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Referendum on Yarmouth public works garage draws fire from residents

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Referendum on Yarmouth public works garage draws fire from residents

YARMOUTH — Town officials are urging voters to pass a $2.88 million borrowing measure on Nov. 6 to pay for the expansion of the North Road Public Works garage.

But some residents aren't enthusiastic.

The bond, which would add space and purchase property adjacent to the garage, is expected to take 20 years to pay off and would cost $3.8 million after a "conservatively high" 3 percent interest rate is calculated, Town Manager Nat Tupper said.

The project would add two bays, one for washing and another for maintenance. It would also inlcude the purchase of a $375,000 home and it's property. Although a small section of the residential property would be immediatley used to expand employee parking and improve vehicle turning space, the future use of the remainder of the 3/4-acre property is unknown, Public Works Director Eric Street said.

The bond does not address any existing structural problems at the garage, such as the dated electrical system, height requirements or crumbling cinder block exterior.

"At some point, the other pieces will have to be removed, if not replaced," Street said. "Size-wise, it's not even close to what we need. This (bond) gives us some relief, so when the time does come, we can move into a new building."

The existing garage was built in the mid-1960s and serves as home base for school buses, maintenance equipment and snow plow operations in the winter.

In addition to the garage, residents will have to weigh the proposal's importance with two other bonds: one for a $1.5 million artificial turf field, which is also on the ballot in November, and another one for $1 million in library renovations, which will likely be on the June 2013 ballot.

If voters approve all the bonds, the town's debt will increase by about $5.4 million before interest, according to town estimates. Current outstanding debt is about $16 million.

Elise Hodgkin, who lives on Greenleaf Street directly behind the garage, said the proposed project is short-sighted. She thinks the town should address the facility's existing problems before expanding.

"We can't be spending money on things because the town wants something," she said. "Is it really needed or (does the town) just really want it? Just fix what it needs and leave it as it is."

Street said the wash bays are needed to prevent corrosion on the trucks, which sometimes go through two or three storms before being washed in the current facility. The additions would allow the town to more regularly wash their vehicles, reducing maintenance costs, he said.

Environmental regulations require water runoff from vehicle washing to be collected and disposed of properly, which is easier to do indoors, Street said.

Other neighbors echoed Hodgkin's concerns and said the town's expansion plans are blurry.

Elizabeth Hope, whose house on Rogers Road abuts the property the town hopes to buy with the bond, said the town's plan doesn't fully address the garage's issues.

"This is a stop-gap measure," she said. "It's like if you go to the mechanic to get new brakes on your car and they give you a ski rack and a trailer. It doesn't solve the problem."

Hope said another concern is that the town doesn't have any concrete plans beyond the first phase of the expansion, leaving neighbors wondering what's next for the property.

"We haven't seen a strategic plan," she said. "We don't know what's going on here."

Tupper acknowledged the plans are undefined beyond this initial bond, but said the proposed plans prepare the town for future expansions without breaking the bank.

"We'll use this as an interim step to buy us some time and give us some operating room in the future," he said, noting the poor economic climate affected the ambitions of the current proposal. "When is that better day coming? I don't know. This recognizes we can't afford to replace that structure ... until we're ready and willing to pay for more."

Tupper said the next phase is to eventually build a larger facility in the same footprint and use the new bays during construction.

"We'll have to come back and ask voters for something we can work with when, and if, the building is torn down," Tupper said.

Earlier this year, the town presented a more than $7 million proposal for the garage, which called for building a new, larger facility in the same location by expanding north and moving two adjacent baseball fields to make room.

The project was considered too ambitious by the Town Council, who asked that the project be scaled back. The council approved and recommended the current proposal in September.

The garage is in a medium-residential zone, which allows municipal uses, and is surrounded by homes, day-care centers, baseball fields and a playground.

Amy Williams, another Rogers Road resident, said if the town wants to expand the garage, it should build a heavy-machinery facility like the garage outside of residential neighborhoods.

"There are so many families with kids in this neighborhood," she said. "The point is to be aware of the make up and composition of the neighborhood. People love this neighborhood and it's a great place for kids."

Early in their deliberations about the expansion, Street said the town formed a task force to research other town-owned properties of five acres or more and settled on the North Road property.

The group ruled out several parcels, including the Yarmouth Community Garden area, open space areas and property on Route 1, because of logistics, land-use restrictions and cost, he said.

The task force also looked at using the Maine Department of Transportation facility and sharing operations with Cumberland, but couldn't reach any agreements.

Tupper said the town is going to be working with abutters to reduce sound and light pollution from the facility's operations using buffers, but admitted the situation is not ideal.

"No neighborhood will want to have a public works garage next to it," he said.

If voters defeat the measure, town officials don't know what their next step will be.

"I don't have a Plan B at this point," Street said. "The problem is not going to go away. They're going to have to address this problem."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.