Bristol hears case for new firehouse site

BRISTOL — A committee charged with finding a location for a new firehouse recommended a site to the selectboard on Monday.
The Bristol Fire Facility Site Selection Committee recommended a site on West Street that includes property owned by the Bristol Recreation Club and an adjoining lot owned by Ed and Susan Shepard.
“That’s our number-one site, when it comes down to it,” committee member Sean Oxford said.
The committee last year started with 33 proposed sites, vetting each according to a list of criteria. The group narrowed the list to six last October and two in November — the West Street one and another on North Street, which includes the site of the existing firehouse plus adjoining properties.
Oxford said the committee chose the West Street location in part because in December, the Bristol Planning Commission voted that the site conformed to the town plan, while the North Street site did not.
The Bristol Recreation Club is a private organization that is not affiliated with the town recreation department. The club owns 10.29 acres, valued by the town at $363,400. The firehouse would not occupy this entire property, and town officials have yet to calculate how much space the fire department would need, or how much it would cost for taxpayers to purchase the land.
“The $363,000 is the grand list for all of the rec club property,” said Brett LaRose, a committee member who is also the Bristol fire chief. “We’re not sure what the cost will be for just our parcel.”
The $363,000 figure does not include value of the Shepard property.
Oxford said that the committee did look at just using land from the rec club, but found it wouldn’t be as suitable on its own.
“We did evaluate the rec club property on its own, but without the Shepard property it narrowed the possibilities,” Oxford said.
In evaluating the final two sites, Oxford said the committee answered three questions: Whether the existing Hub Teen Center and skate park on the Rec. Club lot could fit alongside a new firehouse, what traffic and safety concerns each site posed, and what to do with the existing firehouse on North Street.
Oxford said that the committee believes a new firehouse can fit on the site alongside the Hub and skate park.
She said the safety concerns of siting a firehouse on West Street can be mitigated with blinking traffic lights.
“With the hill and the high school, it can be treacherous,” Oxford said. “I think it’s a very important concern, but if we do our due diligence, it can be addressed.”
Oxford said that committee discussed what to do with the existing firehouse, should a new facility be built, and decided that would be a decision made by the public.
“We don’t want to put too many hypotheticals on the table,” Oxford said. “That’s something that’s going to be one of the questions at the public meetings.”
Selectboard member Peeker Heffernan said he was supportive of the work the committee has done so far, and added that getting residents to approve the cost of building a new firehouse “is going to be an uphill battle.”
Selectboard Chair Joel Bouvier said he wished the committee presented more information about the North Street proposed site.
“I would have like to see the onion peeled back a little more on 32 North St.,” Bouvier said.
LaRose asked Bouvier, who is a member of the Recreation Club board, if he would recuse himself from voting on the issue on the selectboard.
“I’ll step down from the selectboard before I step down on the rec club board,” Bouvier said. “I’ve been a member for 30 years.”
Before a new firehouse can be built, voters will need to OK the town’s purchase of property, as well as the cost of a new structure. The selectboard debated whether to ask voters to first approve just the purchase of land on which to build a firehouse, and later ask voters to approve funds to build the structure, or ask voters to approve the entire sum in one bond vote.
Another potential obstacle is the fact that Addison Northeast Supervisory Union officials are considering a renovation project at Mount Abraham Union High School that may ask voters to approve a bond totaling between $11.6 million and $27.9 million.
LaRose said that the site selection committee discussed the timing of both projects, and the burden they would place on taxpayers.
“It’s one of the reasons we decided to move forward and not wait,” LaRose said. “It’s never going to be a great time for any of these projects, but it’s time we take a look at our infrastructure before something catastrophic happens here.”
LaRose said he would like to see a vote this November, so the fire department will have a better idea when they may, or may not, expect a new facility.
“If it goes down and goes down significantly, then we know it’s about the money, and we’ll put it to rest,” LaRose said. “The current facility is literally falling down around us — for the peace of mind of the department, a vote this November will help us move on.”
On May 14, the site selection committee will present its findings to the Bristol Fire Department, followed by a presentation to the general public on June 9. Members of the selectboard said they planned to attend the June 9 meeting to field questions from citizens.

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