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Issue of whether to study reuse of Collinsville Fire Station going to town meeting but funding still in question

By John Fitts

Staff Writer


CANTON – On June 27, residents will have a chance to weigh in on whether the town should seek funding for a feasibility study on the cost of repurposing the existing fire station at 51 River Road. Specifically the question for the evening will be "Shall the Town of Canton seek funding to complete a feasibility study and cost estimate for repurposing the existing Collinsville Fire Station, located at 51 River Road, as a storage facility."

Residents, however, should be aware that, as it stood at press time, there was no guarantee that funding for the study would ultimately be available even if they say a collective “yes.”

As the town builds a new fire station next door to the current facility, demolition of the existing circa 1972 building has long been the plan. In fact, the November 2021 referendum for the new facility, passed by residents by a count of 2,061 to 834, included a provision to raze the existing station, with the text as follows: “Shall the town of Canton appropriate $5,400,000 for the construction of a new fire station at 51 River Road, including testing and analysis, demolition of existing fire station and site work and related improvements, and authorize the issue of bonds or notes and temporary notes in an aggregate amount not to exceed $5,400,000 to finance said appropriation?”

Funding for the demolition itself is now outside the project itself due to cost overruns. It would likely come from American Rescue Plan Act funding and is currently estimated at $102,303.65. There would also be an estimated $17,098.85 for site restoration and some remediation costs as well.

In recent months, however, several residents have come forward and urged the town to look at the issue again and consider a study to assess whether the building could be used for other purposes, including storage needs. At one recent meeting, resident Robert Bahre submitted a petition with some 200 signatures and while it legally didn’t force a town meeting, selectmen leaned in the direction. And a recent bond attorney opinion noted that the Board of Selectman has latitude on the project, particularly since the funding source for demolition is outside the bonding funds.

Other residents, particularly several who live near the facility, have pushed back on the idea, contending the town should stick to the original plan. And at its most recent meeting on June 12, selectmen received more input on the idea.

Additionally Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner has noted that keeping the building operating or even mothballing it would come with costs. There are other issues. Stormwater management plans for the new facility rely on the current building and lot not being there and site plan modification would be required. The town has also received a grant for a frontage sidewalk that also utilizes the area.

Selectmen have heard many opinions on the matter and at a June 12 meeting more residents spoke the issue.

Former First Selectman Richard Barlow advocated for the town to take possession of the Superfund property at 51 Albany, the former site of Mitchell Volkswagen and currently used for parking by Mitchell Auto. He noted that the owner of the property, a company in Ohio, haven’t paid taxes in year. Barlow also said legal changes in the property transfer act now allow the town to assume the property without provisions a private company would have to follow.

“The town receives no taxes on that property. Cadle Company out of Ohio walked away from that property because of subsurface contamination and they have not paid taxes. Mitchell has basically squatted there and used that facility free of charge providing no income to the town for that – no donations to in lieu of taxes or any other opportunities to increase the town coffers.”

While he wasn’t at the meeting, Steven Mitchell, Vice President of the Mitchell Auto Group, responded at a request from the Valley Press, calling the issue a “conundrum for many years now.”

“I don’t agree with the term squatting… I think we are equally perplexed as everyone else as to what to do with the property. In the meantime, we are keeping the property and keeping it nice as a gateway property for Canton.  We are maintaining the property and making it look like a respectable business,” he said, adding that the company is avoiding a “Wagner Ford” situation – referring to a property in Simsbury that sat vacant for many, many years.

“No one wants a gateway building that is very unsightly - that doesn’t help anyone,” he said.

At the meeting, Barlow also questioned whether the fire station would be adequate and detailed some features of 51 Albany.

“I firmly believe based on my engineering experience that you’re going to find it’s extremely difficult to do storage in the upstairs of the old fire building. That building has got, I believe, some structural issues with capacity up there and it also has nothing other than common pedestrian stairs to access that area. So, I’m here this evening asking if you’re going to be doing a study of that facility that you look at a facility I think is far more advantageous,” he said, adding that the town could perhaps still rent out space for parking at 51 Albany.  

Holly Hambleton, who lives near the fire station, also commented on the issue.  

“It is a much better building that what it is replacing,” she said of the new station under construction. “I strongly disagree with the repurposing of the present station. Open space was taken from the softball field. The old station’s demolition replaces that.”

Lisa Coggins supported the idea of the study.

“I actually support the funding of study to determine if the current firehouse can be used as storage based on the information that there is a storage demand and there’s not a lot of opportunity for storage facilities,” Coggins said. 

At a June 12 meeting, Skinner told selectmen that the town is working with a $10,000 figure for an engineering study of the building. He noted that the town’s fund balance – or reserves – is currently the only source officials see the money coming from. However, using that fund requires approval from the Board of Finance and a subsequent town meeting.

Selectmen debated whether it made sense to first schedule a town meeting on the threshold question of whether residents wanted to pursue the issue or to first go the Board of Finance so residents would know if that board was willing to tap into the reserves.

Elizabeth Corkum Winsor noted that in the past few months, selectmen have heard from residents for and against.

“I don’t know if we really have a pulse on what needs to be done here because at any given meeting we have a group of people that are either advocating for pausing or saying we need to stick with the [vote],” she said. “I think we need a bigger discussion.”

Selectman Stephen Sedor questioned the idea of going to residents with no guarantee of funding if they say yes.

He said, in part, “So, then the question is going to be, I guess, sort of the chicken and the egg. Do we want to have a town meeting that says shall we do this study?. … Let’s say the town meeting says yes …then the BOF decides no we’re not going to appropriate the funds. Is it better to have that answer prior to the town meeting or not? I guess the way I look at is I would rather know if the funds would be appropriated before we ask the citizens. …it seems to me I would rather have the answer as to the funding first.”

First Selectman Kevin Witkos disagreed, contending that if residents say no to the idea it’s done but if they say yes, the town would have a stronger argument to present to the finance board.

Ultimately, selectmen agreed.

“Kevin has a very, very good point,” Sedor said. “We have a much more legitimate position to stand on to ask the Board of Finance for funding if we have a town meeting that says yes we want to do it.”

“I think it’s incumbent on our board and the Board of Finance to listen to our residents,” Winsor said. “I would be in favor of holding the town meeting to ask [residents] whether or not we should fund the feasibility study. I think we owe it to [the residents] because every single meeting we’ve been at, somebody is talking about this issue.”

The meeting will take place at June 27 at 7 p.m. in the High School auditorium.


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