Top stories of 2014: #3 — Upgrades to Mt. Abe, Bristol firehouse in spotlight

This past year in Bristol and the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, residents debated two major projects that would require taxpayer-approved bonds: a new Bristol firehouse and a renovated Mount Abraham Union High School.
The Bristol Fire Department inched closer to getting a new firehouse this year, a process that firefighters have discussed for more than two decades.
In June, a firehouse site selection committee recommended that of the 33 sites initially considered, the best location for a new firehouse would be on West Street, straddling parcels owned by the Bristol Recreation Club and by Ed and Suzanne Shepard. The selectboard entered into negotiations with the recreation club, but at year’s end the entities had not reached an agreement.
Securing the land is only the first step in building a new firehouse. Residents will have to approve two separate bonds: one to purchase the land and another to finance the construction. In 2013, voters by a wide margin rejected a plan to renovate the existing firehouse on North Street.
As 2014 wore on, the need for a new firehouse became more dire. Firefighters in December told the selectboard that the wood frame of the 1897 firehouse on North Street is too weak to support the weight of 21st-century apparatus. An engineering firm determined that the sagging second floor could not safely sustain more than a few men, rendering the firehouse largely useless.
In the interim, the fire department has stored its trucks at several locations — which Chief Brett LaRose said delays response times — and held meetings at the Bristol American Legion.
To make matters worse, the department this fall dealt with a faulty septic system, which will likely need to be replaced. The selectboard approved some minor fixes, but also debated the merits of installing a new septic in a building slated to be replaced, anyway.
The fire department and selectboard hope to put a bond proposal in front of voters sometime this year, and the selectboard has formed a committee to develop a design for a new firehouse.
And if a big new firehouse wasn’t enough, the town of Bristol was told by state officials that it must come up with almost $1 million to close its town dump.
But the Bristol firehouse was not the only expensive building project five-town residents discussed in  2014.
Acting on the findings of a facilities advisory committee, the Mount Abraham school board in September voted to put a $32.6 million bond proposal to renovate the school on the Election Day ballot.
The ambitious plan would have, among other things: moved the library to the front of the school, added a middle school gymnasium, upgraded the locker rooms and renovated the lobby area. The building, save for the addition of a wing in the last decade, has not undergone substantial reconstruction since it was completed in the late 1960s.
In public forums, reaction among community members was mixed. Some said a renovation of the project was desperately needed, while others questioned the wisdom of burdening taxpayers with larger bills. It would have raised taxes on a $250,000 home by, depending on the town, between $274 and $398 for the first year of the bond.
Many residents were shocked by the price tag of the bond, which would have been by far the largest bond ever in Addison County. The proposal was also larger than three plans — ranging from $11.6 million to $27.9 million — that the board had considered earlier.
In contrast to the low turnout county-wide on Election Day, ANeSU voters flocked to the polls to declare their opposition to the project: It failed by a tally of 3,328 to 1,239.
After the dust settled, the school board pledged to draft a new proposal to send to voters as soon as possible. A new facilities committee got to work in November, but has not yet finished the new proposal.

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