By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — After five years of work, the Ballardvale Fire Station Building Committee is recommending a new station be built on a site adjacent to South Elementary School.
But neighbors remain far from sold on the idea.
In its final report delivered to the Board of Selectmen this week, the building committee pinpointed the site at the corner of Andover and Woburn streets owned by the school district as its top choice to house the new Ballardvale fire station. The location now supports a Little League ball field for South School.
Its recommendation calls for the construction of a 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot fire station to replace the 120-year-old one located less than one mile away at Andover Street and Clark Road.
The project is estimated to cost $6 million. Officials say the price tag would increase by as much as $1.5 million if the town had to purchase private land for the new station. Under the recommendation, the town would swap land with the school district for the site.
The building committee initially targeted the South School site more than three years, but the location immediately drew opposition from the neighborhood, which has attempted to propose alternative locations.
In presenting the building committee’s recommendation, Chairman Dan Casper told selectmen there was “no secret that there was resistance by some people in the immediate vicinity to that site.” But he said after years of work, members arrived at no suitable alternative, leaving them with their lone recommendation.
“Believe me, if we could have found a site that was universally acclaimed, we would have done that,” Casper said. “We would have had the station by now. It would have been built.”
The recommendation followed two studies — one completed by Manitou Inc. in 2007 and a second wrapped up by Criterion Associates in December. The Criterion study was sought amid opposition to the Manitou study, according to Casper.
One alternative from Criterion placed the station along South Main Street, a suggestion that became impossible once the committee was unable to find available land there, Casper said.
Winterberry Lane resident Colin Whelan, a long-standing opponent to the South School location, said the Criterion study identifies risks with the site.
He said the South School location would increase by 505 the number of incidents the station would be unable to respond to within the established four-minute standard.
“That’s a 13 percent increase in the number,” he said.
Meanwhile, keeping the Ballardvale Fire Station in Ballardvale and relocating West Fire Station to South Main Street “decreases the number of incidents not reached by both stations” within the four-minute window, Whelan said.
The potential for building a new station in the Lowell Junction Road area, where plans have been in stasis for decades to build a new Interstate 93 interchange, was also discussed.
But building committee member Rebecca Backman cautioned against looking to Lowell Junction for a solution, saying the regional project “is currently dead in the water.”
Whether selectmen rebuild the station at South School or on South Main Street, Casper said the board needs to act sooner rather than later.
“It’s our hope that this doesn’t get put back on the shelf for another 20 years or 30 years like it was before,” he said. “Eventually, what’s going to happen, I think you’re going to get a phone call in the middle of the night that the station has either partially collapsed or we’ve had major problems with it.”
Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli said the board’s next move is “to go back and look at what our alternatives are,” while also considering the cost of the project alongside other town obligations. A workshop on the topic is expected to be scheduled in the next 1 1/2 months, he said.
Selectman Brian Major, meanwhile, called the relocation of Ballardvale Fire Station the second highest priority project in town, next to rebuilding the Town Yard.
“We’ll identify the alternative we want to move forward with, and we’ll take it to the community,” Major said. “It now sits with us.”