Bernardston Fire Station expansion pending Monday ballot question after Town Meeting OK

  • Bernardston voters gathered at the event venue at Kringle Candle and The Farm Table on Wednesday and Thursday for back-to-back nights of Annual Town Meeting. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Architect Brian DeVriese of Jablonski/DeVriese Architects presents plans for the new Fire Station addition during a continuation of Bernardston’s Annual Town Meeting on Thursday. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2021 5:16:52 PM

BERNARDSTON — The town is one step closer to finalizing plans for an estimated $2.4 million Fire Station addition after voters approved an article to borrow up to $3 million for the project at a two-part Annual Town Meeting this week. However, this article is contingent on passage of a ballot question during Monday’s town election.

The town held its Annual Town Meeting across two nights this year, approving 34 of 35 articles on Wednesday and continuing the meeting to Thursday to vote only on Article 36 — which asks voters to borrow up to $3 million for the Fire Station project. Wednesday saw 58 residents turn out, while 88 residents attended Thursday’s portion.

Fire Chief Peter Shedd has spoken to the need for a new, improved station for years. A $2.6 million proposal to purchase land for and construct a new building at 23 Kringle Drive was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2017, sending the Fire Station Expansion Committee back to the drawing board.

On Thursday, members of the Selectboard, Shedd and architect Brian DeVriese of Jablonski/DeVriese Architects spoke to the proposed design. The addition would be built at 18 Church St., the western neighboring property to the Fire Station that was donated to the town by the late Frank “Bud” Foster. The estimate for the project cost is $2,445,070, but DeVriese explained they were asking for $3 million to have a “buffer,” given the current volatility of market costs for building materials.

“Over the past couple of years we’ve gone back and forth about configurations, and we feel like this is the most economical, compact solution to the Fire Department’s needs for now and the future,” DeVriese said of the proposal.

The existing Fire Station is about 2,500 square feet, and the addition would be about 5,500 square feet. The current station was built in the 1970s, and Shedd said the department has outgrown the space to a point where it is a “hazard.” There is limited space to maneuver around vehicles, no storage space, and more equipment is needed for the volume of calls the department responds to in town, and as part of the tri-state fire mutual aid network.

The front of the new building, facing Church Street (Route 10), would house administrative offices and a meeting room. The siding of the garage bays facing west would be steel, while the side facing Church Street would be brick veneer to match the existing station. The addition would have four garage bays with a 13-space parking lot off Church Street, and be connected to the existing three-bay station by an enclosed walkway. The size of the parking lot allows for more room for the turning radius of fire vehicles, allowing firefighters to safely maneuver into the garage without having to block Church Street when responding to or returning from calls.

In addition to the space in the garage bays, DeVriese said the new addition would include “service areas such as toilets, laundry, storage, an HVAC room and showers.” Shedd said cancer is a serious concern to firefighters, and the laundry room and a new exhaust system would improve health safety.

Another problem with the current station is there is no system to draw exhaust fumes from vehicles out of the building. Such an exhaust system would be included in the addition.

According to Finance Committee Chair Jane Dutcher, a $3 million loan would be paid off over 40 years at 2.25 percent interest. Selectboard Chair Stanley Garland noted the interest rate on this loan would be locked, and there is no penalty for paying off the loan early.

Selectboard members said they are also pursuing grants from the state. The town had previously been allocated $1 million from the state for construction of a new fire station but this required a “shovel-ready plan” and the funding was never released to the town. Garland said they want to see if the town is still eligible for funding.

“We’ll continue to try to find ways to fund this, other than taxpayers’ dollars,” Garland said Thursday evening.

Discussion around the borrowing effect on the tax rate created some confusion Thursday, and some voters at Town Meeting cast their ballot under the impression that property taxes would increase by 48 cents per $100,000 of value after Dutcher misspoke. She apologized for the miscalculation, and explained that the actual effect on property taxes would be approximately 48 cents per $1,000 valuation.

The moderator noted residents could motion to reconsider the vote; however this reconsideration did not receive enough votes and passage of the article remained, with a vote of 62 to 22.

Final approval of the Fire Station proposal and borrowing is still contingent on passage of a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override on Monday’s election ballot. 

Should this question fail, the project would not be approved and the town and Fire Department would need to, once again, go back to the drawing board.

During Wednesday’s portion of the Annual Town Meeting, voters passed 34 out of the other 35 articles, which included proposed changes to zoning bylaws that required a two-thirds majority to pass. Voters did not approve Article 31, which asked for a change in zoning bylaws to permit drive-thrus at restaurants in the Center Village zoning district.

Voters did approve updates to the marijuana bylaws to incorporate state guidelines and definitions with Articles 32 and 33, as well as an accessory agricultural bylaw to allow accessory businesses and events at farms with Article 30.

The fiscal year 2022 budget items included Article 5, which sought $575,848 to pay the salaries of all elected officials and for the maintenance of town departments; Article 6 requested about $3.4 million for Bernardston’s education expenses, nearly $3 million of which is for its assessment from the Pioneer Valley Regional School District; Article 7 requested $455,799 for contracted services, pension and insurance expenses; and Article 8 sought $960,624 for public service departments.

Discussion Wednesday surrounded the Pioneer school district’s operating budget figure in Article 6. Dutcher said the Finance Committee had “too many outstanding questions” related to the $2,987,167 assessment, and recommended the town instead approve the fiscal year 2021 assessment of $2,814,044.

School Committee Vice Chair and Bernardston resident Michael Townsley, as well as non-resident school district representatives Superintendent Jonathan Scagel, School Committee Chair and Northfield resident Julie Burke and Bernardston Elementary School Principal Kelly Carriere, spoke in support of the district’s requested fiscal year 2022 amount. Townsley motioned to amend the vote to be on the originally proposed $2,987,167 figure.

This amendment passed by a vote of 26 to 23, and the fiscal year 2022 assessment ultimately passed 31 to 18.


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