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Updated: Canton Selectmen willing to consider another look at planned demolition of current Collinsville Fire Station

The current Collinsville Fire Station, at left, is slated for demolition after Canton Fire & EMS moves into the new facility at right. However, many residents are saying the old building should be reused for the town's storage needs. Other residents have opposed the idea.

Posted May 28

Updated May 29


By John Fitts

Staff Writer


CANTON – Following sustained lobbying from several town residents and a recent informal petition submittal, the Board of Selectmen is now open to the concept of revisiting plans to demolish the existing Collinsville Fire Station at 51 River Road. That willingness to at least perform additional due diligence came at a recent meeting and hinged on issues such as legality, timing, process and cost. This week, an opinion from a bond attorney adds some flexibility for the town, but other hurdles remain. Additionally, some residents have voiced strong opposition to the idea. 


As the town builds a new fire station next door to the current facility, demolition of the existing circa 1972, 9,483-square-foot 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?”


But in recent months, several residents have implored the town to take another look at the issue, particularly noting the town’s need for storage. Those advocates would like to see the town perform an engineering study that focus specifically on storage and other potential limited uses in the short term, with the possibilities of others in the future. Such repurposing would save the town millions in the long run, advocates of re-use say.  


Other residents, however, say the town should stick to its plan, honor the vote, allow the area to return to a natural state and not go to the expense that re-use and upkeep would bring, particularly in a tight budget year with one failed referendum already.


Proposed 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.


Selectmen and officials have also noted issues such as the cost of keeping the building running, funding a study amidst budget cuts, building deficiencies, and tight timing as demolition is set to happen as early as this summer.


This week, a legal opinion received by the town, contends the that the Board of Selectmen can vote to eliminate demolition from the project scope, especially since the razing of the building would not be funded by the bond money itself.


In part, the opinion, from bond counsel Laurie Hall, reads, “The Resolution was written to specifically to allow the Board of Selectmen to modify or eliminate items comprising the project.  We always build this in for flexibility because costs over time often do not permit all components of a project to be completed within the allotted funds or circumstances change such that components need to be modified.”

 

The opinion also noted that any vote to put ARPA funds to the demolition would need to be revisited if the town moves away from demolition. Additionally, it notes that “Any new project involving the existing/old fire house, would need to be separately approved and a funding source allocated.”

 

It is also likely that other approvals, such as a site plan modification, would need to be done if the town moves in this direction. The storm water management plan for the new fire station, for example, is designed with the demolition of the other building in mind.


The issue of re-using the “old” fire house, which is still being used while the new one is completed, has come up numerous times in recent months.


 At a March 13 Board of Selectmen meeting, the agenda included an item to “Discuss possible future uses for the existing Collinsville Fire Station.”


At the meeting, First Selectman Kevin Witkos explained that it was on the agenda due to a referral from the Permanent Municipal Building Committee. The committee had gotten a request to look at the issue, but while it works intricately on building projects, it does not make policy decisions for the town.


 At that March 13 meeting numerous residents spoke, most of them strongly opposed to the idea. Several speakers, but not all, live near the facility.


Lisa Franklin said she was not in town when the referendum was passed but noted that the planned demolition figured into her family’s decision to purchase a nearby home.


 “When we did buy, the referendum had been passed that that building was going to be taken down and that there would be natural space there. That was an important consideration for us because we didn’t want to live in an environment where we’re surrounded by all these large-scale buildings and I think I just would really like to encourage all of you to think about that because I think it’s important for us to maintain a certain amount of commitment to the townspeople who approved all of that natural space being restored in that area for the benefit of the town.”


Joseph Casioppo said the issue of the replacement firehouse had been well vetted with numerous meetings, talks and the vote.


 “A plan has been made, carried through and now some people want to change it,” he said, later adding, “Plans for a new firehouse were first being presented years back. Several different town officials promised that the old building was going to be taken down. They promised that the old building would be removed. I’m sure that they don’t want to go back on their promise.”


Carol Blejwas, who formerly lived on Dyer Avenue and recently moved back to town, also spoke in favor of following through with the plan.


“I’m here to simply echo what’s been said before about the firehouse,” Blejwas said. “I don’t know the history of the conversations, but I do agree when a plan has been hammered out and agreed upon – I know things can change – but part of the stewardship I felt when I returned here was the care for the natural landscape that this town has. And I would very much echo the prior comments – the importance of not losing sight of that – and returning open space to being open space when and if at all possible I think should be a commitment maintained.”


 Resident Kevin Bradley, a member of Canton’s Emergency Response Team, spoke at the meeting, acknowledging his opinion would not be popular that evening.


 “When I saw that the fire station was still there the question I raised was ‘well what’s going to happen with the space?’ because I have to say I would love for us to be able to have some of the town’s emergency management equipment – to have a place to go ahead and store it, that we would be able to have access to it directly in the event that we needed it.”

Bradley acknowledged that with family responsibilities, he didn’t follow the issue closely at the time of the referendum but has said the studies done at the time only considered cost estimates for upgrading the facility for use as a fire house, not other possibilities.


“I would have loved to have some input at the time about future uses of that space because I think we might have been able to go ahead and look at some additional possibilities – low-cost possibilities.”


 Selectmen, that evening, were of the mind that the decision had been made.


 “When the new fire station project was explained and sold to the public it was clearly part of the project to demolish the existing station and being familiar with that station with the deteriorated condition that it’s in today, almost any other use that we would make of that building, even for dead storage, would require a substantial investment on it and if we wanted to use it for anything more public, it would be a lot of money,” said Bill Volovski. “I don’t see putting any money back into that building – 50 years old and with the condition that it’s in now and I don’t think that we have a need for it, either.”


 “There’s no action required,” Witkos said after some additional discussion. “I think the board is not going to change what was voted upon at the referendum, so the plan is to move forward as the residents voted on it.”


 On April 10, the issue came up again. A few days earlier, Board of Education Chairman Lou Daniels wrote to the commission prior to the meeting, stating, in part, “Our school buildings are currently facing severe storage shortages, which in the past resulted in the utilization of on-site storage trailers, which ultimately proved unsustainable due to weather-related damage to the items being stored. Moreover, our school basements are overflowing and our maintenance facility on Front Street is inadequate for our workers to perform their duties effectively. By repurposing the old firehouse for storage, we can alleviate these pressing space constraints and avoid the need for a future building project. The funds now intended for demolition could be redirected towards landscaping to enhance curb appeal, provide screen tree coverage for neighboring properties and make basic improvements to ensure the building remains operational. I suspect it will cost less than the $101k we have saved for demolition.”


 Some residents also spoke to the Board of Selectmen that evening but no action was taken.

 At least two residents brought up the issue again on May 8 and while selectmen did not discuss the issue in length, Witkos raise the idea of the town taking control of the state superfund site at 51 Albany Turnpike and using it for storage needs. While the former site of Mitchell Volkswagen, that property is owned by an out-of-state company and Canton has not received tax payments on the property in years.


 At a May 22 Board of Selectmen meeting Robert Bahre, who had raised the issue at several of the previous meetings, came in with more than 200 signatures on a petition imploring the town: “Do not raze the old firehouse. We ask the town of Canton, CT to consider retaining the building to repurposed for Town Storage. Storage for the Police, Fire, EMS, the Board of Education and the Department of Public Works. We humbly request a comprehensive engineering report to determine the lifespan of the buildings and approximate dollar amount to repurpose facility for continued use.”


 “I’d like to submit [the petition] to you, and have you look through it – maybe slow down a little bit and take another look at it, think about the value of the building that’s sitting there, what it could mean to the community further down the road,” said Bahre, who also noted his engineer estimated the cost of a study at around $3,500.


Other speakers, including Dan Barnhart, who has also spoken at several of the meetings, contend that the voters at referendum weren’t given the option of choosing to use the building for a lower-cost use.


 “There was a hard sell that that building was unworthy and what the taxpayer heard was the building was useless,” he said. “It’s not an adequate firehouse. I was a fireman there and I’m building the new one, which most of you know, but that building is move in ready for shop, storage; it’s got three-phase power, gas, water, sewer, a generator. When you talk about good use of land …. You couldn’t use that land any better. It’s a municipal campus. That building is shoehorned in on part of that property, which if you take it down, you will not be able to utilize it again.”


Resident and Board of Finance member Tom Blatchley noted that the funding is now outside of the referendum spending, raising the question of whether that still ties it with the $5.4 million funding sources.


“The ultimate question is clearly whether than the destruction, removal, demolition of the firehouse or razing of the firehouse is contemplated then within the question that was voted on by the public if the funding source is not the $5.4 million that was voted on by the public favorably,” he said.


Skinner and selectmen spent some time on the issue raising some questions, many of which had come up previously from him and others.


 First and foremost, Skinner said, is the legal question about what it would take to change course if the board chose to explore that option. As of the meeting date, he did not have the town attorney’s opinion and later that week said it will now be a question for bond counsel. (That opinion has now been received as noted above).


 Another issue is the Planning and Zoning issue and Planning and Zoning Commission. Chairman Michael Vogel spoke at the May 22 meeting and said the commission would certainly consider a modification application in as timely a manner as possible.

And timing is indeed another issue.


 Skinner concurred that the previous fire station study, which concluded rehabilitation and expansion of the station would be more expensive than building new, didn’t explore uses such as storage. Skinner, however, expressed concerns that attempts to preserve buildings in the short term are sometimes inadequate.


 “When they originally looked at the fire station, they looked at it more from architectural standards, in particular what it would take to maintain it as a fire station,” he said. “It wasn’t looked at to be just a maintenance facility or something else. My experience with trying to mothball buildings for short periods of time [is that it] never works but that certainly is something that you can look at. If you do want to actually do a study and determine the feasibility of using the building for other [uses], and want to know what the cost would be, I would do it sooner than later. And, if you do decide to keep it, you’ve got to revisit the budget because you don’t do it for free.”


While the petition was not done in a way to force a town meeting, selectmen said the documents show that a lot of people are interested in the topic. Skinner told selectmen that they can schedule a town meeting on their own will but said that should be done soon if they go that way. However, officials noted it’s also a stretch to go to town meeting without a study as there would be no firm data to present.


Despite the potential issues, on May 22 selectmen did seem amenable to looking into the issue further – depending on the legal advice. (Volovski was unable to attend the meeting).


“I understand that it was black and white in the referendum,” said Elizabeth Corkum Winsor. “I’m wondering if a pause should occur, just to do the final due diligence on it because it keeps coming up – so I’m not saying indefinitely but I’m wondering if due diligence should be done on it.”


“We have 200 people sign a petition that they want to have it reconsidered,” said Selectman Tim LeGeyt. “I’m certainly willing to do that


 Witkos thanked Bahre for his work


“I applaud you for submitting this number of signatures.” Witkos told Bahre earlier in the meeting. “That obviously took a lot of work to get in a short period of time, following through by speaking to members of the zoning board to see if there was a willingness to discuss or hear that. I do want to hear what the town’s attorney’s opinion on this.”


Selectman Stephen Sedor spoke to the town’s budget challenges this year as a second referendum looms and cuts were made that very night. He also worried that it could get into a situation where people wanted to keep the building but the town couldn’t afford to do so.


But he agreed it should be placed on the June 12 agenda.


 “My thought would be… that we put it on the next agenda, we wait for the town attorney’s opinion and then at point maybe we have a chance to reflect more on the financial implications of it as well,” he said.

 

 

The circa 1972 Collinsville Fire Station as photographed for a previous town document.

 

 

1 Komentar


finn16418
29 Mei

A lot of us have fond memories of that building! Once you knock it down you won’t be able to use it. But it sounds like the school district needs to have a tag sale!

Suka
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