WILLIAMSTOWN — On Tuesday, voters can approve — or deny — the construction of a new, more than 22,000 square-foot-fire station.
The estimated $22.5 million project has been discussed since 2006, Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said. After years of back and forth, planning, and some rejection, Pedercini’s pet project has backing from local officials and needs only the approval of citizens. At the special town meeting, the measure requires a two-thirds majority.
Pedercini expects approval.
“I’m out and about quite a bit, and I’ve been getting asked for months, ‘When are we going to get the station voted on?’” Pedercini said. “You’re always going to get people that don’t want to pay a little higher tax. I’ve lived in this town all my life, I’m not walking away from paying my taxes. My taxes will go up, I get it, but I think overall it’ll be worth it.”
The fire district’s prudential committee recently reduced the projected $25 million price for a new station, which would be located at 560 Main St., to $22.5 million. Williams College pledged $5 million to the project, bringing the cost to taxpayers down to $17.5 million. Then the Williamstown Select Board agreed to put $225,000 toward the project, reducing the price further.
Williams College has pledged to pay $5 million toward the town's proposed $22.5 million fire station
“We have reason to be confident that there will be more gifts and grants to this project,” Jim Kolesar, a member of the fire district’s Building Committee, said.
A truck bay was eliminated from the original plan and the number of bunk rooms was reduced, among other changes. Prudential Committee Chair David Moresi made a point to tell the committee he believes $25 million is too much money, and he worked with the fire department to trim their asks by 10 percent.
“I said, ‘We need to cut.’ Perhaps some were not happy with me making that statement, but somebody had to,” Moresi said. “With that cut, it told the community that we are working with them.”
Most of the cost for the new station would be borrowed. According to Kolesar and the fire department, the first year would cost taxpayers about $.30 per $1,000 property valuation, the second year about $.50 per valuation.
“That means that a property valued at $200,000 would face an added assessment in each of the first two years of $60.00 to $100.00,” the department writes in answer to frequently asked questions.
After those first two years, taxpayers will be paying down a 25-year bond at a little less than $1.00 per $1,000 of property valuation. These numbers were settled on before the $225,000 from the select board, which will lower them a bit.
Pedercini and the department waited, after voters narrowly defeated a measure calling for a new fire station in 2013, as Mount Greylock Regional School and the new police station were built. Proponents of the project point out that the current fire station was erected 73 years ago, and that the Fire District has never borrowed for a capital project before.
“I’ve lived in Williamstown for almost 39 years, and the amount of money I’ve paid to capital costs from my fire district is zero. They’ve never borrowed money to do any project,” Kolesar said. “I’ve been paying very, very little for fire coverage for my house. What I’ve been paying has been way out of wack, now it’s going to be in wack.”
There are roughly 25 volunteer firefighters in the Williamstown Fire Department. They responded to 241 calls last year, including 10 mutual aid calls.
During a tour of the existing 5,000-square-foot station at 34 Water St. on Thursday, Pedercini demonstrated the current safety hazards of the department. Its fire trucks are packed tightly into the station’s three bays — in some instances there is not enough room to open two trucks that are side by side. The department’s equipment is stacked along the walls where there is room. To access its ice rescue equipment, firefighters must move one of the trucks forward. The small training space among the truck bays is gone; in the back of the station is a sort of all-purpose meeting room. The station isn’t big enough to house the department’s four fire trucks and, at the same time, safely accommodate firefighters gearing up for a call.
The new fire station would have more space dedicated to decontamination.
“One of our biggest problems today in the fire service is cancer. How can we cut back on cancer?” Pedercini said. “They’re in a smoky environment, a hostile environment with all the products in the home burning such as plastics, that stuff gets onto your clothes and it gets embedded.”
Another safety concern — a breathing air compressor in the same room as all the trucks.
“This here technically has to be in a room all by itself,” Pedercini said, pointing to the compressor. “It should be behind a protective wall. In the new station, it will be.”
The new station would have more space and rooms dedicated to specific functions such as laundry and exercise rooms, as well as a “ready room,” where firefighters wait to go out on a call. The chief, deputy chief and officers would have office and conference space.
A 2019 report by Municipal Resources Inc. evaluated the department’s facilities, apparatus and operations. It found the town to be at “moderate to high level of risk” of firefighter or civilian injury due to issues related to the inadequate and outdated fire station.
The facility has no room for expansion, is not energy-efficient and lacks space for larger firetrucks and storage. Heating, electrical and plumbing systems are outdated and in violation of OSHA and building codes.
Kolesar, Pedercini and Moresi proudly discuss how the new station will be net-zero carbon in terms of emissions. To achieve its net zero goals, the roof and grounds will carry solar panels to power the station. Efforts are also being made to keep the building well insulated and airtight, with heating and air-conditioning equipment powered by heat pumps, which require less electricity, and run on electricity generated on-site.
Supporters have heard some pushback initially on the price. Kolesar said he used to hear a critique along the lines of, “There aren’t that many fires.”
“I think you realize that it’s a form of fire insurance. There are fires,” Kolesar said. “And firefighting has become more hazardous to firefighters than it was before.”
Scott McGowan, the son of former Williamstown fire chief Edward McGowan, has been the most vocal detractor of the proposed new station. In a letter to the editor of The Eagle, he criticized the fire district’s chart comparing the size of the proposed station to other fire stations.
“I asked the district if they knew the information on their data chart was incorrect. For example, under the section ‘station size,’ the communities of Holden (36,450 square feet), Sharon (42,460), Medfield (41,022) and Plainville (43,644) are combined police/fire buildings (in the case of Plainville, a police/fire/town hall complex), not standalone fire stations as suggested by the district,” McGowan wrote.
Kolesar said the district did not mean to mislead residents, and that they are aware comparisons included combination police/fire buildings. They only meant to include rough comparisons from comparable communities.
While he led a tour of the station on Thursday, Pedercini told The Eagle he’s been preparing his remarks ahead of the town meeting. He’s been chief of the department for more than 20 years.
“I’m pretty emotionally attached to this building and the design, and so are my officers,” Pedercini said.