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Staff Writer

AYER — More than two years after the new fire station opened, the old Washington Street fire station’s future remains a mystery whose answer is beginning to resemble a Catch-22 scenario.

A re-use committee formed five years ago to come up with ideas failed to reach consensus, its chairman said in March, because committee members have outside commitments that limited progress.

Because there is no conceptual plan for re-use, a recent suggestion to include the station’s future in a bid to attract 2008 Community Development Block Grant funds, made at a Department of Planning and Development public hearing, was tabled.

A citizens’ petition asking to put the building up for sale was defeated 98-47 by spring town meeting voters after procedural questions were raised. Town counsel Mark Reich said several pre-sale steps would first have to be taken by the selectmen.

Meanwhile, the building sits vacant, representing a maintenance cost and potential liability to the town, despite a variety of suggested uses.

Re-use Committee Chairman Robert Pena said he personally felt the building should be retained, even though it might need work now or as time progresses.

Demolition of the building to provide additional parking had been considered during the recent parking garage study. But as Greenway Committee member Patrick Hughes pointed out, the space would have provided at most about 25 parking spots.

Sue Provencher from the Department of Planning and Development suggested this week the building could become a repository for town records, given a dire lack of such space in Town Hall.

Selectman Frank Maxant said he is pleased Provencher made that suggestion, for the storage problem is a nagging one. Town administrator Shaun Suhoski noted that Ayer is behind the curve in electronic records storage.

Maxant said the town had considered a “land swap” — to acquire the former church behind Town Hall in exchange for the Washington Street fire station — but that plan was eventually dropped.

Finance Committee member Mary Spinner, author of the citizens’ petition, put the assessed value of the Washington Street station in the middle $300,000 range.

If a similar old fire station in Pepperell is any indicator, private sales revenue from such a building may be far below assessed value. The direction taken by Pepperell’s Foster Street fire station could also serve as an example of what a sale could mean.

Not as modern as the rebuilt Washington Street station, Pepperell’s old building dates to the horse-drawn fire equipment days. It still has a horse ramp leading down to basement stables and a tall hose-drying tower.

Heavy modern fire equipment caused the shaky structure to pull away from the driveway ramp, leading to its abandonment as a communications center and fire station.

Pepperell’s station sat vacant for more than a decade, a slowly-deteriorating liability to the town and home for bats and lightweight town equipment. Abutting an elderly housing complex and positioned on a densely-populated street, the Pepperell building has no external parking spaces for vehicles, much like the Washington Street station.

Pepperell’s building was eventually sold for $36,000 to a developer, over a last-minute bid by a penniless historical society to construct a museum. The developer’s plan for three condominiums was thwarted by limited parking in the fire bays but a new plan to install lifts to stack vehicles may keep the proposal alive. Approval could come soon.

Limited parking at the Ayer fire station could present a similar problem for a developer, or for a museum.