By John Fitts
CANTON – Despite the temperatures in the 30s, a group of representatives from those fighting the town’s proposed Public Works Facility huddled on the site of Route 44 early Monday morning.
“A lot of people are giving us really positive indications,” said David Sinish, who is treasurer of Not on Our River, a Political Action Committee formed around the issue. “There are thumbs up, great smiles waves, horn honking. We really believe that people are getting the message that maybe 50, 60 years ago, it was a good idea to build a garage next to the river. Now we’re a lot more sophisticated in our environmental thinking and it makes no sense whatsoever to put a garage next to the river.”
The group is fighting the town’s plan to build a 14,100 square-foot facility, salt shed and new fueling station at 50 Old River Road, where the town’s current, approximate 600-square foot Public Works garage sits today. The project is for $3.825 million.
Strongly supporting the measure has been a second PAC, Canton GOES (Garage on Existing Site).
Canton GOES PAC chairman Brian D. First said he also feels the group has used a variety of methods to reach voters. Like NOOR, supporters have sent letters to the editor, run a web site and facebook page and posted numerous signs around time. Canton GOES has also funded several direct mailings.
“I think we have certainly demonstrated a strong effort to reach the voters with the facts about the merits of this garage project,” First said.
First said the plan addresses concerns such as cost and includes areas for recreation while providing an adequate facility designed with input from the Public Works Department.
“This meets all of our needs and still allows us to address the concerns that people are seeking for recreation,” he said. “It really provides an area that is set aside for recreation.”
The vote will be the fourth the town has taken in relation to the issue. In 2010, voters rejected a plan to purchase property at 5 Cherry Brook Road for $900,000. Two years later a $6 million plus plan for that property never made it to referendum after property appraisals came in well below the purchase price for the parcel. In May of 2013 and November of 2014, rejected $5.4. million and $4.78 million plans for a facility at 325 Commerce Drive.
Since then there’s been numerous thoughts as to what combination of price, location, alternative ideas and politics/personal agendas chief motivating factors in those proposals and the no votes.
Earlier this year, citing new interpretation of regulations, town staff came up with a proposal to rebuild at the current site by burrowing closer to Route 179 in a plan that also included a new access road and formal access to the Farmington River.
The plan was modified from that original proposal and the final concept does away with the access road, includes a one-story building, allots more space for storage and less for offices and includes a wash bay, portable lift and crane, generator, office area and public restrooms. The conceptual plan also calls for a new salt shed, a revamped fueling station, floodplain mitigation on the existing softball field and additional parking.
The new concept does not include the river access or separation of the trail from the roadway but incorporates language that leaves those as possibilities should funding be available.
Those opposed to the plan quickly called it a shortsighted proposal that starts with an inadequate facility and leaves no room for expansion while compromising the riverfront opportunities and threatening the river itself. Some NOOR members have contended that climate change could cause greater future flooding and have pointed out that many state and other agencies look to rebuild facilities three feet above the 100-year flood plain.
In addition to environmental issues, a defining argument of the opponents has been that there is time before the 2018 building proposal timeline to defeat this proposal and come up with a new plan.
When asked what if that new plan didn’t pass muster, Sinish said the right plan would.
“There’s an old Irish proverb which says there are many greater fish in the sea than those that have ever been caught,” he said. “I am convinced that if there is a group of people that is designing this garage that takes into account every facet than we will get a garage that everyone can agree on.”
He also reiterated the PAC assertion that it wasn’t the time to specify which other site is best but to leave that the Permanent Municipal Building Committee and planers.
“NOOR does have the experts or planning expertise that is not our job,” he said. “Our job is to make sure people realize that we do need a new garage but not on the river.”
But others argue that the search for other sites has been exhaustive. Earlier this year, the town made an offer for the “Satan’s Kingdom” property on Route 44 but the $670,000 appraisal based offer was rejected by the property owners, who were seeking $1.2 million.
Earlier this year selectmen also reviewed a list of alternative sites recommended by the Permanent Municipal Building Committee, another controversial moment with some arguing most on the list were non starters and others contending selectmen didn’t give the committee time and resources to fully investigate the idea of a smaller facility on previously considered sites.
In the August meeting when a majority of selectmen voted to put the project on the Nov. 8 ballot (Tom Sevigny voted no), First Selectman Leslee Hill argued that the smaller size did not suddenly make those other sites work.
“This is a smaller facility but it not so much smaller that other sites we looked at that had extensive site work would suddenly be viable,” she said at the meeting.
Arguments and counterpoints have been numerous, with disagreement from both sides. One issue has been the potential for flooding.
Some contend that the town need look to the future of potential more volatile weather and recent moves by agencies such as the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Housing and Urban Development to make floodplain requirements more stringent than the town’s plan.
“Recent changes proposed for Federal floodplain protection reinforce that the garage proposal on the November ballot should be rejected,” former first selectman Richard Barlow wrote in a recent letter to the editor.” If the referendum is approved, you can expect that the project will cost more than currently proposed to be consistent with the Federal requirements or offer less protection than deemed prudent by State and Federal experts resulting in greater risk of flooding and increased insurance costs.”
First said flooding is one issue that NOOR has used to mislead the public. He said references to 1955 are misleading since upstream controls were put in place following that event. NOOR has also posted photos of the 2011 flooding from Irene but the garage did not flood at that time and trucks can be moved temporarily when necessary until waters recede, he said.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about flooding,” he said.
The town would pay for the facility though a 20-year bond. In 2017-2018, the town would pay $319,313. The impact for the project that year would be .3 mills. The “average” taxpayer, with an assessed home of $238,832, would pay $68.61 for the project in 2017-2018. From there, the payments would drop.
Voting takes place from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Canton High School, 76 Simonds Ave.