East Lyme to hold referendum on proposed policing facility

East Lyme — Residents will have a final say at a referendum Feb. 20 as to whether East Lyme should move forward with a proposed $5 million public safety facility.

The vote comes three months after First Select Mark Nickerson announced a plan to purchase and renovate the $2,775,000 Honeywell office building at 277 W. Main St. to turn into a public safety facility.

Originally estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $6 million — a number that included both the building purchase and $3.2 million in renovations — the Board of Finance has since cut the town’s spending limit on that proposal to $5 million, approving instead $2.23 million for renovations at a January special meeting.

The 30,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 17 acres, would consolidate the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center — which currently are housed in Flanders — with the police station and would include an evidence room, an arms lockup room and storage, among other uses.

In his original proposal, Nickerson called for including holding cells at the facility. Whether those can now be built with a $5 million bonding limit — the estimated cost is upwards of $1 million — remains to be seen, Nickerson said in January. The town presently pays Waterford approximately $50,000 annually to use its holding cells, evidence lockup and vehicle storage, among other uses, and may continue to utilize the town’s holding cells services.

The need for a new policing facility has been a pressing issue for nearly two decades, Nickerson said in a phone interview Tuesday. In those years, the town has turned down two other proposals for policing facilities. In 2004, the Board of Finance shot down a $6.5 million proposal to build a facility at Camp Niantic, and in 2007 voters rejected a $14 million complex at referendum.

Nickerson, as well as policing staff, have described the present facilities on Main Street, which the town leases from Dominion Energy for $1 a year, as having “deplorable” conditions. Constant flooding and water leaks, as well as mildew and poor air quality, make working in the facility difficult for the town’s law enforcement staff, they’ve said.

The police force, with 23 full-time 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.

Since November, town officials and taxpayers have spoken back and forth at length — through public forums, board and commission meetings, as well as over social media — about the proposal and whether it is fiscally, logistically and operationally feasible.

Some taxpayers have questioned the building's location and proximity to flood zones, its size, and whether the move is even necessary, among other concerns.

In particular, residents have expressed fears about how financing millions for the facility, almost two years after the town approved financing $38 million for elementary school renovations, could cause a burden to taxpayers.

Nickerson has held several public forums in recent months and has posted information about the proposal on the town’s website in an effort to allay those concerns.

Should residents pass the proposal, Nickerson said the town will need to complete remaining tests needed to purchase the property, including water and septic tests, for example, he said. After hiring an architect and builders, he said he hopes renovations can start as early as this summer. He said there may be opportunity to move the police force into the building before renovations are complete.

Nickerson also said he and the Board of Selectmen will quickly appoint a building committee to oversee the renovations and plans. Included on that committee will be three Board of Finance members, three selectmen, three police committee members, the chief of police and two civilians.

The town, according to a purchase and sales agreement signed with Honeywell, will close on the property no later than the end of May, should the referendum pass.

Should it not pass, Nickerson said, “It would be unfortunate. This town needs to do something for the police.”

“We would go back to the drawing board and would have to come up with another plan but it would likely be more expensive,” he said, explaining that the town would have to construct a new building costing an estimated $10 million to $12 million.

“You can’t have town employees, especially a police force, working in conditions like this. This is not only a great opportunity, this is a necessity,” Nickerson continued. “We’ve done as good a job as we can possibly getting all the information out to the public, and I’m confident our taxpayers will see the value in this opportunity.”

The referendum will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 20 at the East Lyme Community Center located at 41 Society Road.

m.biekert@theday.com

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