PROVINCETOWN — Longtime Fire Chief Mike Trovato has turned in a petition with 203 signatures on the future of the VFW site, enough to trigger a special town meeting now set for Monday Dec. 2.
The meeting will consider a single article, Trovato’s plan to dedicate the former VFW property at 3 Jerome Smith Road to use as a police station, a fire substation with garage bays and bunk space, and an outdoor training facility for the fire department. This threatens to undo plans to use the property for affordable housing. The decision facing voters will wrap several long-running issues into one vote. The siting of a new police station has been much discussed for years, going back to at least January 2012, when an architecture firm was hired to design a combined police station and DPW facility at 24 Race Point Road. That location proved unpopular, and the select board cancelled an April 2013 town meeting vote on it. In October 2013, town meeting authorized the purchase of the VFW property at a substantially below-market price. The article on the warrant for that meeting said the purchase of the property was “for general municipal purposes, including, without limitation, for police station and/or affordable housing purposes.”
Barbara Rushmore introduced an amendment on the floor to change the wording to read “for general municipal purposes, including, without limitation, affordable housing purposes.”
The amendment passed 113 to 84.
Acting Town Manager David Gardner emphasized in an interview that the amendment had no legal effect, since the words “for general municipal purposes” were still in the article, and a police station would fall well within that language. But the question of whether the VFW was intended to be for police, housing, or both, has never gone away.
A Persistent Question
The 2014 and 2015 town reports contain statements from the select board that describe the VFW lot as usable for 20 to 30 units of housing and a police station. An attempt to acquire the adjacent Winslow Farms parcel would have added more land and an egress from the back of the VFW property, but a purchase proposal and a land swap proposal for Winslow Farms failed at town meeting. The 2015 town report also alludes to new rules about emergency egress making a dual use of the property more challenging.
The VFW question became a significant part of the debate over a police station design proposed across the street from the VFW post at 16 Jerome Smith Road. A select board vote on July 25, 2016 directed town staff to study the smaller town-owned parcel at 16 Jerome Smith for a possible police station, and also to begin the process of developing the 1.3-acre VFW site for housing.
Those two votes were 5-0, with yes votes from select board members Tom Donegan, Bobby Anthony, Erik Yingling, Rafael Richter, and Cheryl Andrews. The April 2017 town meeting authorized $8.6 million for a police station at 16 Jerome Smith; that vote was 206 to 35. The select board, however, split three in favor and two against.
At the April 2018 town meeting, voters directly addressed the question of housing at the VFW for the first time. With the site across the street already designated for a police station, all five selectmen supported spending $75,000 for a consultant to prepare housing options for the VFW site. Voters approved, and the consultant, JM Goldson, has been leading a community engagement process this year to help determine what kind of housing the public would like to see. (See related article on Page 1.)
What had appeared to be a settled question — police at 16 Jerome Smith, housing at VFW — came unglued, however, when the cost of the police station rose from $8.6 million to $12.5 million. The appropriation of the extra $3.9 million failed at the April 2019 town meeting with 202 in favor and 123 against, short of the required two-thirds majority. The select board was also divided. Chair Cheryl Andrews opposed the project in a newspaper column while selectman and former police chief Bobby Anthony favored it.
In the aftermath of the failed $12.5 million vote, it became clear a portion of the electorate never approved of the police station location. Trovato’s letter to the select board in June 2019, signed by the entire fire department, expressed that view.
“The veterans sold the property to the town at a reduced rate because they wanted the police station to be there,” Trovato wrote. “They never thought they needed to put a deed restriction on the deal. We have been told they figured a handshake deal would be respected.
“The proposed location for the police station [at 16 Jerome Smith] does not allow for any type of expansion for the police department,” he continued. “It is not a good location for the police station for that reason alone and there are other reasons…. We see the need for housing. However, bringing more people here will only increase the demand on the police and fire department. … We need to take care of the present and future safety needs first so we can handle any increase to the population.”
Trovato’s letter proposed a police station at the front of the VFW property, facing Jerome Smith, and a fire substation with bunkrooms, apparatus bays, and an outdoor training facility at the back. In statements to the select board on Oct. 28, Trovato further explained that the floods of Jan. 4, 2018 have increased the amount of high-water gear the department requires, and that the Barnstable County Fire Academy is losing its training facility. An outdoor space large enough to use the fire academy’s portable burn buildings would allow the department to do outdoor training here.
Trovato also emphasized the increasing need for ambulances, paramedics, and EMTs in Provincetown, and the need for a place to house them on their 48-hour shifts. Provincetown and Truro currently both have a contract with Lower Cape Ambulance, but Trovato told the select board that the town should consider ending that contract and developing an in-house Provincetown EMS, possibly separate from the fire dept.
“There are times in July when all my ambulances are out and I’m sitting in an empty station,” Trovato told the select board. “On the fire side I still have 45 active call people, but on the EMS side it’s time to take a new look at how we are operating.”
Trovato also stated in the letter and his testimony that he has been trying to close the Johnson Street substation since the 1980s, because no firefighters live near there anymore and it takes a long time for any firefighters to reach it.
“Once the VFW site is gone, we won’t have the option for such an ideal location for the new police station and for a fire department substation,” Trovato wrote.
He told the select board Monday, “We think this lot is really the answer for public safety for now and a hundred years into the future.”
Members of the select board were not thrilled with Trovato’s proposal, voicing concerns about the process.
“I don’t know where to start except to say it’s unusual to have a department head make a request for a building this way, outside the budget process,” said Louise Venden. “Another thing is the VFW property has gone before town meeting at least twice, maybe three times, and you are asking us to set aside those decisions and make a different decision. I need an awful lot more information before making that decision. There’s no budget, no indication of how much this is going to cost, and I don’t think in two minutes you’re going to be ready to answer that.”
Selectman John Golden suggested it will be good to finally have an answer to the VFW riddle. “This has gone before town meeting several times, and we are still not building a police station; to me the petition is going to give us an answer about what the town wants.
“I’m a firm believer in letting town meeting decide all this stuff,” Golden added. “None of the stuff [Trovato] talked about can happen without that piece of land. So this is town meeting’s way of letting us know exactly what they think about this subject.”