The Winchendon Courier
Serving the community since 1878 ~ A By Light Unseen Media publication
Week of October 31 to November 7, 2019
What makes Winchendon what it is...How we're making Winchendon even better

Winchendon voters defeat article for expanded fire station

Central Street Reconstruction, zoning articles passed

More than 150 voters attended Winchendon's Fall Special Town Meeting on Monday, October 28 to vote on 20 articles including expenditures for the Central Street Reconstruction Project, the school department and the engineering phase of a proposed expanded and updated fire station. All but two of the articles passed by healthy margins, although none passed unanimously. In the night's biggest upset, voters rejected the town's request for funding for the first stage of the fire station project.

Town Meeting was called to order at 7:08 p.m. by new Town Moderator Coral Grout, who was taking up the gavel for the very first time. A seasoned meeting moderator who has run meetings of over a thousand attendees, Ms. Grout said that it was exactly thirty years since her father, who also served as Winchendon's Town Moderator, attended his first Town Meeting.

Thomas Kane, chair of the Finance Committee, gave a presentation on the town's finances and the impact that the warrant articles before the town tonight would have on the town's Free Cash. Mr. Kane explained that the town should have a Free Cash balance of at least five percent of its operating budget, or $1,506,181. The balance remaining if all warrant articles pass would be $488,180, less than a third of the minimum healthy balance. The Stabilization fund, which is the town's main financial reserve, and capital stabilization fund, which offsets future capital projects and needs, are both below minimum desired balances. The town recently eliminated a large debt six years ahead of schedule through strong fiscal management and we don't want to fall into a hole again.

With this context established, voters continued to the articles.

Article 3 asked voters to authorize the town to borrow $1 million to pay for the replacement of water and sewer lines as part of the Central Street Reconstruction Project slated to begin in spring of 2020. In response to questions, Town Manager Keith Hickey explained that the $1 million will be borrowed from the Water and Sewer department funds: $550,000 from Water and $450,000 from Sewer. No discussion was raised as to whether and how this would impact water and sewer rates for users (a question brought up but not resolved at the October 9 Finance Committee hearing on the warrant). Mr. Hickey stated that the project itself would eliminate projected costs of ongoing repairs to an aging system, and this would offset the impact on water and sewer rates. An additional $500,000 would be transferred from Free Cash, bringing the town's expenditure for the Central Street Reconstruction Project to $1,500,000.

Asked why this article was being brought to Town Meeting now, Mr. Hickey explained that the design work on the Central Street project is about 75 percent complete and if funding is approved, the water and sewer line work can be included with the final plans. Article 3 passed by a vote of 81% in favor, 19% opposed.

Article 4 asked the town to approve a 10-year bond in the amount of $853,200 for the initial engineering, design and bidding phase for the construction of an expanded and renovated fire station. This debt service would require a Proposition 2-1/2 override which, if passed, would increase the property tax rate by roughly 13.6 cents per $1000 of assessed value ($28/year for an "average" Winchendon home assessed at $205,877). The Prop. 2-1/2 override would go to a ballot vote at the polls and would be scheduled before January 26, 2020.

Article 4 was introduced with a detailed, 21-minute presentation by Winchendon Fire Chief Tom Smith and Town Manager Keith Hickey. Mr. Hickey explained that an important reason for investing in this preliminary phase is so the town can have a solid projected cost to bring before voters in the future. He mentioned the new police station, which did not have such a comprehensive design phase and had to come back to the town for additional funding repeatedly. The last addition, the sally port, is just being completed now.

The presentation included schematics of the existing and proposed building and a breakdown of the total estimated construction cost, which currently is projected to be $11.8 million. Chief Smith and Mr. Hickey explained in detail why Winchendon needs an upgraded fire station. The four existing equipment bays don't meet current code. Five new bays will be constructed at the back of the station for first responder vehicles such as the ambulances and ladder truck. The four old bays will house secondary equipment such as the command vehicle and the 8-wheel ATV rescue vehicle recently purchased with a Robinson Broadhurst grant.

The bays in the current station are very tight for space, and equipment needs to be moved outside to be maintained and restocked, even in the winter. Training gear also has to be stored outside and can only be used for trainings in good weather.

Upgraded locker rooms, bunk rooms and showers will accommodate both male and female firefighters. Currently there are no separate accommodations for female personnel.

Most importantly, the new station will address a serious health issue, being recognized nation-wide. Firefighters are routinely exposed to hazardous materials on calls, including toxic smoke, chemicals and asbestos. In the existing station, returning firefighters back the truck into the bay and hang up their turnout gear next to the trucks. Hazardous materials and diesel exhaust can enter the station and potentially impact firefighters, the dispatch center and anyone in the station, as well as medical supplies stored inside.

The new station will be divided into "hot zones" to contain contaminants, "cold zones" which include living spaces, offices and common rooms, and "warm zones" between them. "Warm zones" will have directed air circulation to keep contaminants out, and returning firefighters will never directly enter a "cold zone" before they've removed their turnout gear and showered. Gear will be laundered and decontaminated in "hot zones" and stay in those zones. Firefighters and EMTs will also be able to clean off bodily fluids and contaminants from a call which they now are sometimes dealing with when they get home, at possible risk to their families.

The fire station was originally designed for an on-call fire department that wasn't quartered in the building. The fire department has adapted the building for full-time live-in staffing over the last 28 years.

Mr. Kane of the FinCom wanted to explain why the Fincom did not recommend the article. He said they saw the need for a new station, but their concern was with the process. "The process should be one that includes a lot of voices in the discussion," Mr. Kane said. "This warrant article completely bypasses the Capital Planning Committee, as well as the Finance Committee. Chief Smith came to the Capital Planning Committee about a year and a half ago and shared his concerns...the Capital Planning Committee voted to allocate seventy five thousand dollars for a feasability study. The Capital Planning Committee has been working on a comprehensive plan that identifies all the town's capital needs within the next ten to fifteen years." Mr. Kane went on to say that several different plans had been developed, but this one hasn't been discussed with the Capital Planning Committee or Finance Committee. The town needs time to discuss all the plans, see how this one fits into the whole picture, and "do its due diligence."

Chief Smith responded that when he first went before the Capital Planning Committee, he had not had a solid dollar amount, but with costs rising steadily over time, he didn't think it was fair to penalize the town by delaying the project. "I didn't realize every phase needs to go to Capital Planning," he told Mr. Kane. Chief Smith said they had just gotten the final numbers in the last month and a half and had cut the estimate by around 3 million dollars. He said he'd be happy to sit down with Capital Planning, "this station has been on their radar for four fiscal years now...I don't think it's a good thing fiscally to keep putting it off, because we know costs are not getting any lower."

Voter Jodi Kirby asked the FinCom if the recent feasability study was the first one they'd seen. Mr. Kane said yes, but that feasability studies present several options to consider, and there had been no time to look at all the possible options. Several voters rose to speak in support of the project; several rose to say they wanted to respect the Finance Committee's recommendation.

The article was defeated, with a vote of 39% in favor, 61% opposed.

Voters readily approved requested funding from Free Cash for the culvert on Robbins Road, additional expenses for the Central Street Reconstruction Project, DPW overrun costs for road repairs after last winter's road-eating weather, and the town's share of a new, energy efficient propane boiler for the police station. The $124,024 requested by the school department for unanticipated out-of-district placement SPED costs was approved with no questions or discussion. Article 11, for the engineering study at Old Murdock, passed easily, as did Article 12, to reduce the Wastewater budget and purchase a new truck with the amount saved.

Article 13 requested the town's approval to accept bids for the sale of the former Poland and Streeter schools on Oak Street. This proposal was being brought before the town a second time after being defeated at Annual Town Meeting in May. The new proposal stipulates that the buildings can only be used for low income housing for veterans and nothing else. Montachusett Veterans' Outreach Center in Gardner hopes to win the bid and remodel the buildings into 25-30 housing units. This time, voters approved the article resoundingly, 90% in favor to 10% opposed.

Article 14 asked voters to approve accepting a donation of a parcel of land to expand the new Winchendon Community Park off of Maple Street. School Committee chair Greg Vine asked how large the parcel of land is. It is 8.4 acres. The article was approved with 92% in favor, 8% opposed.

Planning Board member Scott Robillard came to the podium to present Articles 17 through 20. He began by explaining what a zoning overlay is, and the history of the Golf Overlay District which Article 17 would eliminate. The overlay district was created when a golf course was proposed in that area; the golf course was never developed, and now the area is being used for solar energy installations. With no questions or discussion, Article 17 passed, 87% in favor and 13% opposed.

There was little discussion about Article 18, which would create the Lake Monomonac Overlay District. Greg Vine asked "what issues, specifically," the Lake Monomonac Overlay District was intended to address. Mr. Robillard explained that it would adjust set-back restrictions for small properties on the lake. He emphasized that no other regulations were affected and the overlay district addressed restrictions on properties that existed before the current lot size regulations were established. The article passed, 77% in favor and 23% opposed.

Article 19, which would put the Planning Board in charge of approving special permits instead of the Zoning Board of Appeals, raised more questions. Voter Dominique Muldoon asked what kinds of projects would be "streamlined" with special permits. Mr. Robillard explained that in the zoning bylaws, some uses in each zone are designated "by special permit" only and require a case-by-case review. Ms. Muldoon asked if there would be time for residents to comment, raise objections, and so on. Mr. Robillard said there would always be public hearings and other opportunities to comment.

Greg Vine asked if the ZBA had "had any input on whether to go ahead with this or not." Mr. Robillard said the Planning Board "reached out to the ZBA on several different occasions and we have received no correspondence" in reply. A question was raised as to just what the ZBA would do if the Planning Board was expediting things by handling special permits. Mr. Robillard stated that the ZBA would certainly still exist, and the assumption was that they didn't comment because they had no objections.

In the night's second upset, Article 19 was defeated, with 48% in favor and 52% opposed.

Article 20 asked the town to approve a change in the Adult Use/Medical Marijuana Facilities Retail Overlay District, by eliminating the area around the former Stuff 'n' Things store on Rte 202 by Lake Dennison and extending the existing overlay area along Rte 140 to include the commercial/retail area at the junction of Rte 140 and Rte 12. The complete overlay district includes several non-contiguous areas scattered around town and was established two years ago after the town of Winchendon voted in favor of Question 4, which legalized recreational marijuana in Massachusetts. Mr. Robillard explained that an individual seeking to open a facility had come before the planning board asking for the change.

Greg Vine began the discussion by saying "it almost sounds like spot zoning to me, which is not allowed." Asked to respond, Mr. Hickey asked Director of Planning and Development Tracy Murphy to provide more information.

Ms. Murphy explained that this article was prompted by several things. The applicant for the facility on Rte 202 held an outreach meeting with abutters, several of whom objected to a facility in their neighborhood. The applicant contacted the Planning Board about moving the facility to a more commercial area. Business owners in the new area were contacted, and the extended district will include commercial properties up to the Carriage House restaurant.

Several voters asked what a "no" vote would mean--whether it would mean that the facility would be opened on Rte 202. They were told this would not happen due to objections from residents in that neighborhood.

In explaining why the FinCom did not recommend the article, Mr. Kane said that the FinCom had spent a couple of years planning the overlay district and working with three applicants for the available marijuana retail licenses allowed in town. "We haven't had any test cases, we haven't had any stores open yet," Mr. Kane said. He said the town should let them open and see how things go before we start changing around the overlay district.

Mr. Hickey said that this has been a long process. The Planning Board has considered what locations would do the least harm to the town. A commercial area where children don't congregate and there are no bus stops, and where other business owners have no objections, is the ideal place for the overlay district. It will ultimately be a revenue generator for the town, which takes a percentage of marijuana sales.

Ms. Muldoon asked if a study had been made of traffic impact. Ms. Murphy said that each individual proposal will undergo a full site review and traffic studies and so on would be done as part of that.

There was a discussion of how notifications of changes are made. Ms. Murphy said that abutters are not notified of changes to zoning laws. However, hearings are posted in the newspapers, on the town website and so on. A voter asked how notifications would be made "since Winchendon doesn't have a paper." Ms. Murphy said they're in the Gardner News.

Article 20 passed with 74% in favor, 26% opposed.

The meeting adjourned at 9:08 p.m.

The checkers reported that 153 voters attended Special Town Meeting. Many of them were new voters who had not attended a Town Meeting in Winchendon before. In 2018, only 82 voters attended Fall Town Meeting; this May, Annual Town Meeting convened with 121 voters present. A quorum of 75 is required for Town Meeting to convene.

The official minutes of the Fall Special Town Meeting may be read on the town website (PDF).

That story about Massachusetts banning cursing? It's total #$%@&!

Representative Jon Zlotnik would like to debunk the story circulating around the news media lately, most recently in the Gardner News: Cursing could soon lead to a $200 fine in Massachusetts. Rep. Zlotnik says the story illustrates two general problems that he'd like to help change. One is the tendency of news media to print misleading stories to attract readers. The other is the lack of knowledge many people have about how the legislative process works.

H.3719 is a real bill, but it's "nonsense," according to Rep. Zlotnik. The Massachusetts constitution allows citizens to petition their legislators to propose bills, and thousands of bills are filed every year. Most of them never go any further.

Rep. Zlotnik predicts that H.3719 will never get out of committee, if it even gets as far as a committee. It's blatantly unconstitutional and virtually unenforceable.

News media running stories that proclaim a bill "is being considered" (when it's only been filed) or "could soon be" enacted (when it's just sitting in the queue) are employing manipulative tactics to increase readership. Rep. Zlotnik says that people are calling their legislators to complain or object to the bill based on news stories that make it sound like it's about to become law. If voters had a better understanding of how bills are filed and everything that happens between filing and the implementation of an actual law, they'd be less easily fooled by click-bait headlines.

So don't waste a moment worrying that a law imposing fines for cursing is about to be passed in Massachusetts. There's not a snowball's chance in #$%@&!.

Stone-Ladeau Funeral Home

Winchendon Subway

Toy Town FYIs

Tuesday, October 15: The annual draw-down of Lake Monomomac will begin and will continue until it reaches the new winter draw down level of 3 feet on or around December 1st. The drop in the water level during the winter months allows property owners to do maintenance to their waterfront, including docks, walls, and beaches. It also helps with the weed control.

Be aware that the lower level increases the danger of hitting submerged rocks, trees or other hidden obstacles. Extreme caution should be taken by boat owners if you are planning to get in some late fall boating or fishing.

Enjoying the new Winchendon Courier Online? We're just getting started! But wow, is this a lot of work. The best work in the world, but still a lot of it! Please consider supporting us with a small donation. We'd so appreciate it. Thanks!