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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Norwich officials to discuss next steps after voters reject new police station

    Norwich ― Tuesday’s 165-vote defeat of a proposed $44.75 million police station left city leaders to dissect the public opposition and to plan another path to replace the cramped, obsolete 44-year-old police headquarters.

    Was the price tag too high on the heels of last year’s approval of a massive $385 million school reconstruction project? Were voters objecting to the top proposed location behind the Rose City Senior Center? Did the city rush to place the item on the Nov. 7 referendum ballot with little chance for public comment and ideas?

    And what’s next?

    “The need does not go away after the vote,” Police Chief Patrick Daley said Wednesday.

    Daley said while public officials were hampered this fall by state law that prohibits public officials from advocating for or against a referendum item, he will recommend holding a series of public meetings and even police station tours after the holidays to better publicize the need for a new station.

    Daley said there are few options for improving the current station, which opened in 1979 at 70 Thames St. overlooking Norwich Harbor. The proposal called for a 50,000-square-foot building on three acres of property to accommodate the station and public parking for community events.

    “The property is small, it’s narrow,” Daley said. “Economically and realistically, you cannot add onto this building. And it’s a working facility. You’d have to live through the construction.”

    City officials considered several potential sites for the police station, but the only one listed publicly in the current effort was the nearly 30-acre property adjacent to Mohegan Park off Ox Hill Road and behind the senior center on Mahan Drive. Residents objected to placing the police station “in Mohegan Park,” preferring downtown or other options.

    Daley said if the city holds public informational sessions, residents could offer ideas and ask questions about potential sites and the department’s space needs. He said some sites suggested by residents are privately owned, are not for sale or would be cost prohibitive.

    In October, the City Council agreed to buy the vacant Ox Hill Road property ― before the referendum ― for $385,000 using federal American Rescue Plan Act grant money.

    City Manager John Salomone said Wednesday he had recommended buying the property regardless of the police station measure, although council resolutions approving the purchase named it as the top site for the new police station.

    Salomone said he talked with Daley after the results became known Tuesday night, and the two will sit down and discuss options. He said he could not comment on options until they meet.

    “I wanted to buy that land anyway,” Salomone said. “It’s contiguous to Mohegan Park. I envision a walking path right from senior center into Mohegan Park. It really links some of our best recreation facilities and the schools. It’s just a great asset.”

    Mayor Peter Nystrom is not in favor of putting the police station bond back on the ballot a year from now. Nystrom said city leaders need to assess the outcome of the vote, the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal and what to do next.

    “Clearly, communication was an issue,” said Nystrom, who campaigned actively for Republican candidates going door-to-door. “People thought it was a done deal at Mahan Drive, but clearly that wasn’t in the question. I think we have to hold community meetings. I’m not ready to put it on next year’s ballot.”

    Nystrom, who voted in favor of the Ox Hill Road purchase resolution, said he would prefer a downtown site for the police station. The referendum asked voters to approve the bond money to build a new station but did not name the Ox Hill Road site.

    “We did look at nine different sites before we got that one,” Nystrom said. “The people I encountered in the fall, nobody liked that site.”

    Nystrom also speculated that part of the opposition could have been sticker shock.

    Voters a year ago overwhelmingly approved the $385 million school construction project to replace the current seven aging elementary schools with four new school buildings. The city will go out to bid soon for the first two school buildings, and taxpayers will begin to pay the debt service for the bonds in their property taxes.

    “I think we have to recognize that we’re building new schools, and we need to understand what people can and cannot afford,” Nystrom said.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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