By Dustin Luca
---- — On the heels of a final recommendation to build the new Ballardvale Fire Station adjacent to South Elementary School, neighboring residents are floating proposals to keep the station at its current site on Clark Road.
Three private, citizens-petition warrant articles will go before the Annual Town Meeting in May seeking to either build an addition to and renovate the existing 120-year-old station or simply just rehabilitate the facility.
The warrant articles likely arise out of the final report of the Ballardvale Fire Station Building Committee, which was delivered to the Board of Selectmen last week amid opposition from neighbors.
After five years of work, the building committee is proposing to construct a new 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot station at the corner of Andover and Woburn streets on the South School campus. The location, owned by the school district, now supports a Little League ball field.
The new station is estimated to cost $6 million. Officials say the price tag would increase by as much as $1.5 million if the town had to purchase private land for the project. Under the recommendation, the town would likely swap land with the school district for the South School site.
The building committee initially targeted the South School property more than three years ago, but the location immediately drew concerns from the neighborhood, which has attempted to propose alternate locations.
Last week, former Town Manager Richard Bowen, who lives in the Ballardvale section of Andover, submitted two warrant articles each seeking to raise $200,000 — one to design a 2,000-square-foot addition to the current station, and the other to buy 8,000 square feet of adjoining land to house it. Funding for construction would be sought later, Bowen said.
Bowen’s proposal calls for an expansion that would allow for three bays at the now single-bay station. The additional space would accommodate a traditional fire engine, ambulance, boat and equipment for the town’s forestry unit.
The project would also entail renovations to the current structure, which Bowen said could become living quarters after work was completed.
Bowen was hesitant last week to discuss the cost of an addition and renovation project for fear of underestimating the expense. However, early estimates place the project at around $3 million — half the price of building new, he said.
Last year, the Annual Town Meeting in May rejected a proposal by Bowen to spend $500,000 to renovate the current station. That article failed by a 162-203 vote.
A group of residents in the South School neighborhood is now introducing that proposal in a third warrant article submitted by Robert Goldsmith, a lawyer who lives on Bayberry Lane.
Deborah Lucci, an Andover Street resident who signed that citizens petition, said the neighborhood was unprepared to vote when the proposal came before the Annual Town Meeting last year. Even without the neighborhood’s support, however, the proposal came close to passing, she said.
“I think it would have had a really good shot. If we had (known about it), we would have definitely all been out there,” Lucci said.
Lucci said renovating the fire station, as opposed to replacing it, is a preferred alternative because of the climbing tax rate in town.
“To be honest with you, I don’t feel it’s necessary to have a brand new station,” she said. “We can use what we have.”
Meanwhile, the Ballardvale Fire Station Building Committee believes the South School site is the only viable location for a new facility.
Committee Chairman Dan Casper told selectmen last week that while there has been consistent opposition to the site, it remained the best option because of its proximity to households, ease of access to other parts of town and other factors.
“Believe me, if we could have found a site that was universally acclaimed, we would have done that,” Casper said. “We would have had the station by now. It would have been built.”
The committee’s recommendation followed two studies — one completed by Manitou Inc. in 2007 and a second wrapped up by Criterion Associates in December.
One alternative from Criterion placed the station along South Main Street, a suggestion that became impossible once the committee was unable to locate available land there, Casper said.
Winterberry Lane resident Colin Whelan, a long-standing opponent to the South School location, said the Criterion study identifies risks with that site. He said the South School location would increase by 505 the number of incidents the station would be unable to respond to within the established four-minute standard.
“That’s a 13 percent increase in the number,” he said.
Whichever direction the town goes, Casper said the community needs to act sooner rather than later.
“It’s our hope that this doesn’t get put back on the shelf for another 20 years or 30 years like it was before,” he said. “Eventually, what’s going to happen, I think you’re going to get a phone call in the middle of the night that the station has either partially collapsed or we’ve had major problems with it.”
Selectman Brian Major called the relocation of Ballardvale Fire Station the second highest priority project in town, next to rebuilding the Town Yard.
“We’ll identify the alternative we want to move forward with, and we’ll take it to the community,” Major said.
Selectmen will be scheduling a workshop on the matter in the next 11/2 months, Chairman Alex Vispoli said.