By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — Last night, it was Town Meeting’s turn.
Against the recommendations of town staff, a study committee appointed by the town manager, the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee, Town Meeting voted 291-110 in favor of borrowing $200,000 to buy a piece of land for expansion of the Ballardvale Fire station. The vote cleared by more than a two-thirds majority, the amount needed for such an expenditure.
Article 25, proposed by former Town Manager Richard Bowen and supported by hundreds of neighbors, was the first of two articles that passed last night in support of renovating the existing station rather than building a new one near the South Elementary School.
The second article, to use $200,000 from free cash to prepare plans and specifications for renovations to the existing station, also passed overwhelmingly.
“For 123 years, the Ballardvale fire station has been a vital, vibrant member of the Andover Fire Department,” said Bowen, one of several people speaking in favor of both warrant articles. “It has fixable shortcomings.” He said the renovations would create “a score of collateral improvements,” including improved access to and from the building.
Other supporters said the articles should be approved because the location is best, the building is fundamentally sound and renovations to an existing building - estimated to cost about $2 million - would be far cheaper than building a new building - estimated to cost $6-8 million.
Historic preservation folks weighed in as well, saying the building should be saved and used rather than scrapped and demolished.
But town officials tried to dissuade Town Meeting voters from approving the plan.
Selectman Brian Major said “the primary reason we were against it is that the experts - Fire Chief Mike Mansfield and the Ballardvale Fire Station Task Force - have done extensive analysis and determined that the location should be moved to be on the other side of the railroad tracks.”
Finance Committee member Paul Fortier said that while he commended Bowen and others for coming up with their own warrant articles, there were numerous problems with them.
“The town needs a new fire station,” he said. “The conclusion of the Ballardvale committee and the chief is they need a state-of-the-art station that meets all the needs of the town. That station should be on the east side of the railroad tracks.”
Dan Casper, chairman of the Ballardvale committee, said he and seven other citizens had studied the issue since 2008 and filed their final report last year. They concluded that the best location is the corner of Andover and Woburn streets adjacent to the South Elementary School.
“The real issue,” he said, “is should the current station be slated for renovation. The current location will not serve the Lowell Junction and South Andover part of town.”
He added the station’s location blocks fire trucks from gaining access to that side of town whenever a train comes through.
Chief Mansfield agreed, saying that relocating the station would improve response times.
“Locating the station on the east side of the tracks will enable us to respond more quickly to a bigger geographic area of town,” he said.
As soon as the Board of Selectmen saw the way first vote went, they hastily convened a board meeting - in the middle of Town Meeting on the stage - to reconsider their position on the second warrant article.
They took a vote in favor of Article 26, garnering applause from the audience.
“The concerns we offered are still valid,” Major said. “We need to provide safe coverage of the Lowell Junction area. But since Town Meeting already voted to purchase the land it makes sense to fund the design work for the expansion.”
Selectmen voted 5-0 in favor of paying $200,000 for the design work needed for renovations to the station.