Bristol residents offer views on proposed firehouse site

BRISTOL — In a muggy Holley Hall Monday evening, dozens of Bristol residents and members of the Bristol Fire Department discussed a proposal to build a new firehouse on West Street.
The site choice, as selected by the Fire Facility Site Selection Committee, is the culmination of more than a year of vetting.
“It’s been tough for us to figure out what the best site was for the town, but we think the (West Street) site is best,” committee member Shawn Oxford said.
The committee is chaired by Oxford and Bristol Fire Department Chief Brett LaRose. The other members are Diane Cushman, Chris Griggs, Liz Herrman, Sharon Compagna, Alan Huizenga, Kevin LaRose, P.J. Ryan and Gerry Slager.
The town selectboard, Town Clerk Therese Kirby and many members of the Bristol Fire Department also attended the meeting.
Oxford took the audience through a slideshow presentation, where he explained how the West Street site was chosen from an original list of 33. The site selection committee has been working for 14 months.
Oxford said the committee searched for a site that could accommodate a 50-vehicle parking lot and 12,000-square-foot structure, which is roughly double the space of the existing fire department.
The West Street site straddles two properties — the recreation club and a property owned by Ed and Suzanne Shepard. The grand list value of the 0.59 acre Shepard property is $124,000.
The total recreation club property is 9.7 acres, though the firehouse would only need 1.49 acres. The grand list value of that portion is $95,579, making the total sum of the firehouse site properties $219,579. The total acreage of this site is 2.08 acres, but only 1.6 is available for development once mandatory setbacks and vegetative buffer zones are subtracted.
The Hub teen center and skate park currently occupy the site, but Oxford said this does not mean they’ll have to be demolished.
“We think the Hub and skatepark can coexist with the firehouse,” Oxford said.
A rough blueprint, which Oxford stressed was not an architectural design, suggested that the skate park could be relocated to the back of the firehouse, to allow more West Street access for the building.
While formal land negotiations have not taken place between the town, the recreation club and the Shepards, since voters have not approved a site, Oxford floated the idea of a land swap between the town and the rec club, where the club would receive a Liberty Street property as part of the payment for the firehouse site.
In theory, the recreation club could then convert the Liberty Street property into more playing fields for recreational use.
After the brief presentation, Oxford solicited audience questions and comments.
Resident Ken Weston, who served on the planning commission before resigning earlier this year, said that the property on which the recreation club sits is incorrectly listed on town maps as being zoned for residential, office and commercial use (ROC). Weston said the recreation club property is zoned only for recreational use, which would prohibit development, such as the construction of a firehouse.
Town zoning administrator Eric Forand said that the front portion of the 9.7 acre recreation club property, which would be used for a firehouse, is zoned for ROC.
Later in the meeting, Weston clarified that he was not necessarily opposed to siting the firehouse on the recreation club property, but believed the town would first have to change the zoning for that area.
“If townspeople feel that this is the top site, they can vote to change the zoning,” Weston said. “I’m just saying that objectively, it doesn’t fit the criteria.”
Joel Bouvier, a member of a plethora of town organizations including the recreation club, the selectboard and the fire department, expressed concern about siting the new firehouse on West Street. Specifically, he said that building a firehouse there is at odds with the town’s goal of expanding its public and private recreational facilities.
“It’s kind of like asking a college pitcher to go to the major leagues, but you cut off his right arm,” Bouvier said.
Bouvier also believes that that the planning commission was wrong to vote that the West Street site conformed with the town plan, citing Weston’s argument about the possible zoning issue.
“The area was recently rezoned as a recreational district,” Bouvier said. “If I were a defense lawyer, I think that’s reasonable doubt that it doesn’t fit with the town plan.”
Resident David Sharpe, who represents Bristol in the Vermont House of Representatives, said the costs of maintaining the current firehouse, whatever its future purpose, would figure into how he votes on siting the new facility.
“It’s going to require extensive and expensive renovations, regardless of the use,” Sharpe said. “For me, part of the calculation has to be what happens to the existing firehouse.”
Town Clerk Therese Kirby, who next month will become the new town administrator, read a letter from resident Porter Knight, a regular attendee of the site selection committee meetings. In it, Knight commended the committee for its work, and supported the West Street site, noting that the location made geographical sense, since the majority of fire calls come from the west and south of the current North Street facility.
Matt Prine disagreed that the West Street site is a better location for the firehouse.
“I’ve seen both sides of Main Street burn, and I don’t think being further away will do us any good,” Prine said.
Resident John Moyers praised the idea of the Hub, skate park and firehouse existing on the same parcel.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Moyers said. “I can’t imagine a better proximity of people to the high school.”
Moyers also addressed Weston’s concerns about zoning, arguing that if there is to be one exception made, it should be for the firehouse.
“I agree with Ken and others that the rec park is a gem, and we’re lucky to have it,” Moyers said. “That’s the only thing I can imagine putting on the property; it’s very much in the public spirit of the rec club.”
Ron LaRose, the father of firefighters Brett and Kevin LaRose, said he was initially opposed to moving the firehouse from North Street. He said that he, like many other longtime town residents, wanted to keep with tradition.
“I was born in 1947 and raised on Lawrence Lane, and I heard them damn horns three times a day,” LaRose said. “It’s been there 100 years, why can’t it stay there?”
LaRose said he changed his mind after reading the planning commission’s reports that the North Street site was simply too small to accommodate a modern fire department.
“My allegiance has gone to the rec club property, because the planning commission said that’s where it will work,” LaRose said.
Brett LaRose characterized the current firehouse as unsafe, noting that little has been done to the structure since it was completed in 1897.
“Those buildings are in poor shape, they have poor ventilation, and we’re susceptible to carbon monoxide when we start our trucks,” LaRose said. “There will come a time when this community has to do something for their fire department. I can’t stress that enough.”
LaRose also noted that the current facility is drafty — it cost $10,000 in heating oil this past winter, and is too small for current needs, even if it is renovated.
“Six thousand square feet renovated is still 6,000 square feet,” LaRose said.
The next step is to put the site selection question in front of voters. While initially hoping for a general election vote this fall, Oxford said that could be delayed.
“The general consensus at this point is March (2015) rather than November,” Oxford said.
But later could be better, as advocates of a new firehouse are wary of asking voters prematurely — a 2013 Town Meeting Day proposal to expand and renovate the current firehouse facility on North Street was rejected by voters.

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