Bristol board nixes idea of putting museum in old firehouse
BRISTOL — At least for now, the historic fire station at 32 North St. in Bristol will continue to stand empty.
The Bristol selectboard on Nov. 21 voted against Bristol resident Robert Bernstein’s proposal to purchase the site and make it into a museum of 19th century woodworking equipment. In the same motion, the board tabled its discussion of what to do with the property until after the March 2017 town meeting.
The Bristol Fire Department left the 1897 firehouse last July when it moved into a new fire station on West Street.
At the Nov. 21 meeting, Selectman Joel Bouvier raised a series of objections to selling the building.
“Have we looked at all of our options and our needs — and I don’t mean needs the next six months or five years — before we sell something and say, ‘Boy I wish we had it back now,’” he asked.
A nonbinding floor vote at the March 2016 town meeting showed residents in favor of selling the historic property “as is,” by a vote of 45 to 30. In that evening’s lengthy discussion, Fire Chief Brett LaRose noted that the Bristol Firehouse Design Committee recommended selling the building because of the steep $500,000 to $800,000 estimated costs of renovation.
Ted Lylis reminded residents of the loss to the community in the demolition of such historic buildings as the Bristol Inn, the old high school and the old Saint Ambrose church. Someone suggested selling the building for $1 to a new owner willing to preserve and renovate the historic structure. And Bouvier at that time noted that the North Street fire station, still in operation then, was one of the two oldest fire stations in the United States still in active use.
Following town meeting, the selectboard moved ahead with steps to both sell the building and maintain it as a historic structure. In July it asked for proposals, with the stipulation that the new owner preserve/restore the historic integrity of the exterior to “as it was in 1897.” Other criteria the board would consider included price, economic impact on Bristol, how the proposed use fit into the neighborhood and downtown area, and how it fit into Bristol’s overall economic mix.
The 32 North St. property is 0.21 acres and contains both the 3,600-square-foot 1897 building and a second 2,160-square-foot structure from the 1970s. The 1970s structure could be torn down. The location of the septic system on the property is unknown.
The selectboard received proposals from two Bristol residents: Bernstein and John Monks, who intended to use the building as part of his Vermont Tree Goods business. Both bid an undisclosed amount, and Monks then withdrew his proposal before formally presenting it to the selectboard.
At the selectboard’s Nov. 21 meeting Bouvier expressed concern about whether Bernstein’s plan was complete enough to demonstrate how or if he would follow through. Specifically, Bouvier expressed concerns that Bernstein might simply use the building to store his antique machinery and that he might not fully restore the exterior.
“Is it (his intention to have it be) just a glorified storage building and really not going to get restored and fall into even more disrepair?” said Bouvier. “That’s my concern. It’s always been my concern.”
Bouvier has also wondered if the town might need the building at some point to house the police station or for some other civic purpose. At present, the master plan is to add a police station near the new fire station once the lease runs out on the BPD’s current office at BristolWorks, subject to voter approval.
Town Administrator Therese Kirby reminded selectboard members that they’d already deliberated on what to do with the building and had chosen to move ahead with the process of looking for a buyer. She also added that an empty building could cost the town more in insurance.
Selectboard Chair Michelle Perlee noted that the selectboard could put covenants into the deed that would stipulate how the building would need to be preserved and maintained and that these covenants could be written so that they applied to not just this sale but future sales.
Selectman Peter Coffey observed that if Bernstein met such covenants the building would be preserved and “look better than it does right now” even if Bernstein just used it to store his machinery collection.
Selectman Ted Lylis said that the board needed to pause and give the process more time and deliberation.
“My problem with it is that they’re not making any more land on North Street, particularly land that has a historic building on it,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we are obligated to sell it because the public has decided that we should. But there was no timeline and we’re not obligated to sell it right now. And I have this feeling that we’re just moving too fast on this thing and that we should sit on it for a while.”
Lylis voiced the hope that “there’s someone else out there who’s willing to buy it for more money or a use for it that’s more appealing than the possibility of a storage shed. Maybe we’re going to be using it as a municipal building again in some other form. I get the feeling that we’re moving too fast on this thing.”
The vote to reject Bernstein’s proposal and table the discussion until after town meeting was 3-0, with Perlee abstaining. Selectman John “Peeker” Heffernan was not at the meeting.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].