East Lyme proposes almost $6 million public safety complex

East Lyme — In what First Selectman Mark Nickerson has called a "now or never opportunity," town officials have worked out a deal to purchase an office building and create an almost $6 million public safety complex, as long as residents approve the plan.

Nickerson said last week the deal will provide the town’s newly independent police force with “an adequate building of its own” after 14 years in a “cramped,” temporary Main Street location.

The town, he said, has 120 days to approve the purchase of a $2,775,000 office building at 277 West Main St. — a location that borders Old Lyme and sits near the Interstate 95 Rocky Neck connector. Honeywell Corp. owns the building.

Town officials estimate an additional $3.2 million would be required to renovate the building into a police station that would include jail space, an evidence room, an arms lockup room and storage, among other features. It would cost taxpayers a little more $5.9 million, which would be bonded over 20 years. Nickerson said the finance department soon would provide numbers detailing how such bonding could affect taxpayers over coming years.

The proposal, however, must first be approved by the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance before moving on to a referendum. Nickerson said several public hearings detailing the proposal will be scheduled, the first of which is likely to be held in December.

Nickerson said if the town does not agree to purchase the building within 120 days, Honeywell will place it on the market. If approved, the renovation work will be completed in two years, he said.

“Our police force is working in deplorable conditions,” Nickerson said Tuesday. “We won’t get another deal like this again. It’s time to come up with a professional building project that will allow us to be efficient, and to live up to professional standards which are required for policing these days.”

As outlined, the deal would allow the town to purchase a 30,000-square-foot office building sitting on 17 acres of land. The building would consolidate the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center — which currently are housed on one site in Flanders — with the police station and jail facilities, which are now leased in Waterford.

“This is the most economically feasible solution to this issue,” Nickerson said, explaining that the price of this facility is relatively low compared to similar facilities across the state. Montville approved $6.84 million for a 17,000-square-foot facility in 2013, while Ledyard recently opened its $6.75 million, 11,300-square-foot facility in 2016. Those facilities are smaller than the one planned for East Lyme, and Ledyard's was constructed on land already owned by that town.

For finance board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Picarazzi, the proposal to bond an additional $6.5 million just 18 months after residents passed a $37.5 million school renovation project is “poorly timed.” Though she acknowledges a $6 million plan for the facility has been outlined in the town's Capital Improvement Plan, she said she would prefer to see the project postponed.

“There are a lot of people on fixed incomes and people on assistance that really can’t take another tax increase,” Picarazzi said. "I'm looking at it from the taxpayer viewpoint."

The proposed plan follows two unsuccessful attempts to establish a public safety complex. In 2004, the Board of Finance shot down a $6.5 million proposal to build a facility at Camp Niantic, and in 2007 a $14 million complex was rejected by voters at referendum.

The Board of Selectmen approved an independent police force in 2016 after participating in the state's resident trooper program for several decades. The department was established in 2017.

East Lyme's police force, with 23 full-time police officers and one part-time officer, serves the town's 19,000 year-round residents, as well as a surge of seasonal visitors and residents in the summer.

Presently, the force functions out of a small facility owned by Dominion Energy on Main Street, which the town has been leasing for the last 13 years for $1 a year. The town also pays Waterford approximately $50,000 annually to use its jailing facilities, evidence lockup and vehicle storage, among other uses — another point that Nickerson and police Chief Mike Finkelstein argue decreases the overall efficiency of the department.

The building "is almost like a mouse trap. It’s really built like a maze. There is no flow to it, nothing connects it,” Finkelstein said, while explaining that the Main Street building constantly floods and leaks during rain storms.

A recent flood in the building’s armory damaged $5,000 worth of equipment, Finkelstein said.

“We have a building that leaks from the ceiling, wall and floor. We have HVAC systems that are constantly failing. We had a generator failure during a power outage, because that is also old and obsolete,” Finkelstein said. “The current facility is insufficient both structurally and operationally.”

Finkelstein acknowledged that the proposed facility’s location, though on the edge of town, would not diminish emergency response time. He argued that several officers are patrolling East Lyme at any given moment and respond to emergencies as needed.

“When police respond to a call, they are already out in the field. It’s not like the fire department, where trucks are sitting in the station waiting for the call. Our police are out in the field already,” Finkelstein said.

He said that the building’s proximity to Interstate 95 also would allow officers to reach Flanders, as well as Niantic by way of Route 156, quickly.

“There is certainly a charm to having our temporary police headquarters on Main Street, but there’s a negative with that because we have a busy Main Street with a lot of pedestrians and a lot of traffic. When the police have to come out hot with a call, it can be difficult getting down Main Street,” Nickerson said.

The announcement also raised questions as to whether the proposed building’s location would aid in potentially combining the Old Lyme and East Lyme police departments. Nickerson said that such a possibility is being discussed with Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder.

“The station being there certainly doesn’t take away from that situation,” Nickerson said. “We’d encourage it and we don’t think regionalization in this state is happening fast enough. It would only be to the benefit of the citizens.”

Reemsnyder said that she and the town’s Police Services Options Committee, established earlier this year, are still in discussions.

“We are looking at things cautiously and carefully. A decision hasn’t been made,” Reemsnyder said.

Nickerson said he hopes if Old Lyme were to join forces with East Lyme, it would cover a portion of the building's costs.

"We are coming in now with a plan that we feel very comfortable with. It will suit our needs today and will give us room to grow in the future," Nickerson said. "This building will last us 50 years. It isn't just a temporary situation, it is a permanent solution."

m.biekert@theday.com

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