Bristol rec club pulls out of firehouse deal

BRISTOL — The Bristol Recreation Club has backed out of its negotiations with the town of Bristol to sell some of its property for a site on which to build a new firehouse.
The move came after a Bristol resident pitched a new location and financing plan for the firehouse that the recreation club endorsed and both the town and fire department believe is viable.
“We are thrilled to learn the town has been presented with a new opportunity across the street from the Rec Field, and with that said we will discontinue our negotiations with the town so you can pursue that option,” wrote Ronald LaRose on Jan. 22 on behalf of the recreation club.
A committee of residents and town officials spent a year vetting nearly three-dozen proposed sites on which to build a new firehouse and chose the recreation club site as the best option. The town had been in negotiations with the rec club since the fall until the club backed out last week.
The new option, which prompted the recreation club to rescind its offer, was proposed by Kevin Harper, the co-founder of the Bristol Works business park. Harper told the selectboard Jan. 12 that he had purchased nine acres of land on the south side of West Street, across from the recreation club property, and would be willing to both host a new firehouse on that site and help the town finance it.
On the original rankings of potential firehouse locations, the siting committee chose the south side of West Street as the third-best.
In his letter, LaRose added that the club believes the new option is better for the town because it would leave fields and the skate park untouched and could be less expensive for residents.
“As taxpayers, we support the pursuit of this cost effective alternative which both preserves recreation space and meets the town’s needs for a new fire facility,” LaRose wrote.
Town Administrator Therese Kirby read the recreation club’s letter to the selectboard Monday evening. Board members said they looked forward to learning more about Harper’s proposal.
Selectman John “Peeker” Heffernan said the town should first examine the location the site selection committee chose as the second-best option, which was the existing firehouse property on North Street plus adjacent parcels.
Board members expressed reservations about the North Street site, chiefly because it would require moving or demolishing at least one home. Heffernan said the town should do its due diligence by considering the site, but acknowledged that Harper’s plan appears to be a better one.
“I think we have to vet the North Street site, but I don’t think it has to be a long, drawn-out process,” Heffernan said.
He said he hoped the town could choose to pursue Harper’s plan by Town Meeting Day, so an already-formed committee of residents charged with designing a new firehouse could work with one site instead of several.
“We’ve got momentum and we’ve got people excited,” he said. “On Town Meeting Day we can let people know about (the new plan) and charge the design committee with one site to look at.”
Bristol Fire Chief Brett LaRose, who attended the meeting with a cadre of firefighters, said that while he thought the withdrawal of the recreation club offer was unfortunate, he was eager to learn more about Harper’s plan. 
Brett LaRose said the main advantage of building a firehouse on Harper’s land on West Street is that it would not involve removing any existing structures.
“I think building a fire station on an open piece of land makes more sense,” the chief said. “It gives you more flexibility and room to expand in the future.”
He said building on North Street would likely necessitate the removal of a historic home and significantly alter the existing firehouse structure, which was built in 1897. He cited concerns about enough parking space at that location and also noted that in 2013, residents overwhelmingly rejected a bond proposal that would have expanded the existing North Street facility.
In the fall, LaRose outlined to the selectboard the dire situation his department is in, and urged the town to build a new facility as soon as possible. The existing firehouse is not structurally strong enough to support the weight of firetrucks on the first floor nor department meetings on the second floor. To make matters worse, the building’s septic system is failing and will require upgrades or a complete replacement.
LaRose said Monday that he was excited that Harper’s proposal could allow Bristol to build a new firehouse sooner than otherwise anticipated.
“We can possibly get into a new facility that has less of an impact on taxpayers, at least initially, without a big bond payment,” he said. “This is an option I hope the selectboard and taxpayers consider after we vet North Street.”

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