Norfolk Residents to Decide on Fire Station Project Special Town Meeting and Special Town Election Set for this Month
Norfolk Fire Station (Photo courtesy of Norfolk Firefighters Local 4134)
By Grace Allen
A new fire station for Norfolk is on the agenda at this month’s Special Town Meeting, to be held on January 11. If residents approve the project, which is estimated to cost about $25 million, a debt exclusion vote to fund it will be held on January 28, with early voting available.
In order for the project to move forward, both votes need to be approved, so residents need to plan for a two-step process this month.
If approved by at least a two-thirds majority of registered voters in attendance at Town Meeting, the tax increase will go to the debt exclusion vote, which needs simple majority approval. Unlike an override, a debt exclusion raises property taxes for a period of time, usually 10 to 20 years, to finance a particular project. Once the financing bond is paid off, the tax increase for that project goes away.
A special building committee appointed by Norfolk’s select board has been working on the fire station project for close to two years. After completing a feasibility study, the group recommended the existing building be replaced with an entirely new structure.
While no one disputes the building has long outlived its usefulness, this will be the town’s third attempt to get an updated fire station built.
Current Fire Station
The current fire station was built in 1966, primarily as an apparatus bay for what was at the time an all-volunteer department. In 1985, the building was expanded to house the police department (which has since moved) and the fire chief’s office. The current structure is 9,875 square feet The fire station building is rife with problems, including insufficient training space, storage space, office space, and meeting space. The apparatus bays have minimal clearance for modern firefighting trucks to get in and out. The department has had to purchase customized equipment with stacked bumpers to fit into the bays, which are also too shallow. During snowstorms, snow and ice buildup around the doors of the too-small bays has to be cleared away before the fire trucks can get out to respond to calls.
Lockers and storage for the firefighters’ protective ensembles are also housed in the bays, where the PPE items are exposed to the diesel exhaust of the fire trucks. Diesel exhaust contains pollutants, as well as carcinogens, according to the American Cancer Society. State-of-the-art fire station design, which promotes firefighter health, has evolved since the current station was built.
The department is staffed by a combination of 17 career and 6 on-call firefighters. For each 24-hour shift, groups of firefighters/paramedics live in a cramped trailer at the rear of the property. Housing the personnel in the trailer impacts response times to emergency calls since they have to traverse the parking lot—often hazardous in inclement weather—to get to the vehicles.
Proposed New Fire Station
The Fire Station Building Committee, working with an architectural firm and a state-mandated owner’s project manager, has proposed a new, 25,670 square foot two-story building to replace the current structure. Committee members, who are Norfolk residents, include an architect, a geotechnical engineer, and a firefighter, as well as town officials and Norfolk’s fire chief, Erron Kinney.
Kevin Champagne, the committee’s chairperson, is a structural engineer who also served on the design team for the Marshfield and Tewksbury fire stations, and Ashland’s public safety building. He explained it made more sense to build a completely new structure in Norfolk instead of renovating the existing building.
“The committee found that renovating and adding on was more expensive versus building new,” said Champagne. “The building is so old that it’s not compliant with current code. Because this is a fire station, it’s considered a high-risk category building by the state building code. That basically means this has to be a survivable building and more robust than a typical building. So if we get a massive hurricane, earthquake, or snowstorm, for example, the fire station needs to remain operational during and after that type of event.”
Renovating and expanding the structure would mean moving the department to temporary quarters, which also comes at a logistical and financial cost. The current site is such that a new station could be built at the rear of the property, leaving the existing building operational and accessible during construction.
The proposed new fire station, with its all-electric design, is considered a green building. Green building design results in lower energy bills, lower water usage, and a safer and healthier environment for occupants.
Mechanical equipment would be housed on the ground or inside the building, so that the roof remains open for solar panels in the future, noted Champagne. If solar can be expanded on site, the structure has the potential to become an efficient, net-zero building.
The building’s interior spaces have been designed to be multi-use. For example, instead of dedicated locker rooms, lockers will be housed in the bunk rooms. Stairwells can function as training areas for grappling and rescue operations.
“The plan of this building was to allow it to be flexible enough so that it can grow with the department,” Champagne said. “We won’t have to come back to the town for more money to add on in a few years. The space is thoughtful enough that it can be used now and when the department expands.”
Past History and Project Cost
The town has tried twice before to get a new fire station built. In a special election in 2008, voters rejected a debt exclusion for a new public safety building. In 2016, voters approved $12.2 million for a new fire station and a new police station. The police station project, part of a new regional communications center on Sharon Ave., ran over budget for several reasons, leaving only $3.3 million for the fire station, a significant shortfall.
According to Champagne, the Fire Station Building Committee believes the cost estimates from the 2016 project were not well-developed nor finalized before the project was presented to the town. He says the current committee looked back at other stations built around the same time to try and understand how the numbers were determined. The Randolph and Needham fire station projects, for example, came in at a significantly higher cost per square foot than Norfolk’s.
“From our perspective, the 2016 estimate was too low to begin with,” said Champagne. “It’s never been clear to us how that number was developed. It was never going to be enough to complete the projects, in our opinion.”
Champagne says the building committee is confident that this time, the estimated cost of about $25 million, which will be offset by the $3.3 million from the last go-round, is sound and is the final cost to deliver the project. Design and construction contingencies are built in, and all contractors bidding on the project have gone through a pre-qualification process. (Final bids were due after Local Town Pages deadline.)
“We will have a construction bid in hand when we go to Town Meeting,” emphasized Champagne. “We are not relying on an estimate that was done early on in the process.”
Champagne notes that fire stations are inherently one of the more expensive structures to build. Changes to building codes in the last few years, as well as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, means the proposed fire station is bigger—and thus more expensive--than past designs and estimates.
“This is the size building the town needs, and this is what fire stations cost,” said Champagne.
Voters will ultimately have the final say on whether the town will get a new fire station this time around, despite the tough economic times and, potentially, a looming recession.
Paul Burns, one of the candidates for an open seat on the Select Board, reached out to Local Town Pages to voice his opposition to the project. In an email, Burns said, “Firefighters are essential to our town and I support them, but this project is far too costly, especially during an economic downturn, and I am very concerned about the large tax increase that will persist for the next twenty years. Many of our citizens, such as those on a fixed income, cannot afford such an increase. The town needs to consider an alternate solution.”
If the fire station project fails to pass yet again, Champagne says the town plans to use some of the leftover $3.3 million from the 2016 attempt to purchase a larger trailer for the fire fighters, with the goal of improving their living conditions, at least marginally.
For complete information on the fire station project, including a video tour of the current station and a comprehensive Frequently Asked Questions section, visit the town’s website at Norfolk.ma.us and select Fire Station Building Committee from the Government pulldown menu.
Special Town Meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, January 11 at 7 p.m. at King Philip Middle School, 18 King St.
The January 28 Special Town Election will be held at the Freeman Kennedy School, 70 Boardman St. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
In-person early voting will be available at the Town Clerk’s office, 1 Liberty Lane on the following days and times:
Tuesday, January 17 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Wednesday, January 18 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Thursday, January 19 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday, January 20 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, January 21 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday, January 22 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Monday January 23 from 8 a.m.to 8 p.m.