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March toward new firehouse begins — again

September 22, 2018

GREENWICH — The effort to build a firehouse in northwest Greenwich took a leap forward this week when the Representative Town Meeting approved of the project — in theory.

It is still a long way away from being reality.

The RTM approved a non-binding, sense of the meeting resolution Monday night that calls for the town to address what it sees as inadequate fire protection. The resolution asks First Selectman Peter Tesei and the Board of Estimate and Taxation to put funding for a station in the 2019-20 municipal budget, a request Tesei has indicated will be a priority.

But the actual funding will still need the approval of the RTM, which has rejected the idea twice in the past. In 2016, the RTM cut funding to purchase land for a new fire and GEMS station, calling instead for a study of town fire services to determine whether the station was needed. Tesei included that in his next budget, but in 2017, the RTM voted to cut the study, stopping the project again.

Tesei is expected to present his proposed budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year in late January. In the meantime, work is underway to evaluate potential locations for a firehouse. The 2016 proposal was to buy 4.76 acres on King Street from The Fairview Country Club, which had approvals from the Greenwich Fire Department, the BET and the town Planning and Zoning Commission.

The property is still available but Tesei said he is going in to the new process with an open mind toward potential options as some in town have questioned whether the country club is the best location for a new station.

“There is an identified need that is long-established,” Tesei said. “The resolution that was overwhelmingly approved acknowledges that. There has been a designated location of which there was clearly merit. … We are going to thoughtfully listen. We’ve listened to some of the concerns people have expressed about that and we will evaluate if there are other locations.”

Other spots have been considered in the past. Tesei said the property has to meet certain requirements to sustain having a station there, which rules out many residential neighborhoods. He said he and others “would be working in earnest over the next several months” to evaluate the potential options.

Tesei has already met with the Greenwich Fire Department administration about the project and said he anticipats partnering with members of RTM District 10 on the effort. He thanked Selectman John Toner and Selectman Sandy Litvack, who is a resident of District 10, which covers the northwest, for their support in what he said will be a collaborative effort.

“I think this issue and the way it was handled by this group is emblematic about how people want their local government to work,” Tesei said. “It is not a political issue. It is an issue of equalizing service to an important part of town that is growing.”

The BET has been more supportive of building a new station than the RTM has been, at least in recent years. The finance board backed the fire station in 2016 and the study in 2017.

“As with other projects, the BET will evaluate the first selectman’s proposal to meet the needs for fire response coverage,” BET Budget Committee Chair Leslie Moriarty said on Friday. “The BET would expect the proposal will address possible alternatives considered, benefits and costs to be expected, needs of GEMS, timeline and operational hurdles.”

BET Chair Jill Oberlander said the BET would expect a proposal to include projected near- and long-term operational costs as well as analysis of how a new station would impact fire service throughout town.

“The BET will carefully consider any proposal presented and, as appropriate, we will work with the town to address questions that have and that may arise,” Oberlander said.

At Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, Tesei congratulated RTM District 10 member Louisa Stone, a driver of the renewed push to build a station, for the successful vote on Monday. The District 10 membership put forth the resolution. He pledged to her that he was “wasting no time” in getting to work on the proposal.

One part of the upcoming work, Tesei said, will be addressing concerns that have been expressed about the project in the past, and which were repeated this week.

Before the RTM approved the new resolution Monday, it voted down a substitute one put forward by the Budget Overview, Finance and Town Services committees that, instead of a new station, called for a report with updated information about townwide fire protection, costs and potential alternative delivery methods for fire protection in town. Concerns were expressed by several speakers at Monday’s meeting about the long-term costs for the station, given it would require the hiring of additional firefighters.

In the aftermath of Monday night’s vote, which came after a lengthy debate, critics of the District 10 resolution were taking a “wait and see” approach, noting the next moves are up to the first selectman and the BET.

RTM District 11member Richard Neuman, chair of the Town Services Committee and a volunteer district chief with the Greenwich Fire Department’s downtown station, said on Friday he ultimately voted for the District 10 resolution because he feels there should be more coverage, but also more information about the costs and impact.

Neuman noted there are other parts of town, not just District 10, that have long response times for emergency services. He said alternatives have to be looked at, including potentially placing a fully staffed engine with career personnel at the currently all-volunteer Round Hill Road station.

“I’ve always supported getting more help up there,” Neuman said. “But we need to discuss how we’re going to do it. The Fairview Country Club is a solution but I don’t think it is the best solution.”

While the budget presentation is months away, Tesei said he anticipats holding a meeting somewhere around the mid-way point between now and January to update residents and other officials about progress.

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com

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