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Canton’s DPW Garage: What did the Public Say?

July 15, 2016 Environment, Government, Opinion No Comments

Guest Article/Commentary by Sarah Faulkner

The purpose of this article is to summarize and clarify the current status of the Town of Canton’s work toward constructing a new Department of Public Works (DPW) garage.

The last six months have seen an upwelling of urgency to move the town forward in building a new DPW facility.  The Board of Selectmen has identified the need to reconstruct our garage as our top priority, and has solicited public and commission comments to guide selecting a location and design plan.  There have been many meetings, research by the Permanent Municipal Building Committee (PMBC), a public comment meeting, and a public online survey to gather information.

On July 13 the Board of Selectmen voted to make an offer to purchase 674 Albany Turnpike for the new garage.  There are conditions for the purchase and if this site does not proceed, they voted to move forward with the current river location instead.

What did the Public Say?

Comments received from the public came from three sources: written comments to the Selectmen from March through July 2nd; comments; and town-wide electronic survey data and comments which closed on July 7th.

Written and Spoken Comments

82 residents provided written (emails and letters) and verbal statements (at the May 25th public meeting) to the Board of Selectmen.  These comments are public information.  Some residents commented more than once, but were only counted once. The tabulated comments from March through July 2nd are summarized as follows:

  • 52 residents opposed re-construction on the river, many strongly opposed
  • 10 residents favored re-construction on the river
  • 11 residents expressed no location preference
  • Many expressed a concern about cost and the need to keep the expenses as low as possible

Online Survey Results

The town-wide survey, which ended July 7th, had 906 respondents, of which 893 were residents of Canton.  With 7,086 registered voters in town, this number represents 12.6% of the voters.  This response is statistically significant and a very strong response rate for a public survey. While there have been some criticisms about the survey’s validity and accuracy, it can be used as one gauge of public opinion.  The survey asked a variety of questions about the DPW garage’s location, price, preferences, and previous voting record.

One goal of the survey was to try to ascertain why the last referendum failed (Commerce Drive), with one question asking what were the factors that influenced the “no” decision.

  • 59% responded that cost was their most important criterion
  • 35% responded that location was most important factor
  • A significant number of respondents commented that they felt they had been misled by misinformation shortly before the vote, and would have voted differently had they been better informed
  • 42 respondents commented that they voted in favor of Commerce Drive (note: this was not a question and so was offered without prompting)
  • 30 respondents commented about ways to further reduce the cost, including materials, designs, other sites, combining town facilities, or regional services

Two questions specifically addressed public support for the Selectmen’s top two possible locations: the existing site, and 674 Albany Turnpike.

Would you support construction of a new Public Works facility at the current location of 50 Old River Road?.”  Responses were:

  • 55.6% responded no (definitely no, 32.1%; probably no 23.6%)
  • 44.3% responded yes (definitely yes, 20.1%, probably yes 24.2%)

“Would you support construction of a new Public Works facility at 674 and 684 Albany Turnpike?.” Responses were:

  • 66.7% responded yes (definitely yes, 21.7%, probably yes 45.0%)
  • 33.3% responded no (definitely no, 17.1%; probably no 16.2%)

Finally, respondents were given the opportunity to make comments.  These were wide-ranging, many expressing strong preferences, and grouped together as follows:

  • 122 people asked the town to once again consider Commerce Drive (note: there was no question asking this – the comment was made unsolicited)
  • 72 people stated strong opposition to using the river for the DPW facility, most preferring recreation and environmental protection for the riverfront
  • 21 people stated support for reconstruction on the river, most due to perceived cost savings
  • Many people asked that the town be as economical as possible, with a few stating that they saw no need for a new garage
  • A few people expressed distaste for recreation along the river due to the odors from the sewage treatment plant

De-Bunking Misunderstandings

Comments from the online survey revealed a number of misunderstandings about the site selection and expenses for the new garage.  Here are some facts to correct these misconceptions:

  • Constructing a garage has a minimum cost, which will likely fall higher than $4 million, regardless of whether or not we purchase land. This is for a 15,000 sf basic facility – no frills and considerably smaller than all previous proposals.  It simply can’t be done for less, despite the many suggestions made by a number of residents.  The current estimate for the smaller building alone – exclusive of site development and land cost – is $3.8 million. All methods to reduce cost are being employed and the Board of Selectmen is dedicated to making the facility as lean and cost-effective as possible.  Construction cost may be lower at Albany Turnpike than the river due to a possibility of constructing a single-story building rather than two-stories and easier site work.
  • The River Road site (current location) is NOT clearly cheaper than the Albany Turnpike site, even including land purchase. Site development work on the river due to wetland mitigation, new entry from Route 179, and extensive bank stabilization and drainage, is very expensive. Combined with a two-story design, the River Road site may have a total cost that exceeds that of Albany Turnpike.
  • The River Road site is currently in the 100-year FEMA floodplain; reconstruction plans include raising its footprint to 1’ above the flood line. According to the DEEP, the Farmington River may be reviewed in the next 2+ years for revision of the FEMA flood zones due to climate change, so the location of the 100-year flood area may be modified (likely enlarged) in the near future, as was done recently for the Pequabuck River.
  • The Albany Turnpike property, also known as the “Satan’s Kingdom” property, consists of two parcels – 674 and 684 Albany Turnpike, 37 acres in total.  These are located to the west of Route 44 on the New Hartford town line, south of the Satan’s Kingdom bridge.  The field along the road is part of the property.  The property is privately owned and the Board of Selectmen just approved making a purchase offer to the seller.  The land does NOT abut the Farmington River – the river corridor to its east is held by the Town of New Hartford, the MDC, and the developer of the abutting industrial parcel in New Hartford.  The current plan is to construct the garage at the southern side of the cornfield, tucking it next to the hillside so that it is removed from residences and screened from the road.  The garage would be separated from the river’s corridor by a steep hillside over 100’ high.  The remainder of the property would be reserved for public open space.  Placing a town soccer field on the remainder of the cornfield may be considered.
  • The Albany Turnpike property and the garage location there would be no threat to the Farmington River in any way. Catch basins for salt and other vehicular materials would be contained on site – this is one of the designs included in a new facility.  No wetlands would be impacted at the Albany Turnpike location, and none of the property is in the 100-year flood zone.
  • The Selectmen are endeavoring to locate the new facility as far from abutting residential homes as possible. No one wants the garage near them, but it needs to be located somewhere.  In order of proximity to a potential facility, houses are closest to: 1) existing location on Old River Road; 2) Across Route 44 for Albany Turnpike; 3) Commerce Drive.
  • The sites under consideration were selected after extensive evaluation and ranking by the Permanent Municipal Building Committee. The PMBC recommended Commerce Drive as their preferred location with Albany Turnpike as the second.  They strongly recommended against reconstruction on the current site for many reasons that are described in their report, which can be found on the town website under Board of Selectmen’s Agenda and Packet, 5-11-16.  Many residents suggested other locations, including 51 River Road, Lawton Road, and Ramp Road.  ALL of these sites had extreme restrictions that made them impossible for development.  51 River Road specifically cannot be developed for the garage due to zoning and lot restrictions.  Please be assured that the town has looked at ALL possible locations – the town is extremely limited in options and has been as creative as possible.
  • The town does not own the Industrial Park lots on Commerce Drive. It did at one time but sold to a developer.  To use a lot now would require buying it back.
  • The town is legally prohibited from offering a binding referendum that includes more than one option – that is, we can’t ask voters to select their choice from several site or expense options at a referendum. All the town can do – for a binding vote – is to give one choice and have voters vote it up or down.

Summary

The town needs a new garage – the question is where and for how much money.  The Board of Selectmen has made their recommendation for 674 Albany Turnpike and River Road by weighing public opinion, economics, long-term vision for the town, and facts to make their decisions.  They have chosen at this time not to include Commerce Drive in their priority list, despite the PBMC recommendation and many comments from the public.   In the end, it will be up to the voters of town to let the Selectmen know if they’ve chosen wisely.

Sarah Faulkner wrote this article to help residents understand the process underway to construct a new garage and assist voters in making informed decisions in the voting booth at an upcoming referendum.  She has lived in Canton for more 32 years and is active in town issues, including attending many meetings regarding the DPW garage.  She is Chairman of the Conservation Commission, Secretary for the Canton Land Trust, and a volunteer at the Canton Public Library.  She is a science teacher and holds degrees in biology, ecology, and educational leadership.

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