East Lyme residents OK $5 million public safety facility
East Lyme — In what was a higher-than-expected turnout Wednesday, voters at a referendum overwhelmingly approved a proposed $5 million public safety facility.
Residents voted 1,389 to 803 to support the proposal.
The vote comes three months after First Selectman Mark Nickerson announced a plan to purchase and renovate the $2,775,000 Honeywell office building at 227 W. Main St. and turn it into a public safety facility.
"This is a big win for the entire town of East Lyme, for the citizens who live here today and who will live here for the next several decades," First Selectman Mark Nickerson said Wednesday night. "This is a good building and a good solution to a problem that has plagued our town for many years."
"We had over a dozen people put in hundreds of hours in research investigating different sites in town and looking into this building," Nickerson continued, referring to the task force overseeing the proposal. "They did a fabulous job. The approved referendum is all due to their work and they should be very proud."
According to plans presented to residents, the 30,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 17 acres on the far western side of town and will be renovated, will consolidate the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center, which currently are housed in Flanders, with police operations.
The building also is slated to include an evidence room and an arms lockup room and storage, both of which presently are housed at Waterford Police Department, as well as space for other uses.
The proposal may not include holding cells due to a $1 million cutback made by the Board of Finance before sending the proposal to referendum last month.
The need for a new policing facility has been a pressing issue for nearly two decades, Nickerson has said. The town previously 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 a 2007 referendum, voters rejected a $14 million complex.
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, taxpayers have debated at public forums and over social media about the proposal and whether it is fiscally, logistically and operationally feasible. In particular, residents have expressed fears about how financing millions of dollars for the facility, almost two years after the town approved financing $38 million for elementary school renovations, could cause a burden to taxpayers.
Turning out to vote Wednesday evening, Joe and Lisa Feeney said they voted yes on the proposal. They said they felt East Lyme’s police force needs and deserves a better facility and that the $5 million proposal is a good deal for the town.
Voting no, however, was Bruce Bentley. He said that while he liked the idea of potentially regionalizing police forces with Old Lyme in the future, at the moment that notion is “too pie in the sky.” He also said he thought the price of the building would go up from the proposed $5 million.
“I’m in in the construction business. I’ve been in for 40 years and I know when someone puts a number on what this thing is worth, it’s going to go up,” he said.
Now that the proposal has passed, Nickerson said the town must complete remaining tests required to purchase the property, including water and septic tests. Renovations are expected to start in early summer and the police force may be able to move in before renovations are complete, he said.
He said renovations are expected to be completed “likely before the end of this calendar year.”
A building committee also soon will be appointed 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.
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