PROVINCETOWN — By a margin of just 19 votes, 157 in favor, 176 against, Monday’s special town meeting rejected Fire Chief Mike Trovato’s plan for the former VFW site on Jerome Smith Road.
The sole article on Monday’s warrant — initiated by Trovato’s petition, signed by 203 citizens — would have designated the town-owned 1.3-acre parcel for a new police station, a fire substation, and an outdoor training facility for firefighters. The site is currently earmarked for about 50 units of affordable housing. Had it been approved, the article would have put an end to that housing initiative.
Many voters expressed support for both priorities, with one saying it was “like choosing between siblings,” and another calling the choice “wrenching.”
The most frequently cited arguments for the article were that veterans had intended the parcel to host a police station when they sold it to the town; that effective fire response is essential to the town’s survival; and that housing, while important, could not be more important than public safety.
The most common arguments of those speaking against the measure were that there was neither a needs assessment nor a budget for the fire dept. proposal; that without additional housing people would be forced out of town; and that a “no” vote would allow the issue to be studied over the winter and perhaps resolved more satisfactorily at the annual town meeting in April.
Nearly every speaker expressed support for meeting firefighters’ needs. Three-quarters of the speakers expressed support for housing, either at the VFW or somewhere else. The vote required choosing between those priorities, however, and that split the room almost evenly. Twelve voters spoke for Trovato’s article and 12 against it. The final vote was 47 percent in favor and 53 percent opposed.
Housing at the VFW
The vote leaves intact a plan to use the VFW parcel for affordable housing. The April 2018 town meeting allocated $75,000 for a plan for housing on the site and a request for proposals. That process is underway, with three public meetings already held and a presentation from the planning consultant to the select board scheduled for Dec. 9. Town staff will then develop a request for proposals and solicit bids from developers.
The design consultant, JM Goldson, brought a hypothetical proposal to the most recent public meeting; it involved an $11 million development, paid for mostly with state and federal money. That plan would require the town to kick in about $500,000 and included 38 affordable rental apartments, four affordable ownership units, and five market-rate condos. These details are likely to change, depending on the RFP and how bids are scored.
“This vote means the project can go out to bid,” said select board member Lise King after the meeting, “but it will still have to come before town meeting one more time before it can be built.” That vote would probably happen in April 2020.
A Path Forward
Former select board members Michelle Couture and Erik Yingling, current members Bobby Anthony and Lise King, and finance committee chair Mark Hatch all said they wanted to get the fire dept. what it needs, even if that happens at different sites.
“I would like to see us look at the fire station on Shank Painter, the Johnson Street substation, the Anthony Street substation, and even the DPW land across Route 6 where we were going to put the police station,” said Hatch. “Maybe it’s true that the fire needs can be met only at the VFW. Maybe the best thing to do would be to use the DPW garage. There are ways of evaluating this.”
“Affordable housing and what the chief wants are not incompatible,” said Couture. “If we keep the VFW for affordable housing, it doesn’t mean we can’t ever do those things, it just means it’s a thing to be worked on. If we say no to housing at this site, though, we are dooming more people to have to leave town.”
“You can say we’ll do a needs assessment,” Trovato said to King after the meeting, “but by the time we get the money for that in July, the VFW building is already going to be demolished.” (The April 2019 town meeting authorized the demolition to clear space for housing.) “That building is incredibly sturdy, to hold a hundred dancers on every floor. Maybe it could have been renovated for police instead of demolished. Are we ever going to know?”
The money for a fire needs assessment is likely to be allocated in April, King confirmed. “Voters could approve the housing development in April and also a needs assessment that looks at other locations for fire,” she said. “Or they could hold the housing development back until the needs assessment is finished.”
And the Police Station?
The police station dilemma hardly came up Monday, a twist so remarkable that Moderator Mary-Jo Avellar encouraged people to talk about it more. Police Chief Jim Golden was asked by Berta Romano what he thought of the fire chief’s proposal.
“There’s been no forward momentum since April,” he said, referring to the last town meeting, when supplemental funding for a station at 16 Jerome Smith failed to pass. “At this point, I will take any plan that you approve.”
In April then Town Manager David Panagore said that, even though the extra $3.9 million was voted down, the 2017 town meeting vote authorizing $8.6 million and the location at 16 Jerome Smith Road still stood. After Monday’s town meeting, 16 Jerome Smith remains the only location that town meeting has approved for a new police station. “As far as I’m concerned, we have a location and it’s 16 Jerome Smith,” said Selectman Anthony last month.
The turnout on Monday was high — 357 registered voters, many of whom had to stand in the back of the room. “It’s great to see so many people here,” said Avellar. “There’s gonna be a lot fewer of you here in April, when we actually spend all the money.”
After the meeting Trovato said, “You know what bothers me more than the vote? I really would have liked to speak again before we voted. I was trying to get recognized. There were some things people said, about using garages around town, about the FEMA grants for the academy — I didn’t misrepresent anything, and I would have liked the chance to say so. Not even to change anyone’s vote, just for my own good name.”
“Three hundred fifty-seven people heard your case tonight for what the fire dept. needs,” King said to Trovato. “Your message is out, and people respect it. Please stick with us, and we’ll find a way forward.”