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Task Force Outlines Plans for Police and Fire Station

by Dave Atkins

Residents filled the Thurston Middle School cafeteria last night to hear plans for moving the police station to Islington and building a new fire substation--potentially on the site of the current Islington Community Center and library.

Selectman Nancy Hyde outlined the process leading up to the current set of recommendations. The task force was created in July 2013 to address two key objectives: 1) to understand and project the impact of the build-out of University Station and 2) to evaluate the current inadequacies of the existing facilities. Based on a consultant's study, the task force determined that University Station will likely increase the number of incidents requiring fire department response by 12%, but that the majority of requests will continue to come from the Route 109 side of town. Staffing will need to be increased to six at the main fire station and five at Islington.

Police Chief Jeffrey Silva and Fire Chief William Scoble described the current inadequacies of the existing fire and police stations. The police station was built in 1967 and is now supporting many more requests for assistance including increases from approximately 1000 to 3000 criminal investigations per year, 119 to 878 burglary alarms, and over one thousand ambulance assists in 2013 compared to just 128 in 1967. There is no storage space in the building and officers share a common work area where it is difficult to keep sensitive information private. A recent flood, due to a breakdown of the heating system, spilled into the only hallway and rained down upon the basement locker area. Over the years, the department has been required to make do with many adhoc accommodations--such as storing all gear in a small closet that only one person can access at at time, to constructing a makeshift female restroom next to the copier and fax machine.

The fire department has faced similar growth issues. "We are an all hazards organization," chief Scoble emphasized, presenting similar statistics on how the communities demands on the fire department have grown and the buildings--which where barely adequate when built--have been expanded as best as possible, but are now functionally obsolete.

The task force considered these needs and came to consensus on some issues this Fall. They were unable to find any suitable site for a third fire station and concluded that an expanded Islington substation would be better able to serve University Station and maintain some synergies of working with the main station on High Street. Their recommendation is to build a modern 3-bay fire station in Islington.

Coincidentally, a developer is in the process of acquiring rights to a number of buildings in Islington including the building housing the barber shop and the CVS. The details of the development deal are complicated and not final, but at this time, the town is not able to put together a plan that integrates with the developer. For example, if the abutting commercial properties could be modified, it might allow for construction of a police station in the area across the street from the community center and library...or expanding into the CVS area. The planning board will likely propose an overlay district for Islington center to facilitate mixed use development, but at this time, the details of what is planned are not known.

Absent the use of additional properties, there are four preliminary site plans for renovating or relocating public safety facilities. One plan would build out the back of the existing police station in addition to building a new fire station in Islington. The other three plans involve moving the police department to Islington and/or consolidating the building with new fire substation.

The second option presented would involve building a new facility on the existing site of the Islington branch library and the community center while creating a new community space in the current location of the fire station. This seemed to be the most favored option with the greatest benefit to the town, but at the cost of losing or relocating significant existing services.

Over sixty residents attended the meeting and several expressed concern over losing the community center and library. The branch library hosts numerous children's events and is currently being used for book return since the new main library is closed to deal with roof leaks. The community center houses the Mothers' Morning Out (MMO) preschool, Westwood Youth and Family Services, and is the site of numerous Recreation department programs. Some of these functions could be relocated to a new community center across the street, but the visual impact of tearing down the church and replacing it with a modern 3-bay fire station and police headquarters would significantly alter the character of a village that has thrived for many years with a center that anchors playing fields, playgrounds, and long-standing community businesses.

One resident asked about the possibility of building out the current substation onto the softball field and tennis court, but town planner Nora Loughnane said this had been rejected because moving fields would degrade the whole experience that is provided by the little league fields. Morrison field recently underwent major improvements and has hosted little league world series playoffs and is the destination of the annual little league parade.

There has been resident involvement in the process in the form of an Islington focus group that met this Fall. Many of the concerns of residents about the impact to existing institutions have been considered along with possibilities that would coordinate with development. However the current status of development is too uncertain right now to present a definitive plan, and the likely next steps are to continue this discussion leading up to May town meeting where money might be requested for additional design, then followed up at Fall town meeting for a vote on proceeding with a more finalized design. The University Station project is ready to begin work with a planned opening of many aspects in mid 2015. The expanded fire and police facilities are needed in a similar timeframe.

There will be additional discussion of these plans at the next Finance Commission hearing. The town will make materials related to this available on a website to be launched shortly. The meeting last night was recorded by WestCAT and will be replayed on the WestCAT channel and available online in the coming days. I will update this blog with links to the material when it is available.

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