PROVINCETOWN — The 1.3-acre parcel of town-owned land that was the former VFW post is once again the subject of debate. A petitioned article from Fire Chief Mike Trovato and 203 voters has triggered a special town meeting in the town hall auditorium at 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 2. The petitioners want the parcel to be reserved for a new police station, a fire and EMS substation, and an outdoor training facility for firefighters.
But an April 2018 town meeting authorized development of the parcel for affordable housing. The clash of these two priorities — police station vs. housing — is something town officials had worked for years to avoid.
The Independent talked to more than a dozen people and reviewed footage of several meetings to better understand the votes and decisions that led to this juncture. The central episodes are in 2013, when the parcel was purchased; 2015, when the adjacent Winslow Farms parcel was not purchased; 2017, when the select board (split 3-2) and town meeting (206-35) voted to locate the police station across the street from the VFW parcel at 16 Jerome Smith Road; and 2019, when the price of that project rose from $8.6 million to $12.5 million, and the allocation of the extra money failed to win a two-thirds majority.
2013: Town Buys VFW
In the years after World War II, the VFW post was one of the great social hubs of the town. Everyone was a veteran, it seemed, and the building at 3 Jerome Smith Road was built entirely by the volunteer labor of post members, according to Paul Mendes, a Vietnam veteran and one of the few remaining post members.
The post itself had been started in 1934 by Provincetown’s World War I veterans, and the town helped support it in the early years by giving it exclusive use of an old school on Montello Street, eventually selling it to the post for $1, Mendes said. The post sold that property for $20,000 in 1958 and started work on the building at 3 Jerome Smith.
Fifty years later, membership had aged and was dwindling. Only 10 or 15 veterans came to meetings, there were problems with the septic system, and the post lost its lottery license. Receipts were not covering expenses. The post made the difficult decision to sell the property.
“We talked to Dan Hoort, the finance director at the time,” said Mendes. “We asked him what the value of all that early support from the town would be in today’s dollars. Hoort took out a calculator and said that $20,000 plus repairs back then would be $300,000 now. So we decided to sell the property to the town for $300,000 under market value.
“Market value was $1.2 million,” continued Mendes. “That’s how we came to $900,000 for a purchase price. We wanted to give back that $300,000 gift.
“We also wanted it to be for a police station,” said Mendes. “A lot of the post members were retired police officers, including myself. We knew how bad the station on Shank Painter was — it was inadequate the day it was opened. There hadn’t been a decent station in the 30 years I was an officer. We thought we could help fix that.”
A purchase and sale agreement was signed on Oct. 10, 2013, but it said nothing about how the land would be used. An article authorizing the purchase at an Oct. 21, 2013 special town meeting said the land could be used “for general municipal purposes, including, without limitation, for police station and/or affordable housing purposes.”
Barbara Rushmore offered an amendment on the floor of that meeting that stripped out the words “police station and/or.” The amendment passed, 113 to 84. “Legally, that amendment has no effect,” said David Gardner, the acting town manager. “A police station is a municipal purpose.”
And indeed, the annual town reports from 2013, 2014, and 2015 make it clear that town government was hoping to build housing and a police station on the site. The VFW parcel is 1.3 acres, whereas the current police station at 26 Shank Painter Road sits on a third of an acre. The largest police station plan the Independent saw involved two-thirds of an acre. Any police station plan would still leave at least half the parcel available for some other use, and affordable housing has been among the town’s highest priorities for two decades.
2015: Winslow Farms Passed Up
Plans to put both housing and police at the VFW took a turn, however, when the April 2015 town meeting rejected the purchase of an adjacent lot. Buying the Winslow Farms parcel, owned by developer Jim Savko, would have connected the two parcels, providing access from the back of the VFW lot to Winslow Street.
The vote was 173-133, short of the two-thirds majority required. Significant opposition came from neighbors, who argued that the character of the neighborhood would be disturbed.
“Losing the egress at Winslow Street is really what ended the plans for both police and housing at VFW,” select board member Bobby Anthony told the Independent. “It’s not conducive for housing to be wrapped around the police, to have kids and families sharing the roadway with police cruisers. That egress would have let the housing be oriented to Winslow and not have to go through the police area to get in and out.
“Also, you really need a certain size for the housing development, for a developer to even consider it,” Anthony added. The back half of the VFW lot, without Winslow Farms attached, might not be big enough. If we had Winslow Farms, the VFW would have been the police station and the housing.”
2017: 16 Jerome Smith
The select board appointed a building committee in 2012 to move the police station forward. After more than 50 meetings, they reported four options in January 2017: rebuild the current station site at 26 Shank Painter; purchase the property next door, Dr. Brian O’Malley’s office at 30 Shank Painter; put the police station at the VFW; or build it directly across the street from the VFW on a town-owned parcel at 16 Jerome Smith.
O’Malley’s office would have to be purchased, said the building committee, making it more expensive than the other choices. A rebuild at the current site would require temporary quarters for the police somewhere else, which would also make it more expensive. The VFW and 16 Jerome Smith were both already owned by the town, and of those two, the committee recommended 16 Jerome Smith.
At that meeting, building committee chair Tom Coen said “putting mixed use on [the VFW site], because of access and egress issues, the potential for conflict — we were uncomfortable with that. One of our objectives in choosing the 16 Jerome Smith site was: can we resolve the potential conflict between those two uses [police and housing] and accomplish both?”
The select board accepted the building committee’s recommendation in a 3-2 vote. Board member Cheryl Andrews was one of the no votes, but she told the Independent that it was the O’Malley property that interested her, not the VFW parcel.
“The wishes of the neighborhood and the wishes of the VFW post I do not think were variables for us at that time,” said Andrews. “I respect that they have an opinion, but I have to look at all the variables — size, aesthetics, appearance, traffic flow, cost, the overall fit for the town. I understood the night we bought it [in 2013] that we were free to decide how to use it.”
2017: April Town Meeting
Article 8.1 at the April 2017 town meeting, asking $8.6 million for a police station at 16 Jerome Smith Road, was the subject of extended debate. Not one person spoke in favor of the VFW site, however. The issues were the importance of the “greenway” at 16 Jerome Smith and the impression a police station there would make on visitors to town.
Five voters, plus Andrews, spoke for building a station at O’Malley’s property at 30 Shank Painter. One, Barbara Rushmore, had a plan to build a station at Duarte’s, where the CVS now stands. Six voters spoke in favor of 16 Jerome Smith, as did selectmen Raphael Richter and Bobby Anthony and building committee member Rick Murray.
No one said anything about the VFW post or proposed that it be the site of a police station. After a spirited debate, the article passed 206 to 35. The town had officially chosen to build the station at 16 Jerome Smith Road.
The Independent asked Paul Mendes how the VFW members felt about the decision. “Having to give up the building was hard,” he said. “We were disappointed [with the Rushmore amendment in 2013], and after that, we moved on. Most of the VFW members don’t live in town anymore. A lot of them have moved to Truro.”
Tom Coen, Rick Murray, and Paul Kelly all confirmed that no one from the VFW post reached out to the building committee or attended any meetings after 2013. “I think Paul Mendes came to one of the very first ones, to congratulate us for moving things forward,” said Murray. “But in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017? Definitely not.”
2019: ‘Emotionally Draining’
Andrews described 2019 as “emotionally draining” this week, an assessment doubtless shared by others. The April 2019 town meeting was forced to vote on an extra $3.9 million for the police station at 16 Jerome Smith. What had been settled was now unsettled, and disagreements about the police station’s size, cost, design, financing, and location all came alive again.
The extra allocation needed a two-thirds vote to pass and got only 62 percent. A motion to reconsider passed, but the second vote on the article failed again, with 64 percent in favor, eight votes short of a two-thirds majority. The debate consumed more than two hours, but the only speaker to mention the VFW parcel was building committee member Paul Kelly, who briefly described the reasons the committee did not recommend that parcel for the station. Several voters spoke in favor of the O’Malley property.
The original appropriation of $8.6 million for a station at 16 Jerome Smith still stood, Town Manager David Panagore explained at the meeting. “The $8.6 million can’t be spent at a different location without a separate vote,” he said. “It’s actually a debt authorization, not a pile of cash, and that debt authorization remains valid only for that site.”
Coen confirmed that point last week. “At this point, we’re pretty set on 16 Jerome Smith Road,” he said. “We’re not looking at any other sites. We’ve looked at so many over the years. The truth is, there’s no perfect choice. The vote for $8.6 million and 16 Jerome Smith still stands. It hasn’t been rescinded.”
Dec. 2, 2019: The Petition
Dedicating the VFW parcel to a police station, as Chief Trovato’s petitioned article would do, would effectively moot the prior vote. For supporters like Paul Mendes, who signed the petition, that’s precisely the point.
“When the town purchased the VFW lot, they put the obvious immediate need of a police station behind the future need of housing,” said Mendes. “The priority of a working, comfortable police station has become secondary to the idea that housing is the number one priority.”
Back when the building committee was entertaining multiple locations, the size and cost of a station at the VFW parcel was identical to the size and cost of a station at 16 Jerome Smith. The drawings and cost estimates are for the same facility. If it’s the same station either way, Mendes was asked, does it matter to the veterans which side of the street it’s on?
“I’ve always been an advocate, as a neighbor and a post member, that it be a police station,” Mendes said. “I’ve been discouraged by these other options. If housing is so important, put the housing across the street at 16 Jerome Smith and put the police and fire where they belong at VFW.”