The year 2012 saw a number of major accomplishments, some visible and noted in the headlines, others happening behind the scenes.
“The most important thing that’s happened this year was the donation Gerald and Marilyn Fells made for the new police station and fire department renovation,“ said Town Administrator John McAuliffe. “Their generosity is making it all possible.”
Indeed, the funding for the new police station deserved its headlines. As is well known, Gerald and Marilyn Fells contributed $6 million towards the building of the new police station on Main Street and the renovation of the existing police station building to become the new home of the fire department. Randy Becker contributed another $500,000, thus making the $12 million project possible.
The town matched the contribution and voters approved the project at a special town meeting March 8.
In October, the town purchased the “Vito Block” and is now in the process of selecting an engineer to assist in completing plans for its demolition, scheduled for the March/April timeframe. In addition, the contract with the architect for the new structure has been signed and the town is in the final stages of finding an owner’s project manager.
Less publicized than the new building is the fact that as part of this project the fire department will be moving to the old police station, after a complete renovation to “bring it into the 21st century,” as Walter Ricci, chairman of the board of selectmen, described it. About $4 million of the total budget will be used for the remodeling.
Downtown revitalization was at the top of Mr.Ricci’s list of goals this year, and significant accomplishments included the razing of 11 nuisance properties in addition to the funding for the new police department.
Mr. Ricci said the board and Town Administrator John McAullife started addressing the nuisance property issue several years ago. Progress began with a reorganization of inspection services, the hiring of Health Agent Cathleen Liberty and Building Inspector Ted Tetrealt. Mr. McAuliffe noted that Selectman Mark Dowgiewicz originally jumpstarted the effort and deserves recognition for its success as well.
Mr. Ricci credits Ms. Liberty and Mr. Tetreault for effectively pushing the program through. It is not as simple as the town deciding to take down a building, he explained. It’s a methodical process, starting with the town acquiring the property, often through tax liens. Then it has to go to voters at town meeting to be declared surplus property. Once the town owns it, it goes out for bids. Proceeds from the sales go back into dealing with other nuisance properties.
The town doesn’t have money for razing condemned buildings, but works with owners, sellers or banks, to tear them town. Mr. McAuliffe said that all the structures removed this year were paid for by owners and developers. It did not cost the town anything. Demolished were:5 Day Street, barn; 14 Lyndale Ave - garage; 55-67 Lake Street - garage; 63 Lake Street, garage; 69 Lake Street, garage; 516 S. Main Street - dwelling; 16R East Main Street - dwelling; 14 Mechanic Street - garage; 181 Thompson Road, dwelling; Blackpoint Road, mobile home; 4 Cedar Point, mobile home.
Mr. Ricci said the goal for next year is to identify ten additional properties before the 2012 May town meeting, thus continuing the cleanup. As in the past year, the town will then sell the properties when the market timing is right.
At the December town meeting voters approved a $24,000 expenditure for the nuisance project. “Some properties we do need to spend money on,” Mr. Ricci said, “so it’s good to have some money in the fund.”
Two years ago the town took a difficult step, Mr. Ricci said, by having the downtown area declared a slum and blighted zone. “A lot of people had a hard time with that, but it’s gotten us two $1million grants for signs, façade and street improvements.” This year’s grant went towards reconstruction of the School Street municipal parking lot and for Mechanic Street reconstruction, pedestrian access, and circulation planning
The list of downtown projects would not be complete without a mention of the street lights being turned back on. Mr. Ricci credits Mr. McAuliffe for working with the utility company to make this financially possible. Both men agree that “we got a lot of grief over the decision” in 2009 to reduce street lighting, and were happy to be able to rescind that order.
Unnoticed, but of utmost importance, is living within a balanced budget. “We lost a million dollars in local aid in the last couple of budget cycles,” Mr. Ricci said, “and it’s hard to make that up. But we’ve got it under control.
“We also finally have a debt shift on the waste water treatment plant. We’re getting money back into Free Cash from water and sewer.”
It’s a feather in our cap having been able to maintain a high level of services in trying times,“ said Mr. McAuliffe. “And we didn’t have to lay off any town hall employees,” he added. The school department, however, did have layoffs, he acknowledged.
Town Administrator’s Contract.
Mr. Ricci said to us, “John probably didn’t tell you about this one, but one of the big accomplishments for the board of selectmen this year was signing him to a four-year (town administrator) contract. Having him under contract gives us a lot more stability. He works great with the board, and this contract shows that he’s going to be there for us.”
Town Hall Heating System
“It was either shiver or sweat,” is how town hall employees described the old heating system, a very old steam boiler in the basement of the building. The new heating system was finally completed after several engineering studies, lots of drilling, and escalating costs. The new hot water system consists of two small gas furnaces connected to natural gas with all offices individually zoned.
Considerable progress was made on the Park Avenue Elementary School. Mr. Ricci has been chairman of the school building committee for this project for more than three years, and is pleased that it’s now moving along, having been submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Association for approval. An architect and project manager have also been chosen. Mr. Ricci anticipates that the project will come before voters for approval at next fall’s town meeting.
May Town election
In May, a close election returned incumbents Deborah A. Keefe and Jeffrey P. Duggan to the Board of Selectmen with 918 and 805 votes respectively. Robert J Miller, who had previously spent on the board for nine years, received 743 votes, and Planning Board member Leslie M. Stevens received 687 votes.
Winning the post of Treasurer, Senior Center Director Linda Slota received 645 votes, over Finance Committee member Joe Beresik with 428 votes, Julie Dell’Anna with 379, and Michael Dostoler with 323, for the two-year seat.
With a 837-744 vote, Board of Health candidate Loretta Scott-Walker defeated Steve Sutton for the three-year committee seat. Ms. Scott-Walker resigned the position earlier this month, as it conflicted with her membership on the Cultural Council.
Town Tax Collector Mayann McGeary ran unopposed and received 1,453 votes. School Committee member Joann Czechowski was reelected with 1,090 votes.
The May 9 town meeting and its continuation on June 13 brought topics that were to remain contentious for the rest of the year: the 85-foot high billboard on I-395 and the potential paddlewheel tour boat on Webster Lake. The billboard warrant article had not been submitted in time, so was ruled out of order. The paddleboat article would allow a vessel duly licensed by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission and operated by a professional, licensed captain on the lake. After discussion, the project was passed over; at the June 13 meeting it was deemed invalid.
On August 9 the Zoning Board of Appeals made headlines with a public hearing, part of the ongoing opposition to the billboard, built in 2009 on Long Subaru property located at 7 Sutton Road. The billboard had been granted a permit by the previous town administrator and building inspector. On this night, the ZBA voted that the billboard violated zoning bylaws. A great deal of perturbation within the ZBA followed, with several members resigning.
In September Lamar Whiteco, owners of the billboard, filed an appeal, naming members of the ZBA as defendants. Mr. McAuliffe said he thinks the lawsuit is straightforward and will not cost the town a great deal of money to resolve.
Meanwhile, at the fall town meeting on October 17, a proposed article to rewrite the existing sign and billboard bylaw was deemed too complicated and was passed over. A separate article to prohibit all billboards in Webster did pass.
Also at the October town meeting, the proposed paddlewheeler tourism boat again met with stiff opposition from Webster Lake residents. Citizen groups had sponsored two articles on the town warrant aimed at making the proposed venture unprofitable for local businessman Christopher Robert, owner of Indian Ranch.
One article concerned time restrictions for operation of commercial vessels, the other addressed noise. After considerable emotional discussion, the time restrictions article passed with amendments. The other did not pass. A new article to permit the serving of alcohol on licensed commercial vessels also did not pass.
Not deterred, the local activists tried to further thwart the paddlewheeler project at a Special Town Meeting on December 5. This time they proposed to limit the size of commercial vessels to 40 feet in length. The paddlewheel boat is 75 feet long. They also proposed to rescind the time restrictions article passed at the October meeting and replace it with language that would restrict hours of operation to between sunrise and sunset. Both articles passed, a victory for the citizens group.
The beleaguered Mr. Robert, who has also been beset by noise complaints at Indian Ranch, said that he has worked with town officials to make his plans acceptable and he wants to be neighbor-friendly, but local activists appear unwilling to make reasonable accommodation to promote business in Webster.
Next year promises more progress on downtown revitalization projects; there will be town meetings, elections, and perhaps new controversies. We’ll be reporting on them all to keep you current on what’s happening in Webster. Please keep us on your reading list, in print and online.
(Coming: Dudley’s year 2011.)
- Monday, 02 January 2012
- Posted in Categories: : News