Freedom — December 28, 2008 — “When, where, and by whom was that decision made?” That’s one of many questions that 45 citizens asked of the Freedom Land Committee at its meeting on Tuesday, Dec.16. Town officials have been proceeding for some time with plans to purchase land for a new structure that would house the fire department, police department and town government, vacating the current town office building on Old Portland Road and the fire station on Village Road.
Some citizens are asking, however, if renovation and expansion of the two existing buildings would meet identified needs without new construction. Since at least March 2006, town officials have been planning for new construction, conducting no known public conversation about the viability of upgrading the existing buildings.
Presumably, a decision against investigating renovation and expansion must have been made, residents argued, but when, where and by whom?
It appears the decision was made sometime before the 2006 Town Meeting. It was a 2006 warrant article that started the public process that led to last Tuesday’s meeting. The warrant article established a capital reserve fund “for the purpose of acquiring land and building a municipal building thereon” and appropriated $50,000 for that fund.
A few days later, the board of selectmen sent a letter of inquiry to a landowner. The letter, dated March 20, 2006, mentions the recently approved monies for land and construction and continues: “The board is currently looking into properties close to the village…We would like to set up a meeting with you to review options on acquiring this parcel.” The parcel turned out to be unsuitable.
Four months later, in July 2006, a municipal building committee was appointed by the select board and charged to “identify the approximate space town government, police department and fire department would require to function properly over the next 20 years.” That committee conducted a full needs assessment and completed a report dated November 2006.
The report emphasizes the municipal building committee’s focus on determining the square footage requirements of various town departments and does not mention renovation of existing buildings, which would have been beyond the scope of its duties. Yet the report assumes as fact future land purchase and new construction; for example, the report stated, “There was discussion about land size…[and] land availability may drive the number of buildings, 1 or 2.”
In November 2006, while the municipal building committee was finishing up its work, the land committee had its first meeting. The nine-member land committee, according to its records, has met a total of six times, most recently this past Tuesday. This committee’s “charge,” as described by Freedom Land Committee Chair and Select Board member Les Babb, is “to find a parcel appropriate to the [new] building.”
And that is exactly what his committee has done. Babb outlined his committee’s search process, which included members looking at maps for open lots in and near the village and approaching landowners about their interest in selling. They have contacted at least six landowners, but most of the lots were eliminated from consideration because they were not for sale or were found to be unsuitable.
One lot is still under consideration. It is a 10- to 12-acre piece of a 55-acre lot near the corner of Route 153 and Ossipee Lake Road, with road frontage on the Lake Road starting a bit west of the intersection and ending before Berry Bay Road. The lot, according to Babb, is in an “ideal spot” for “at least a public safety building” with a “willing” seller.
The land committee voted to have the property’s value assessed and once that is done, they will schedule their next committee meeting sometime in January. They plan to recommend to the board of selectmen that an article to purchase this property be presented to voters at the 2009 Town Meeting.
Those in attendance on Tuesday, however, weren’t ready to proceed toward a land purchase on the land committee’s timeline. People expressed concern about the town vacating the two existing buildings. John Hogan asked from the floor, “What are you going to do with the existing buildings and how much will that cost?” He added, “These problems need to be solved before I would vote to purchase this land.”
John Shipman said that “if we take public use of these buildings away from the village,” then we run the danger of “dismantling of the town character and sense of place.” The committee offered no firm plans for the two existing buildings, if vacated.
And then there is the desire for more study. Emery Stokes was just one of several who stated that “other options should be looked at,” such as renovating the existing town office building and keeping town government there while refashioning the existing fire station into a public safety building that would adequately house both the fire and the police departments. Another citizen suggested keeping town government at the existing town offices and having new construction just for public safety.
Lee Fritz asked the committee to “explore getting some aid from professionals” such as architects in evaluating the existing buildings; the town, after all, does have $150,000 in its capital reserve fund for, among other purposes, “architectural studies.”
Charlie Bojus, summarizing a sentiment expressed by many, stated that “no one is questioning the need for new [space] for the police department and fire department,” and he’s “not questioning the [suitability of the proposed] property or the [estimated] cost of the property.” But he identified a problem with “the way this is being proposed” and wanted to know, “What is the finished product going to cost?” In the same vein, Anne Cunningham stated that “we’re walking backwards into some of the decisions” and thought that a building should be designed before any land is purchased.
Communication and Public Involvement
People on both sides of the table seemed frustrated with the apparent breakdown in communication between town government and citizens. Many citizens have insisted that they didn’t know until recently of the town’s plans to relocate and consolidate municipal services.
Bojus, for one, said that he would not have known about the evening’s land committee meeting if not for a private e-mail and asked, “Where do you post these meetings?” Babb responded that committee’s meetings are posted at the town office building and at the post office; he further stated that “this has been going on for three years,” and the town is “well at the end of the process.”
In addition to meetings being posted at those two locations, voters at 2006 Town Meeting established and funded the Municipal Building Capital Reserve Fund. Voters approved adding $50,000 to the fund in 2007, and added $50,000 again in 2008. Town meeting minutes indicate that each of those three votes was unanimous; all those voters presumably knew about the town’s plans for housing its municipal services.
However, land committee meetings were not posted in the newspapers, select board meetings have not included periodic updates on the issue, and the town Web site contains no information about the work of the municipal building committee or the land committee. If you were to go to the town office to educate yourself about land committee proceedings, you’d find minutes for just one of the previous five meetings.
Babb pointed out on Tuesday that previous meetings, though posted and open to the public, had not been attended by the public and stated that he hopes “even more” people attend the committee’s next meeting.
“If you want to know something, just ask,” he said, adding, “I’ve never kept a secret… and have tried to be open.”
The Freedom Land Committee expects to meet in January; the date, once determined, will be posted at the town office and the post office. For more information, call the town office — open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. — at 539-6323.