In their final informational meeting before taxpayers head to the polls on Tuesday, Westhampton Beach Fire District officials last week heard criticism from a local resident who said they have not done enough to inform the public about their plan to demolish their main firehouse and replace it with a new $15.7 million facility.
At the meeting last Thursday, May 23—which was attended by three residents, all five fire commissioners and a handful of fire department volunteers—Westhampton resident Patrick Fenton said the fire commissioners should reschedule the vote for later in the summer when more residents are on the East End. He said he has discussed the proposal with several people over the past few months, and no one seems to be aware that the district wants to raze the Sunset Avenue firehouse and replace it with a new one that is double in size.
“I’m the first one to commend the fire department for what they do,” Mr. Fenton said during last week’s meeting. “I’m just concerned about rushing into this vote just two weeks after this meeting when there is no one here.”
Fire District Commissioner Fred Overton responded by saying that the district has taken numerous steps to inform the community about the project, which has been four years in the making. He explained that the commissioners have given presentations to several local community groups—including the Citizens Advisory Committee-West, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Westhampton and the Rotary Club of Westhampton—and hosted four informational meetings at the firehouse. He added that the district has placed both a legal notice and an advertisement in The Southampton Press Western Edition, and has advertised the plans and all meetings on both the Westhampton Beach Fire Department and Southampton Town websites.
Earlier meetings hosted by the fire district over the past few months were also sparsely attended and very few people have expressed concerns—at least in public—about the plan.
The fire district still plans to move forward with the referendum on Tuesday, June 4. The polls at the firehouse will be open from 3 to 9 p.m., and all registered voters in the fire district, which spans Westhampton Beach, Westhampton and Quiogue, are eligible to vote.
The project calls for a demolition of the current firehouse and the former police headquarters building on the same property to clear the way for a new facility. The addition of a basement would provide extra room for the fire department’s 110 volunteers, who currently lack a designated area to get dressed when responding to alarms.
The project also calls for the repaving of the parking lot behind the firehouse to provide better drainage for the new facility and more spaces for responders. The department’s computers, including its alarm tower and telephone system, also must be upgraded, and the plan is to pay for those items with the proceeds of the same 20-year bond.
The fire district is proposing the new firehouse to address problems with the current 59-year-old, 12,300-square-foot building as well as code and maintenance issues. The hazards include exposure to exhaust fumes because the current firehouse lacks a ventilation system, and slanted floors that have damaged some of the emergency response vehicles.
If approved, the new firehouse would feature six bays in the front and five in the rear, with their doors having a clearance of roughly 14 feet—which is several feet taller than those at the current firehouse. Because of space restrictions, several department vehicles—including three standard-size fire trucks, one tower ladder, a heavy rescue truck, a tanker, a brush truck, a utility truck, two vans, a water rescue boat and four chief vehicles—are currently being stored off-site, in a building located on Seabreeze Avenue.
The proposed 27,000-square-foot, two-story firehouse would be big enough to accommodate the department’s entire fleet of trucks and emergency response vehicles, which do not fit in the current building, according to the fire commissioners.
If approved, the project is expected to raise the fire district tax rate to 47 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up from the current tax rate of 32 cents per $1,000, according to officials. Therefore, taxpayers whose homes are now assessed at $600,000 can expect to pay approximately $282 in fire district taxes each year, or $90 more than this year, at the higher rate.
If the project receives approval on Tuesday, fire commissioners said the fire department will vacate the Sunset Avenue firehouse and move into a temporary facility for approximately 18 months, the estimated length of construction. The district, Mr. Overton added, cannot sign a contract for a temporary facility unless the referendum is approved. During the construction period, a facility owned by the fire department on Seabreeze Avenue will continue to be used only as a storage building.
“I’m not here to tell you this building has to happen,” said Bill Glass, the Port Jefferson-based attorney representing the fire district. “But I am saying that something has to be done.”