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Idea of Rebuilding Public Works Facility at Current Site Remains Controversial

September 21, 2016 Environment, Government, Referendum No Comments

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Not On Our River PAC launches web site, facebook page

By John Fitts 

CANTON — As residents ready to head to the polls this November, the issue of the town’s Public Works facility has managed to take some attention from the increasingly bizarre presidential race.

For more than 10 years the issue of a new – or expanded – Public Works facility has generated controversy in town, largely due to disagreements on cost and potential locations. Personality conflicts and ethical charges have also been a factor and Board of Selectmen members have urged residents to keep the tone civil.

This time around, the subject surrounds the idea of rebuilding the facility at its current 50 Old River Road location. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, residents will be asked whether the town should “bond” in the amount of $3.825 million to fund a new facility at the site. Selling municipal bonds is essentially the town’s way to borrow funds and pay off the project over 20 years.

Town officials say the debt payment would be highest in the first year – $328,875 – and, in that year have an impact of $72 for the owner of an average” home assessed at $238,832. The town’s payment would be $289,750 the next five years and continue to drop from there, according to the town’s numbers.

The current plan, drafted with the assistance of Fuss & O’Neill, is a modification of one that town staff developed earlier this year. The conceptual plan calls for a 25-foot high facility of approximately 14,217 square feet, with more than 11,000 of that being for storage with a maintenance area, lift and wash bay. The plan also includes lowering the ballfield for floodplain mitigation, a new salt storage shed, partial demolition of the existing facility and a public restroom.

Plans for a new access road from Route 179 and river access were removed from the conceptual plan but the town worded the proposal in a way that some those improvements and/or others, such as better separation of the current roadway and Farmington River Trail, could be included if there’s adequate funding.

Last week, the Political Action Committee (PAC), Not On Our River, announced that it had launched a web site, www.CantonNotOnOurRiver.org, and facebook page (Not On Our River) as part of its campaign to defeat the plan.

The PAC contends that the plan is counter to 30 years of planning, flies in the face of common sense due to floodplain issues, limits recreational opportunities on site, diminishes economic development opportunities, rushes a decision in light of the town’s 2018 boding schedule and ignores the recommendations of the town’s Permanent Municipal Building Committee, which has spent years looking at alternative locations and has formally opposed the current proposal.

“There’s really another year to plan this correctly,” said David Sinish, who is treasurer of NOOR. “If this referendum goes down, the Board of Selectmen can go back to the drawing board. We’d be very willing to support a garage at any other site than the river.”

Sinish said NOOR has received additional attention and support in the past several weeks. The group is also using volunteers to hand deliver fliers to residences.

“Because of the increased interest and financial support, we are better able to make every Canton citizen aware,” Sinish said.

The plan to rebuild at the current site has received a fair amount of criticism. Many spoke at a public hearing on garage alternatives and some have continued to speak against it in other forums and at Board of Selectmen meetings.

At one selectmen’s meeting, long-time Collinsville resident Jim Grant called it “one of the worst decision I’ve seen in this town.”

But some residents have supported the idea. It had its supporters at the hearing and a few have spoken in favor of it at recent Board of Selectmen meetings. One resident, Lansford Perry, has labeled NOOR’s arguments as “propaganda.”

Past proposals certainly have also been controversial and all were defeated at referendum. In 2010 residents voted 704 to 281 against a plan to purchase 5 Cherry Brook Road for $900,000. Two years later, selectmen nearly went forward with a $6 million plus plan for a project at that location but scrapped it late in the process due to the fact that the purchase price for the parcel was much higher than the appraised value.

In 2013, a $5.4 million project slated for 325 Commerce Drive failed 814 to 454. The next year, a $4.78 million plan for the same property went down by a tally of 2,515 to 1,806.

Over this past summer, town officials also made an appraisal based offer of $670,000 for the “Satan’s Kingdom” property on Route 44 but the owners, who were seeking $1.2 million, declined.

Resident Wendy Jenkins van de Bogart said she felt the Commerce Drive site was a better site for the facility, as, in her opinion, would have been the right plan for the Route 44 property. But van de Bogart said the Public Works crew needs a better facility and the current site is there already, in an area that also includes the waste water treatment plant.

“It’s not the best spot, but I think the best spots have already been discarded,” she said. “I just feel the town needs a new garage. There’s never going to be a place in this town that everyone can agree on.”

Like Sinish, state Rep. Tim LeGeyt is a former selectman who is familiar with some of the history of the facility. But LeGeyt has a different view. He said this is much different than it would be were the town were proposing to build near the river for the first time.

The new facility is much-needed, the plan is economical and will include increased safeguards that would leave the river more protected than it is today, LeGeyt said.

“I’m in favor of putting the town needs ahead of the town wants and moving forward with this proposal,” he said.

It was in the 1940s that the current site, an old horse barn, was chosen for a public works facility, according to a memo prepared for the Planning and Zoning Commission by Neil S. Pade, the town’s director of Planning and Community Development. The space was remodeled in 1995 with new office space, a locker-room and small lunch area.

According to Pade’s memo, town officials and residents have taken various approaches to the issue. A 1990 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) identified the need for a new facility at a new location and stated the current site could not be adequately expanded. A 1999 study also advocated for relocation.

Other studies since then have also detailed expanded recreation potential should the garage be relocated.

The 2004 POCD, however, acknowledged that while “ideal,” there could be financial challenges in building a facility elsewhere.

By 2006, according to the memo, the town was in the planning stages to add 8 bays to the current site, a project that was derailed by zoning challenges and 2007 floodplain requirements.

One challenge that had long been identified with the current site has been floodplain compensation, the idea of creating “compensatory storage” to replace any parts of the building that are in a floodplain. Throughout much of its search for alternative sites in ensuing years, the town operated on the assumption that compensation could not be done on site. However, earlier this year, town officials said a consultant and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection had confirmed it could.

NOOR, however, contends the plan leaves the access road and fueling station prone to flooding since they are still in the 100-year floodplain.

In 2007, the Permanent Municipal Building Committee began exploring alternate sites, looking at between 60 and 80 potential locations. Some of the top sites, such as Commerce Drive and 5 Cherry Brook, were defeated at referendum. Others were eliminated due to high site costs, residential proximity, wetlands and other factors. Site selection, however, remains controversial. Earlier this year, the town investigated some alternatives suggested by the Permanent Municipal Building Committee and NOOR argues that some of those should be explored again, with the very latest footprint in mind.

The group also argues that the true cost of the project is unknown and the town’s plans, honed with the help of Fuss & O’Neill, are incomplete, lack crucial details and will require additional permits. They also contend it will likely go well over budget.

“The Selectmen’s rush to put the vote on the November ballot prevented the more reliable “design-build” estimate process,” NOOR’s web site states. “We should defeat this proposal and have the Selectmen take their time to give us a real number for our taxes.”

In written material put out earlier this year, the town acknowledges its plans are conceptual, giving the builder flexibility. Town officials also said the budget includes costs for contingency and rising costs.

Since 2008, the town has spent $337,684.13 in professional services related to proposals for a new facility, study of the current one and related expenses, according to officials. In the past several years at the current facility, the town has spent $15,000 on a new gas boiler, $4,000 to assess the roofs of the garage and current salt shed, $3,000 on a new salt shed roof and $41,000 on a new roof for the main facility.

On Oct. 26 the town will host a special town meeting at which residents can learn more about the project and offer opinions. It will take place at Canton High School at 7 p.m. That meeting will then adjourn to the Nov. 8 referendum. Voting takes place from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Canton High School.

For more on the project visit the town’s web site at http://www.townofcantonct.org/news/?FeedID=1195.

NOOR’s web site can be found at www.CantonNotOnOurRiver.org.

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