Groton residents told town officials Tuesday evening that they want to compare “apples to apples” before they vote on a Fall Town Meeting article to buy Sacred Heart Church at 279 Main Street as a site for a new central fire station. With few exceptions, voters speaking in a crowded public hearing on Article 26 asked for the same type of detailed site analysis and cost estimates that engineers and architects working for the Groton Electric Light Department prepared for “Station Avenue,” another potential fire station site.
Officials estimated the cost of constructing a four-bay fire station with a footprint of around 8,200 square foot and a total size of about 16,000 square feet to range from $4.75-5.25 million on the Sacred Heart site and between $5.25-5.8 million on the GELD site. Despite not having a detailed analysis of the Sacred Heart site, officials said they were confident that the estimated price was accurate. But because the estimate was not documented as well as the Station Avenue site, residents had doubts.
Selectmen, Town Manager Mark Haddad, and Fire Chief Joe Bosselait said during the hearing that they would try to pull an comparison chart together before Town Meeting on October 17, but they are constrained by time and money. The detailed analysis of the GELD site on Station Avenue was a $6,000 dollar expenditure split by the town and GELD because it was a relatively minor addition to work GELD had already commissioned as part of its preparation for building a new office building and equipment garage. A comparable evaluation of the Sacred Heart site could cost the town between $20,000 to more $30,000 according to Val Prest, the civil and structural engineer who prepared preliminary site evaluations as a volunteer member of the town’s ad hoc Central Fire Station Site Selection Committee this spring. There is no money available to pay engineer’s fees to survey the Sacred Heart site, Haddad said this summer. Even if funds were available, it is unlikely that the work could be completed in time to present by the 17th. But because there are more than 20 articles on the warrant ahead of the Sacred Heart purchase proposal, it is unlikely to be discussed the first evening of the TM. Anticipating that, Haddad and Selectmen discussed attempting to schedule the vote on Article 26 on the second evening of TM, planned for October 24. That would give them a second week to collect and prepare more information on the church site.
Town officials used the Tuesday evening hearing as an opportunity both to present the positive aspects of the Sacred Heart site and to point residents toward background material they have assembled on the two sites, organized on a page of the town web site. Since the Sacred Heart purchase was turned down by a wide margin at a special town meeting this spring, The Maguire Group engineering team, retained by GELD to design its office and garage complex tried to add a four-bay fire station to its GELD plans to save the town significant design and construction monies. But Maguire’s initial attempts to place both buildings required three feet or more of fill to stabilize the site and to solve drainage problems caused in part by the site’s proximity to nearby wetlands.
While Maguire explored different options to succeed with the expanded joint project, GELD moved forward to present a preliminary version of its stand-alone building proposal to the town Conservation Commission and Planning Board and and ran into questions and concerns from both groups. Adding the fire station to the site increases the difficulty of obtaining the required approvals from the two regulatory bodies because two buildings fill up the site to the edge of its wetlands buffer, and some design options pushed deeply into the buffer. Based on initial assessments of the preliminary plans for two buildings on the GELD site, some members of the board of selectmen and Con Comm privately doubted that the joint development would, or could, be allowed.
On September 22, Our Lady of Grace Parish, which owns Sacred Heart, announced the gift of the church building to the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, which plans to move the building. A week later, Haddad negotiated a new purchase and sale agreement for the church land with the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church and Our Lady of Grace, for $325,000; down from the $450,000 price TM voters rejected in June. Included in the purchase plan is a year-long window for TMCLA to move the church building to its new campus on Old Ayer Road.