TOWNSEND -- In the wake of a last-minute legal opinion that kept an $11.3 million fire station headquarters project from going before voters at the Nov. 19 Special Town Meeting, officials are questioning why the decision was made and how it will affect the project moving forward.
Prior to Special Town Meeting, the Capital Planning Committee had voted 4-2 to put only the first stages of the proposed fire station project on the town's capital plan, designating $1.25 million for land acquisition and surveying costs.
Because of a requirement that a project be put on the capital plan before it can be voted on at Town Meeting, town counsel issued an opinion the day of Special Town Meeting that the project could not go before voters, despite the fact that selectmen had unanimously approved its addition to the warrant.
Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan said the decision came so late due to time constraints in preparing the warrant and communicating between bodies that only meet once every two weeks.
"We would have preferred to have gotten the response sooner so that we could have met with everybody well in advance and discussed it," Sheehan said. "We actually didn't expect the response that we got based on some prior opinions that they had provided, but we don't argue with it. It did take us a little bit by surprise."
Sheehan said selectmen did not consider a provision that would allow them to add the project as an emergency warrant article because it did not qualify as an emergency.
Although the idea of hosting another Special Town Meeting to vote on the project was proposed, Sheehan said that unless the capital planning committee changes its vote, it was unlikely that the project would go to voters before spring's Annual Town Meeting.
"There will be conversations in the future, but really unless something changes with the capital planning committee, a couple of people are keeping the project from moving forward until May Town Meeting, and I don't have any confidence that the people standing in the way of voters are going to change their opinions," Sheehan said.
The first stages of the project that had been approved by capital planning were not voted on because Fire Chief Donald Klein said he had been told earlier in the day that the project wouldn't be able to go before voters. He then canceled his plans to have designers present at Special Town Meeting and was unprepared to address voters.
According to Klein, the delay could set the project back up to six months, as well as lead to higher than expected costs as the building industry continues to rebound.
"It's a shame, because now my projections will probably be hitting that $11.3 million number. Because we had contingencies built in, I'd anticipated and hoped that things were going to come in less than what we had budgeted for, but I'm afraid now because of costs going up, it's going to cost the community more money to build then we had anticipated," Klein said.
The land where Klein was hoping to build the station, on Scales Lane, is also questionable now as the owners had planned to separate the parcel of land and sell it for the purpose of building a new fire station. If the project isn't approved first, the owners may be reluctant to sell the land, Klein said.
Selectmen Chairwoman Sue Lisio said she was bothered by the fact that capital planning did not directly communicate to selectmen the result of their vote, as well as the fact that committee members blocked the project from going before voters.
"I'm disappointed that the town did not have an opportunity to hear from the building committee to ask their questions, to get their answers and to make a decision. I feel like that was so unfortunate and it's the town that lost out. It's a shame," Lisio said.
Lisio suggested revising the bylaws governing the Capital Planning Committee to ensure that it could not block similar projects in the future.
Lorna Fredd, chair of the capital planning committee, said that she disagreed with Lisio's claim that the committee was overstepping its authority.
"Having a capital plan is a very good check and balance, and it takes a lot of effort to review all of the requests on a yearly basis," Fredd said.
"If the Board of Selectmen wants to take on all of this work, or if the Finance Committee wants to take on the work, we have people who are certainly capable of doing all of that. But I think of capital planning as kind of a support staff. We roll up our sleeves and do the analysis and make a recommendation, and I think that's a good thing."
Fredd said she stands by her vote that the project was not far enough along to go before voters in its entirety.
"In my mind, conceptual drawings are not the same thing as a specific plan that is drawn based on a specific piece of property where all of the known geological factors are available to you, not in theory but in reality," Fredd said.
"The $11.3 million is a big price tag and we probably only have one shot at it, so we want it to be the best possible shot with a successful outcome for the Fire Department. That's why I voted the way I did."
Capital Planning Committee member Carolyn Smart said she had sent several emails in the weeks leading up to Special Town Meeting asking about how the committee's vote would affect the warrant, but received no answers.
According to Lisio, answering the emails would have violated Open Meeting Law.
"I feel very disillusioned with the lack of communication, respect, and guidance we received from the selectmen, as both a member of the finance committee and capital planning," Smart said.
While she said she feels badly for the fire station building committee, she thinks the decision was the correct one, and that the Fire Department should purchase the land before voters approve such a large project.
She said that accusations that the Capital Planning Committee was acting outside its authority were unfounded.
"I think it is a shame the selectmen resort to idle threats, instead of working together in order to best serve the town. I don't think any committee member deserves the treatment that capital planning receives from the selectmen and their administrator," Smart said.