With 'first step' toward new public safety complex, Lenox eyes several possible sites

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LENOX — A consultant hired by the town is recommending a portion of a farm property on Routes 7 & 20 as the most suitable site for a new $13 million public safety complex housing police, fire and ambulance services.

The report by architecture firm James M. Hanifan of Caolo & Bieniek Associates in Chicopee was unveiled last week at a Town Hall public meeting of the Permanent Buildings Committee amid multiple caveats: The project's estimated price tag is very preliminary and does not include land-acquisition costs.

The top-scoring, 68-acre Brushwood Farm site, at 36 Pittsfield Road adjoining Courtyard by Marriott just north of downtown, is being offered by its owners, the Hashim family, through Stone House Properties as a possible mixed-use development. The current asking price of $3.8 million, according to Zillow.com, is down from $4,950,000 before the original listing was removed in July 2018. Whether the owners would be willing to sell 6 acres for a public safety facility is unknown so far.

The site opposite Lenox Commons went back on the market six weeks ago after a previous price cut to $4.5 million failed to attract a buyer. The property is currently assessed at $2,871,000, according to the Town Hall Assessors Office. Brushwood Farm is home to several businesses and apartments as part of the Lenox Gateway mixed-use overlay district. A 25-acre portion is zoned commercial, while the remaining 43 acres is in the 1-acre residential zone.

Hanifan's team also explored four other potential sites, as well as upgrading the existing Town Hall public safety facilities, but all those alternatives were found to have significant to severe drawbacks.

The Brushwood location is strongly favored by Police Chief Stephen E. O'Brien and Fire Chief Chris O'Brien for the new $13,195,000 facility.

The sites evaluated by the consultant included:

- The current Department of Public Works area on Main Street (Route 7A) opposite the MassDOT district headquarters. It is considered difficult because of its steep topography behind the existing DPW building as well as entry and exit limitations and road safety challenges. It came in last in the site scoring analysis compiled by Hanifan's team.

- A triangle parcel at the intersection of Route 7 and 20 (Lee Road). It lacks sufficient space unless a two-story building were constructed, scoring second-to-last in a tie with renovating and expanding the current Town Hall facilities.

- A parcel off Walker Street just east of the state highway bypass. It is also considered too tight and environmentally challenged with adjacent wetlands. It ranked third from the bottom in the site-scoring analysis.

- The Saw Mill Brook area off Housatonic Street, across from Caligari's Hardware. It has only limited acreage for development because of an existing vernal pool, wetlands and a migration pathway for rare salamanders. The 23-acre site, with six acres available for building, ranked second-best for its location, topography and available utilities, as well as town ownership, but its $600,000 purchase with Community Preservation Act funding in 2011 was restricted to affordable housing. Town voters failed to support by the needed two-thirds majority a workforce and market rate rental housing plan presented last spring.

- Brushwood Farm, the top-scoring location, has plenty of space, an ideal location in the geographic center of town, and an existing signaled intersection with the state highway. "It's technically the best one," said Hanifan.

"Political issues" involving each site were not part of the ranked scoring, Hanifan acknowledged, because they can't be assessed by his team.

"This is really the first step," said Select Board Chairman Edward Lane, who also chairs the Permanent Buildings Committee.

The town's existing facilities were considered unsuitable for renovation or expansion, based on the consultant's evaluation.

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The current fire station next to Town Hall, now staffed around the clock, has building code violations, Hanifan pointed out, as well as a lack of accessibility and of separate male and female locker rooms and showers. It has a structural issue, an outdated fire-detection system, as well as an outmoded generator and a lack of insulation, amid other problems.

Code issues also afflict the police station in the Town Hall basement, Hanifan told committee members, including state Department of Public Health violations. Available space for any renovation or expansion of the current facilities, highly problematic at best, would require variances and extensive review by town boards.

"The site is just too tough. It's extremely difficult to do anything there because of the way the property is, and very expensive," he said. Lane agreed, suggesting that "compared to building something new, this would cost way more and you wouldn't get as big a bang for your buck in the end."

The police department is significantly cramped for space at its current 2,981 square feet, compared to the recommended 6,908, according to Hanifan's report. The fire department would need 8,075 square feet instead of its current 4,658.

The ability to share certain spaces is a major advantage of a new public safety complex, Hanifan pointed out, with both chiefs "very agreeable" to the idea.

The projected budget, no matter which site is chosen, is just shy of $13.2 million, and includes nearly $10.5 million for building construction, working out to $600 per square foot, he said. The cost of acquiring the land, if necessary, is not included in the budget estimate.

"It's easy to say that at the bare minimum, that's what you're going to pay for a respectable building, if you already own the land," Police Chief O'Brien commented. "There's a lot of common sense in the plan. I'm glad we've moved beyond repairing what exists."

"Our philosophy as the Building Committee is, if we're going to do it, we should do it the right way, and I defer to the chiefs to understand what the right way is," said Neal Maxymillian, who's also a selectman. "In terms of sites, I think the rank order is spot on."

He described the Pittsfield Road location next to the Courtyard by Marriott as ideal, "but the downside is, we don't own it." He cited the Housatonic Street Saw Mill site as the runner-up, but the other three locations are "unrealistic."

Lane and committee member Tom Delasco, who's also on the Planning Board, supported Maxymillian's evaluation.

"Pittsfield Road is probably our number-one, Saw Mill is number two," said Lane.

"We want to do things right, no question about it," he said. "What we have to do with any project like this is to get the best product we can for what we can afford. Not just the best, but we have to be able to afford this."

"We have a sewer plant coming up and a lot of other things," Lane added. "Where this fits in to the whole scheme of our financial plan is something we have to take a real hard look at. The facilities we have are bad enough that we have to do something, we can't get around that."

The Permanent Building Committee will resume its discussion at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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