New Fire Station Goes Up In Smoke
by Tim Wood
CHATHAM --- After
several years of spending millions of dollars on new municipal buildings
and an expanded sewer system, voters finally put on the brakes at
Monday's annual town meeting, refusing to dig into their pockets for
another $9.5 million for a new fire station.
While there was
universal agreement that the present 60-year-old station on Depot Road
is in rough shape and needs to be replaced, feelings were just as strong
regarding the 24,113-square-foot building proposed to take its place. It
was simply too big.
“We need to upgrade
the fire station,” said Selectman Sean Summers. “Do we need a fire
station this size? Clearly, no.”
The failed vote
leaves the fire department headquartered in a cramped building with a
leaky roof, inadequate equipment and living space and no decontamination
area, a shortfall that Fire Chief Michael Ambriscoe said the department
had been cited for by the state.
“We'll keep truckin',”
he said Tuesday morning, adding the mood among firefighters was not bad,
considering the vote. “They just come in and do their job. And they'll
continue doing their job.”
With no funds left
for architectural design – $45,109 has been spent so far on the plans,
accordign to Town Manager Jill Goldsmith – it remains to be seen where
the situation will go from here. Chairman of Selectmen Florence Seldin
was to meet with Goldsmith Wednesday to discuss the matter.
“We heard loud and
clear they want it smaller,” Seldin said Tuesday morning, “so we have to
go back and see what the next step will be.” Funds for architectural
services will be available through the town's consulting budget once the
new fiscal year begins July 1, she added, and if additional money needs
to be appropriated a special town meeting is expected to be held in late
August to fund the Monomoy Regional High School construction. Goldsmith
said the capital projects review committee will meet today (Thursday,
May 17) to discuss the situation.
Ambriscoe said it
could be another year before the building is redesigned and brought back
The fire station is
the last of several major municipal building projects on the capital
facilities replacement program, including the community center, new
police station and town hall annex. Debt from those projects and the
sewer expansion was largely responsible for the hefty hike in the tax
rate approved as part of the fiscal 2013 operating budget, and it was
clear from those discussions that voters were wary of adding to the tax
burden (see related story).
It's already been
nearly two years since the capital projects review committee first began
working on the plans for a new station. The first design was rejected by
selectmen as too large in January 2011. This past February selectmen
accepted new plans that scaled the structure back by about 13 percent,
although the cost also went up another $1 million to $9.5 million.
Selectman Leonard Sussman warned voters Monday that further delays will
increase costs by at least $400,000 to $500,000 and result in “less of a
He said there was
nothing opulent about the proposed design, that it was “typical of fire
houses all across the country. This is what we need. I don't want it to
cost more next year.”
But Eric Whiteley
said the proposed design would result in one of the largest fire
stations on the Cape, with five equipment bays and some 4,000 square
feet of living space. He urged voters to “push back” and ask officials
to develop “something that fits our needs, but not at this scale.”
David Oppenheim, a
former member of the capital projects review committee, agreed. “It's
way too big, way more than we need now and in the future, even with the
quint,” he said, referring to the ladder/pumper truck that voters
approved purchasing earlier in the meeting. He called the proposed
design “a municipal McMansion” and suggested it was oversized by 25 to
“Let's set the
standard for what we need, not the biggest,” Oppenheim said.
The town should have
maintained the current building better, said John Huether. “If the roof
leaks, shame on” those in charge of maintenance, he said. Officials
should rethink the concept of building a substation in South Chatham and
scaling back the main station, he suggested.
South Chatham summer
resident John Hallgren said he visited more than a dozen fire stations
on the Cape and in Florida while helping the committee research the
project, and the proposed station was in keeping with the town's needs.
“Living space” includes locker rooms and offices, and when that's
excluded, the space for firefighters is only about 1,795 square feet, he
said, not much more than the current space. He added that a
20,000-square-foot fire station built in Dennis for a department about
the same size as Chatham's is too small.
“This station is not
too large,” Hallgren said.
Summers said the
building is “too much,” citing the five double bays as twice what
currently exists, a fitness center which would be in addition to fitness
centers at the new police station and the community center, and a 20
percent contingency in the budget that is “beyond anybody's reasonable
Because it was to be
finance by borrowing, the article required a two-thirds majority to
pass. It didn't even get a simple majority, failing by a vote of 293
against to 194 in favor.
“It seems like the
whole problem was about the second floor, the living quarters being
4,000 square feet,” Ambriscoe said. The living space serves more than
the six firefighters on duty, he explained; with call firefighters and
other staff, there can be 10 to 15 people using that space. Even if the
living space square footage is cut in half, however, the savings would
only be about $360,000, he said, and delaying construction will probably
cost more than that. “We'll end up spending more and getting less
building,” he said.
The fire department
was unlucky enough to be the last of several major municipal building
projects to come before voters over the past several years, even though
many considered it to be the structure in the worst condition. Early on
the decision was made to keep the fire headquarters at its current Depot
Road site; to do so, a new police station had to be built first so that
the old police station could be removed to make room for a larger fire
house. Along with the $59 million sewer expansion – $20 million of which
was covered by grants – voters spent $10 million on the community center
and $16.6 million on the police department/annex buildings. Debt from
the sewer and PD/annex accounts for most of the upcoming tax rate
“That's what happens
when you're on the end of the chain,” Ambriscoe said about Monday's
vote. He added that nobody showed up at an informational meeting
about the new station plans held a few weeks ago.
In an e-mail Tuesday,
Goldsmith said options for the fire station include appropriating
additional design money at the upcoming August special town meeting and
bringing the plans back to the 2013 annual town meeting; bringing
revised plans to the August special town meeting, if funding can be
found for architectural work, although that schedule would be tight; or
bringing the same plans back to voters at the special town meeting.