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Canton DPW Garage: How We Got to Today

July 16, 2016 Community, Environment, Government, Opinion No Comments

Guest Commentary by Sarah Faulkner

 The purpose of this article is to clarify the work being done to develop a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility and provide some facts and data to help folks understand the issue and sentiments in town.

For over six months the Canton Board of Selectmen has been working to develop a plan for a new town garage.  There is no debate about whether or not the town needs one.  It is the highest need of the town and every year that we don’t replace the old one we’re losing money through damage to equipment and deterioration, nevermind awful working conditions for our town crew. The town also must spent money every year to shore up the deteriorating building until a new one can be constructed, pouring “good money after bad”.  The Permanent Municipal Building Committee (PMBC) has long identified the town garage as the town’s top need and has done extensive research on over 80 properties, evaluating and ranking them.  The town has held three referendums on two different sites, turning all of them down.  Each time, the size and scope of the proposed garage has grown smaller and more efficient, but has also lost some functionality (such as drive-through bays).

The Plan to Re-Build on the River

In January, the town DPW presented the Board of Selectmen with a draft plan they developed to re-build the DPW garage on the current site at 50 Old River Road.  This site is on the Farmington River next to the sewage treatment plant.  The proposal is for a greatly scaled-back, more fundamental garage than proposed earlier, designed to fit on the current site space of 1.5 acres, approximately 15,000 sf in size.  It is more than three times the size of the current facility.  Because of site limitations the design calls for an L-shaped building, two stories high along Route 179 including a two-story-tall salt shed, and one story running east-west where the current building is located.  A new access road would be constructed just south of the salt shed and all trucks and cars would enter directly from Route 179 across from the fire station. The old building would be demolished and the new one built in its place.

Reconstructing on the current site had not been considered in the past for several reasons: environmental regulations previously prevented it; it is too small for both current and future use; it is prone to flooding; it contains the expansion area for the sewage treatment plant; and it was in conflict with many sections of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development which called for expansion of recreational use and protection of our river corridor.

So, what changed?  The State has relaxed its construction guidelines for building in a flood plain, making it possible to re-build there with extensive environmental mitigation.  The new building would need to be out of the 100-year floodplain, and so the plans call for excavating almost 3’ of soil from the softball field to build up the base for the new garage, bringing the new garage to around 1’ above the floodplain.  The lowered ballfield would serve as compensation for floodwaters, meeting the needs for environmental mitigation.

Looking at Other Sites

As soon as this plan was unveiled it was met with objection.  Its inconsistency with the Town Plan, impact on the river, numerous problems with the site, and the lack of involvement of the PMBC in evaluating the plan drew immediate fire.  The Selectmen asked the PBMC to review the plan and consider other sites in town, using the newly reduced land and construction requirements provided by the DPW.  Because the DPW’s design was smaller, this meant that construction would be cheaper on other locations as well, plus other sites could now be considered because the new design needs only 1.5 acres, not more.  So, the PBMC went back to the drawing board and re-reviewed their comprehensive list of properties.

On May 6th the PBMC issued a report and set of recommendations for eight properties, one of which was the current site as requested by the Board of Selectmen.  The report is on the town website under Board of Selectmen Agenda and Packets, 5-11-16.  In a nutshell, the PBMC strongly recommended against reconstruction on the current location for many reasons, stating “redevelopment at the existing site is short-sighted”.  They recommended seven other locations more favorably.   Highest ranked were parcels on Commerce Drive, which are zoned industrial, have water, sewer, and utilities, and have good road access.  Another location that fits the need well is 674 Albany Turnpike, which is a large property located on Route 44 near the New Hartford border (it contains the cornfield on the left just before the bridge to Satan’s Kingdom).

Gathering Public Input and Reaching Conclusions

The Board of Selectmen, responding to public concern about the river and the PBMC’s report, reached out to the residents for comments in May, June, and early July.  Through a public meeting held on May 27th, numerous regular meetings, and a town-wide electronic survey, they gathered public comments to help guide them in their decision making.  In summary, the public expressed strong opposition for reconstruction on the river, supported construction at 674 Albany Turnpike, and indicated a significant interest in considering Commerce Drive again.  A central theme was to keep the cost as low as possible.

The Selectmen are motivated by three factors in their urgency to move the town forward with a new garage: 1) time, since they want whatever is selected to be put onto the November ballot for referendum; 2) cost, trying to keep the expense as low as possible; and 3) public preferences.  The failure of the town to pass a Commerce Drive location, despite public comments asking for this to be reconsidered, has weighed heavily with the board.

Next Steps

On July 6th, the Board of Selectmen received an appraisal for 674 Albany Turnpike.  They then voted to extend a purchase offer to the seller for $670,000 with some contingencies.  Because this sum was lower than the seller’s asking price, they also voted for a backup plan: if the offer should be refused by the seller, they will move forward with the current river location.  Whichever site is selected, it will be placed on the November ballot for referendum.

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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