and that would require public hearings and so on.”
But the planning commission’s motion indicated that planners want a place at the table in the fire facility conversation, which would be the first town facility project since the town plan was approved last November.
“If everybody in Garfield Street and the vicinity on North Street and Lawrence Lane votes against (the bond), it’s still gonna pass,” Martin told the selectboard. “That’s where planning comes in. That’s the role for planning, putting together something that everybody will find satisfactory. If we can help with that … we would be glad to do that. And if you don’t want us to do that well, you’re right, we have the authority to do it anyway. But I would not want to contribute to divisiveness in the community, to run a parallel process to the selectboard.”
Bryant said that he didn’t see “anything but good” coming from the selectboard and the planning commission sharing ideas and feedback, but the board declined to formally adopt the motion and grant the planners authority to act in an advisory role.
“We want to welcome comments and I think we are … I don’t think there’s a need for a special authority,” Huizenga said.
Other board members agreed that the door would not be closed to the planning commission if the fire facility upgrade reached the design stage.
“Input from the planning commission will be most welcome but is not likely be formalized in the manner requested as part of the legal review of the project,” Bryant said on Wednesday.
“The planning commission felt that the selectboard might welcome the planning commission’s involvement because of its familiarity with the town plan and its recent experience with successfully addressing controversial community planning issues,” Martin told the Independent in a Tuesday email. “As I said last night, the planning would not want to contribute to divisiveness in the community by opening up an independent process to run parallel to the selectboard’s … As a planning commissioner, I would like to see Bristol’s selectboard and planning commission working together to assure that municipal decisions that involve planning issues conform to the vision of the recently approved town plan.”