About 40 residents from the town of Westport turned out for a public meeting on the future of three town structures Dec. 2 at the town hall. The town is looking to replace the town highway garage and fire house while renovating the hall.
The town of Westport is trying a new approach to solve their infrastructure issues.
With continually deteriorating conditions at the town hall, Westport Fire House and Department of Public Works garage, the town officials met with representatives of Vermont Integrated Architecture to talk with about 40 members of the community on a new set of plans to renovate the town hall and replace the fire house and garage Dec. 2.
Supervisor Dan Connell said the meeting was organized to start looking at a new way to attack an issue that had been at the center of two previously failed town referendums.
“I have been asked why the town and the fire district are looking at this because the residents have already voted no,” Connell said. “We had put a project together where everything was going to be built as one and the school was involved. We still have problems with these buildings and those are not going to go away. This is a much different project now then the one that was defeated.”
Connell said the issues have been separated into two committees, one looking at the renovations to the town hall and the other looking at where to relocate the fire department and highway garage.
“Our main intent tonight is to have a conversation with the town,” councilman and town hall committee member Dan McCormick said. “We have not made any decisions at this point and we are still gathering information. This is not going to be a one time meeting. As we move forward, we still want to hear from you and get your feedback.”
McCormick said the time had come to start looking at more permanent solutions to the problems that had been plaguing the town facilities.
“If you have an old car and you keep putting money into it, there is a time where that can be money well spent and then there comes a time where you have to start looking at the alternatives,” McCormick said.
“We have been working on this project for about a year,” town hall committee member Bill Johnston said. “We are looking at rehabilitating this building. What we heard informally is that people wanted this building to stay the town hall. This building is an integral part of the town and people want the town hall to remain here.”
Johnston said that there are several issues with the town hall, including leakage, accessibility, framing and code compliance.
“The building needs to be brought up to the building code,” Johnston said. “The best way to put it is that we need to modernize this building. When this building is updated it should have all of the bells and whistles of a new, modern building — have all offices on one floor. This building has assets and is a valuable building. This is a basically sound building.”
For the fire department and highway, the focus was more on building a new facility that could be used jointly by both entities.
“I see that this is something that needs to get done and I want to find a cost effective way for this to get done,” said volunteer fireman Jim Rule, a member of the fire house and DPW committee. “There’s numerous problems and a lot of it stems from the age and the size of the facility. Currently, we do not have any room around the vehicles to safely work. The problems are just too many to try and address it where the current building is located and are just too many to address them without the need of a new building.”
“The long and short of it is we have outgrown our building,” DPW head Dennie Westover said. “The trucks are bigger now and the same is true for the fire department. Now, they all have to sit outside and we have to keep them plugged in all the time and that is not being energy efficient. But the biggest key is the safety. I want a clean, workable safe environment that my men can work in.”
“They have told us that they are going to condemn the highway department building, they just have not sent the official paperwork to us yet,” Connell said of the highway garage. “(The town hall), in the shape that it is in for public assembly, it is just going to be a matter of time. We are not asking people for this just because we want newer buildings. We want to have a plan in place before we are no longer able to use the buildings.”
Ashar Nelson and Andrea Murray of Vermont Integrated addressed those in attendance about their part of the process.
“When you do a project like this, it is not simply just building a building,” Nelson said. “There are many regulatory organizations that oversee this process and we have to make sure we conform with each of them. There is a whole host of different things that we have to pay attention to. As a community you want to make sure that you are adhering to those standards because you want to invest in a building that will last you for decades to come. These buildings are not performing up to the standards that they need to.”
“Before we start thinking about any design or any budgets, we want to hear from you because your support is what is going to make this project fly,” Murray said. “All of the work that we do is going to be accessible to the community and on the town web site.”
Nelson added the new project would not be as expensive as the one defeated by residents in the last referendum in 2011.
“We can safely say that the next project is not going to encompass everything that was trying to be funneled into the first two projects that were voted down,” Nelson said. “The overall arc of construction costs is that they go up, and every time you decide not to do a project is pushing that cost down the road and increasing it.”
Nelson said that they hoped to be able to design a plan that would be ready for construction work by the fall of 2014.
The floor was then open for comments from those in attendance.
“What happens down the road if you get the two units together and they cannot work together,” asked Bob Rice.
“We have had a lot of discussion between the fire commissioners and the town,” Connell said. “We kept coming back to the fact that most of our DPW workers are also in the fire department. Where we are right now, it would be a huge advantage to have them together.”
“I was really disappointed when the first two votes went down because even though I was not going to have to pay higher taxes with a bond, I am going to be the one that is going to get hit with an even higher cost down the road,” Matt Bosely said. “It’s just going to be a matter of time before these buildings will be falling apart.”
“When you go out with a $7 million issue, you scare half the people in the town,” councilman Russ Paquette said. “I think that we should do it this time. The tax line is going to be sufficient enough for it to work this time.”
“I was thrilled to hear that you are thinking of remodeling and preserving this building,” Westport Chamber of Commerce President Dee Carroll said. “I have a concern about what will happen with the old firehouse because we have so many empty buildings now that it is getting to be a real concern. If we are going to move out (of the fire house), I would frankly see it taken down and not have to look at this dreadful old building that no one wants to see there any more.”
The next committee meeting will be held at the Westport town hall Jan. 13.