Preparing for Growth in Freedom

Freedom — September 15, 2009 — There’s no doubt that residents want retain the town’s rural character and small-town integrity as time speeds forward. “It’s really important to many people,” Gale Morris, member of the town’s heritage commission, said at a public forum last week. Library trustee Anne Cunningham agreed that Freedom is “a beautiful little village that time has forgotten.” And, architects assured the more than two dozen residents present at a public forum last Tuesday, this will be a major factor in moving forward with the analysis of public buildings.

At March town meeting, voters rejected an article that would have enabled the town to purchase several acres of land, using money set aside in an established reserve fund, to attend to town building needs. Instead, voters called for professional study of the town building stock, as well as cost comparisons of renovating versus embarking on new construction. New London-based Sheerr Mc-Crystal Palson Architecture, Inc., (SMP) has been assigned to this task.

Essentially, it’s about prudent planning, according to Eric Palson, SMP president: Looking at least 20 years out, the goal should be to ensure that spaces are big enough to suit current and future needs, but at the same time not be over-sized excessive.

“We’re in it to solve the problem and come up with something that people will support,” he said.

But the question of how much the town will grow – and ultimately how that will determine the requirements for town buildings – was a main course of discussion at the meeting, which will be one of several held throughout the process. Based on statistics from the state, SMP plans to configure building alternatives that could meet the town’s needs assuming a 50 percent growth in population. Right now, the town’s population is roughly 1,275, according to Palson, and 50 percent would add another roughly 600.

But residents in attendance argued that that number seemed excessive and unrealistic.

“It’s squishy, for sure, but we have to pick some growth number,” acknowledged Article 26 Committee chair John Shipman. Committee member John Krebs noted the “astronomical” growth in demand in town offices, as well as service calls, in recent years. Also, the summer population puts a “large demand” on the fire and police departments, he said. However, he noted, “it’s hard to say how growth and municipal services are related.”

Other issues up for consideration: The police department has no evidence storage or handicap accessibility, Krebs said, and parking for the town offices is extremely limited. Meanwhile, the fire department Meanwhile, the fire department is largely under-sized, according to Fire Chief Gene Doe.

“It’s definitely too small, bumper-to-bumper,” he said. Trucks are backed in two-deep until their bumpers tap, he explained.

There are also maintenance problems, such roof leaks in several places that become torrents during big storms. Krebs similarly noted a “geometric” problem with wheeling trucks in up the slope of the building’s driveway. Also, the highway department should be assessed, committee members noted. Right now, there’s “no room to grow,” because the current building is land-locked by private property, Krebs said.

Going forward with the process, SMP will look any combination of upgrades, rehabs, shared spaces or all-out rebuilds town offices and the fire and police stations. This analysis will continue over the next several months, according to Shipman, and information will eventually be presented in a final report. Throughout, SMP will meet with the Article Committee, an agent of the board of selectmen, and will also interview town officials, staff and residents. There will similarly be public input sessions held regular intervals, and a final summary will be presented to residents at or before annual town meeting.

Ultimately, architects will assess the structural condition and space needs of each existing facility and land option as they pertain to fire, safety, energy and other requirements, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act – and at the same time review the rural character of the town. In the end, an engineering report will summarize structural, electrical and mechanical conditions of all existing buildings.

Then, up to eight potential alternatives will be offered; those will eventually be whittled to four and ranked. Design concepts and electronic 3-D views will be prepared for proposed options, and each option will also include a cost analysis that looks at any required land acquisitions or full site development, the building envelope, general room layouts and building designs, key building infrastructure, hazardous materials removal or handling, temporary relocation costs, parking and emergency vehicle access, site surveys and any needed furniture, computer or accessory equipment.

In the end, “We’ll entertain any reasonable option,” said Palson. Agreed Shipman, “Anything practical is on the table.” And as the process moves forward, committee members and architects suggested residents get involved and educate themselves.

“It’s important for people to see the actual condition (of current buildings),” said SMP vice president Christopher Lizotte. “It’s helpful to see it with your own eyes.”

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