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Norwich Committee Wants Renovations, Not Move, for Facilities

Norwich — A subcommittee of the Selectboard on Thursday recommended that the town renovate its existing fire and police facilities, rejecting a recommendation of Town Manager Neil Fulton and three department heads to relocate them to a site on Route 5 north of downtown Norwich.

The Capital Facilities Committee in its decision cited public concerns over the cost of the ABC Dairy site on Route 5, which once hosted an Agway, as well as the Selectboard’s vote last month not to seek more information about the property.

“I sort of took that to mean we shouldn’t spend any more of our energy (on ABC Dairy),” Evan Pierce, a committee member, said at the meeting.

“Anyone else?” Pierce asked.

A chorus of yeses sounded from the committee, which met Thursday morning at the Public Works Department garage on New Boston Road.

Fulton, who last month issued a memo to the committee recommending the ABC Dairy site — despite the Selectboard’s decision not to pursue it — said that the input of the heads of fire, police and public works was “critical to where I stand on this.”

The fire and police departments are struggling with aging, cramped facilities in the center of town. On Firehouse Lane, there is little space for fire trucks to maneuver, and the police station has a leaky roof and lacks a dedicated interview room, among other deficiencies.

The police and fire chiefs, as well as the public works director, backed the memo endorsing the Route 5 site, which they contended would be less costly to develop in the long run.

“Clearly this is a policy issue that is outside of my responsibility,” Fulton told Capital Facilities panel members, referring to the siting decision. He added that the memo only had been intended to provide more accurate information.

Several committee members, including Pierce, said that the cost comparison of the ABC Dairy and “village” sites in Fulton’s memo had been persuasive, but that the popular perception was that the Route 5 property would be too expensive.

“Dollars aside, I think that perception has to become a reality,” Pierce said.

The committee’s response to the public should be, “We hear you,” he said.

Last month, resident Fran Walz stood outside Tracy Hall to protest Fulton and the department heads’ plan, which she saw as expensive and unnecessary.

“It’s going to be an absolutely horrendous amount of money,” she said at the time. She also asserted that some of the town employees backing the Route 5 site don’t live in town, so the expenditure wouldn’t affect their taxes.

At the meeting Thursday, Fulton and committee member Ernie Ciccotelli argued over the quality of the fire department and its hiring of residents of other towns. Ciccotelli said he feared that Norwich was allowing people from out of town to influence its policy decisions.

“I object to that,” Fulton said.

“Well, I object right back,” Ciccotelli said.

Ciccotelli also said that the department was headed toward a professional crew, rather than a staff of volunteers.

Fulton, a former Norwich fire chief, countered that the fire station was “absolutely dependent” on volunteers and that hiring full-time firefighters would be a “tragedy.”

“My feelings run extraordinarily hot when people criticize people who get up at 3 a.m. and go and fight fires,” Fulton said afterward, referencing his exchange with Ciccotelli. “If you’re the person lying on the floor with a heart attack, I doubt you’re going to look up and say, ‘Are you a Norwich resident?’ ”

The Selectboard was not immune from the frustrations expressed at the meeting: Pierce complained that it had not made its reasoning clear in rejecting the former Agway site, now owned by David Clem, a prominent Upper Valley developer.

“There is a sense of ‘We have dug in our heels’ ” with the Selectboard, Pierce said. “I feel that any analysis is wasted on that group.”

Pierce also criticized Clem for not publicly providing more information about his property, such as whether it held environmental contaminants left over from the Agway.

Clem was not present at Thursday’s meeting and said in a phone interview later that he had tested the site and the only contaminated area was one he didn’t own.

He also said he was no longer interested in selling property to the town.

“I’m certainly not interested in wasting more time and money with the on-again, off-again process that the town seems to have,” Clem said.

The indecision and second-guessing that the town has seen in recent months stretches back years, Clem said, and has included bandying about of a figure of $950,000 for the 10-acre property.

At the meeting, Fulton said that the price would likely be lower, but Clem estimated that the site was worth $1.2 million, and said that he didn’t intend to sell it at a “bargain basement price.”

The town has assessed the land and structures at ABC Dairy at $361,000, but Clem says the figure doesn’t reflect all of the improvements he’s made and the rental income that his project generates.

Clem intends to sell the property and is speaking to potential investors, but has given up on any real interest from the town, whose conduct he called “unprofessional.”

“I consider the proposition dead, and I have considered it that way for two years,” he said.

In light of the controversy and frustration that have followed this project, town officials said they were happy to reach a resolution.

“I’m glad they finally listened to what the Selectboard voted upon,” said Selectman Keith Moran, who sat in on the meeting.

Fulton said he was pleased with the decision and that it would help him focus his efforts toward estimating costs.

“It provided some direction that I needed,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.