Freedom — January 22, 2009 — An ongoing discussion about how to meet the space needs of town government – through land acquisition and new construction on the one hand, or through renovation and expansion of existing municipal buildings on the other – has boiled down to one question: when do we bring in the experts, before any land purchase, or after?
The [Freedom] Select Board solicited public opinion on Monday evening at an event billed as an “Informational Forum on New Municipal Land and Building.” Thirty-five citizens attended the meeting, including a group that has recently organized itself under the name “Freedom Cares” and that presented the Board with the resumes of two seemingly highly-qualified individuals – an architect and a town planner – who are willing to donate their time and expertise to a study of the viability of upgrading the existing buildings so as to meet town needs.
But first, Select Board Chair Donna Cupka opened the forum with welcoming comments and then Board member Les Babb summarized the town’s work on the issue thus far. Work started in earnest with the vote at 2006 town meeting establishing and funding, at $50,000, a Municipal Building Capital Reserve for land purchase and new construction. Voters approved adding $50,000 to the fund in 2007, and added $50,000 again in 2008. Babb noted that each of those three votes was unanimous.
The next step, according to Babb, was appointing a Municipal Building Committee in July 2006, charged with identifying “the approximate space Town Government, Police Department and Fire Department would require to function properly over the next 20 years.” The Building Committee – comprised of Tim Powers, John Iveson, Ron Champagne, Pam Fortin, Donna Cupka, Chris Szatynski, and Dan Simpson – completed a full needs assessment and submitted its final report to the Select Board in November 2006.
Their assessment determined a need for a total of 19,552 square feet for municipal services, which does not include “hallways, common area and life safety codes.” More specifically, 7,004 for town offices, 2,518 for the police department, and 10,030 for the fire department. Their report shows that existing space for town offices is only 3,312 square feet; numbers are not provided for existing police and fire departments.
While the Building Committee’s report expressed identified needs in terms of square footage, it assumed as fact that those needs would be met through land purchase and new construction. The report says, for example, “This committee feels that the size of potential available property within the town plays a significant part in the decision regarding the number buildings necessary. There are building and cost benefits to having all services on one property. If separate facilities are necessary due to land constraints, it is the recommendation of this committee to place the Fire and Police Departments in the same location.”
Babb continued his summary: meanwhile, a seven-member Land Committee was appointed and charged with finding a parcel appropriate to the building needs identified by the Building Committee. That committee (comprised of Les Babb, Scott Brooks, Jim Brown, Gene Doe, Katie Gove, Alan Grant, and Jim Shuff) looked at maps for open lots in and near the village and approached at least six landowners about their interest in selling.
Most of the lots were eliminated from consideration because they were not for sale or were found to be unsuitable. The Land Committee’s search yielded one possibility: a 10-12 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. According to Babb, the lot is an “ideal spot” for a public safety and the seller is “willing.” The Select Board has not yet received the Land Committee’s final report; according to Babb, the Land Committee is waiting for receipt of “real numbers” from an appraiser regarding the proposed land; once received, the Committee will complete and submit its report to the Board.
Citizens’ Group Wants Professionals to Explore Options
Cupka then opened the meeting to public comment and residents asked the same questions and expressed the same concerns they’ve raised at past meetings. Most important: How much will the “total package” cost, not just the land acquisition, but the site work and construction. And also, what will happen to the current Town Office building and the Village Road fire station once vacated by the town? The Select Board was not able to provide firm answers to those questions on Monday evening.
The group calling itself “Freedom Cares” submitted resumes of an architect and a town planner and requested that the Board take action on volunteers’ offer as soon as possible. The Select Board agreed with citizens that professionals will need to be brought in – eventually. Babb stated that he is “very much in favor of going forward with the [land] purchase and we will have to hire an engineer eventually anyway.”
Cupka stated that they “would consider using [the volunteers’] services but the time isn’t right.” The citizens’ group has not dismissed the option of renovating the existing town buildings and wants professional brought in before any land is purchased. The group admitted on Monday that after such a study is completed, it might turn out to be true that renovation and expansion of existing buildings is not the best option, and at that time, they would be willing to support land acquisition and new construction. They want, however, voters to be presented with the options.
The Select Board, on the other hand, long ago decided that renovation and expansion wouldn’t work. Asked on Monday evening when, where, and by whom that decision was made, Cupka responded: the Select Board and the Building Committee made that decision. The square footage needs identified by the Building Committee “just won’t fit in the current town office” building. They also decided that improvements to the Village Road fire station were “not a viable option.” The Board emphasized that ultimately, it’s the voters who will make these decisions.
The Board expects to present voters with a warrant article authorizing the land purchase. The voters can vote the article down. If the article is approved – Cupka reminded citizens – the “Board can’t put up buildings without voter approval”; voters will be asked this March to decide about just the land, not the whole project.
Yet, as John Hogan noted from the floor, if voters approve the land purchase, “we give tacit approval to build new buildings.” Similarly, Anne Cunningham, current chair of the Planning Board and co-chair at the time of the recent revision to the town’s Master Plan, asked the Board “to consider alternatives rather than the momentum, single-course option” of only new construction. Betty Godfrey also requested that the experts be brought in sooner rather than later, stating to the Board that the land purchase “is not our vision, it’s your vision” and “you’re a little close to” this issue.
Toward the end of the meeting, resident Richard Many floated an idea: the warrant article should not be about a land purchase; rather, it should be about the purchase of an option to purchase the land. This would allow time for study – by professionals – to be completed and for voters to be presented with “options” and only then, if “we decide that new is best, then proceed with the [land] purchase.” There seemed to be support on both sides of the table for Many’s idea.
So, what happens next? Will the Select Board make use of the volunteer architect and town planner? And if so, when? The Board was
asked to include the item on their agenda at their next meeting, Monday, Jan. 26 but they were unable to commit at the moment to including the item on their agenda.
Will the warrant article ask for purchase of land or for purchase of an option to purchase the land? The warrant hasn’t been finalized yet and citizens will have the opportunity to review its language at the town’s Budget Hearing on Monday, Feb. 9.
There is one thing both sides agree on: time is tight. And one thing is certain to happen next: Town Meeting will be here before we know it.
The Freedom Select Board meets on Mondays at 7 p.m.on the second floor of the town office building on Old Portland Road.