Bristol asks questions about firehouse bond

BRISTOL — At a Monday evening public hearing on a proposed expansion of the Bristol firehouse, a handful of residents — many who live near the facility — raised questions about the size of the building and the speed with which the proposal is being pushed on voters.
On Town Meeting Day, Bristol residents will vote on a $375,000 bond to fund an architectural design to expand the fire department’s North Street facility and to purchase a neighboring lot at 2 Garfield St. to accommodate the expansion.
While town and fire department officials explained the project in the hearing at Holley Hall, many of the residents expressed the feeling that the proposal was going to a vote without enough time for the public to engage in meaningful discussion.
First Assistant Fire Chief Brett LaRose gave a brief timeline of the years-long process that had brought the department and the town to this point. Milestones included:
•  In 2004 the town recognized the need to improve the firehouse.
•  In 2006 money was appropriated for a feasibility study.
•  In 2008, Pacheco Ross Architects issued a study of fire department needs and various sites around town. The North Street site was ranked at the bottom of this list, as resident John Moyers pointed out at Monday’s meeting, but the North Street site was assessed without the consideration of purchasing an adjacent lot.
•  From 2008 to 2010, the project took a back seat to Holley Hall renovations.
•  In 2011 Kevin Harper offered to build a facility at the BristolWorks complex. That site, LaRose said, was ruled out for a number of reasons including street width.
The fire department began wondering if the North Street facility had been given a fair shot, so the Middlebury firm Vermont Integrated Architecture was hired to perform a feasibility study at a $3,000 cost to the town. That study included the purchase of 2 Garfield St., whose current owners had indicated to the town that they would be willing to negotiate. In August 2012, the feasibility study was presented to the fire department, whose members unanimously endorsed it.
•  This past January the purchase and sale agreement for 2 Garfield St. was signed.
Members of the Bristol Fire Department and the selectboard did their best to answer public questions and concerns about the firehouse upgrade, the funding of which would occur through two bonds. Residents will vote on the first, for $375,000, on Tuesday at Holley Hall between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. It would fund purchase of 2 Garfield St. and the building design.
The second bond would fund the actual construction and is estimated at $2 million. A vote on that bond is expected to be held in November 2014.
The firehouse expansion and bond vote have in recent weeks stirred up significant public comment on social media sites and in letters to this publication.
Prior to last Monday’s meeting, two open houses and walking tours were held at the historic firehouse on Feb. 13 and Feb. 16. During a special selectboard meeting on Jan. 17, architect Ashar Nelson presented the conceptual design that demonstrated the feasibility of using the North Street site. Distribution of Nelson’s conceptual design contributed to a misconception that that drawing represented a final design that voters would indicate approval for by voting for the first bond. Town officials have said that that a final design would be drawn up with input from the public using money from the first bond if it were to pass.
North Street resident and architect Liz Herrmann raised a number of questions related to sidewalks and pedestrian safety, preservation of the historic firehouse, and neighborhood compatibility and zoning issues.
“The building has already been dramatically reduced to fit the site, so it probably won’t get smaller, particularly the massive, approximately 55-foot-by-80-foot three-bay garage. Although the zoning board has the authority to exempt the entire project from its own regulations, doing so would have a detrimental impact on the neighborhood and streetscape,” Herrmann explained in a public letter.
At the meeting, Bryant responded by saying that “exemption” was the wrong word — the firehouse was not exempt from anything, but could be a public use exception to zoning regulations that would normally not permit a project of that scale in a High Density Residential zone. If municipal buildings didn’t have that exception, he said, they essentially would not be allowed anywhere, he said.
“The town is asking us to move forward on a project that can’t meet our zoning regulations and is incompatible with the neighborhood,” Herrmann later told the Independent. “There simply isn’t space enough to have on-site parking and meet the zoning regulations’ required 25 feet of landscaped area between the firehouse lot and its two neighbors.”
“I think a lot of people left the meeting feeling that their questions really weren’t answered,” she added.
Other neighbors said they felt similarly unsatisfied.
“This ‘We can figure it out some way’ approach is simply not acceptable for such a costly project, one that will literally shape the fabric of our community,” said North Street resident Peter Meyer.
Questions were also raised about the cost. Residents had heard that the proposed plan would be cheaper than constructing an entirely new facility elsewhere, but challenged the board to present them with figures for alternatives that had been considered. The board said that they did not have any concrete figures.
Bristol resident David Brynn believed that poor planning and communication was responsible for the stir that has arisen over the bond vote in the past few weeks. Although Brynn says he plans to vote “no” on the bond, he felt the Bristol Fire Department’s desire to stay in the downtown area was more than reasonable.
“They are a Bristol institution,” Brynn said. “They have a long history, 115 years, and they have a history of being very independent and very frugal. They also have a history of being part of the village fabric, and to suggest properties way out in the hinterlands probably just doesn’t do it for them. I think we should do everything we can to keep them in the village.”
Bryant said that despite criticism of the process and the proposal, he was encouraged to see that Bristol residents seemed to unanimously recognize the need for better facilities for the all-volunteer fire department.

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