Northwest Greenwich fire station faces fight to gain final approval
GREENWICH — The effort to build a new firehouse in northwest Greenwich has one hurdle left — but it may be the largest one of all as the political fight escalates over what many say could be an issue of life or death in an emergency.
First Selectman Peter Tesei said he “never thought a fire station would evoke such passion as it has.”
The 2019-20 municipal budget plan approved by the Board of Estimate and Taxation includes $100,000 to examine possible sites for the proposed combined home for the fire department and Greenwich Emergency Medical Services. But that plan now faces some of its harshest critics at the Representative Town Meeting, which has the final say on that budget proposal.
“The town already has the evidence we need to see there is a problem in northwest Greenwich,” Tesei said this week. “This is really a question of whether people want to spend the money and provide comparable life safety services to all residents, regardless of where they live in town.”
In the past, the RTM has blocked the proposed station. And now the battle lines have been drawn in anticipation of the RTM’s budget vote on May 13.
From his side, Tesei has criticized the tone of the debate — blasting an anonymous email campaign that trashed one of the project’s chief supporters. Tesei said it was “fraught with misinformation” about alleged financial interests of RTM member Joanna Swomley and her husband, Selectman Sandy Litvack, in seeing a certain property purchased for the station.
“I hope we don’t continue to dissipate into an abyss of this type of behavior,” Tesei said at last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting. “This isn’t why people want to get involved. We can have differences of opinion. ... But you’ve got to kind of rise above and not take personal attacks and cast aspersions. It’s very destructive.”
For years, Tesei and other supporters have said the station is needed to resolve the major gap in fire coverage in that corner of town. To push the project, Tesei will make a presentation to the RTM and the public from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. Monday at Central Middle School, before the regular RTM meeting at 8 p.m.
The BET also appropriated an extra $75,000 to conduct an independent study of fire services. The study and the property evaluation would be done concurrently, the BET said, but the study is another point of contention.
“This is another excuse to delay the issue,” Tesei said.
Greenwich’s Assistant Fire Chief Robert Kick said the new study could assist the department in improving the delivery of fire and rescue services.
“However, any study should not delay the northwest fire station project,” Kick said. Insurance Service Organization “just completed an independent study of the Greenwich Fire Department in 2016 and identified the northwest quadrant as an area where our travel times far exceed industry standards. There are no additional studies needed to confirm this fact.”
But in 2016, the RTM stopped the project by eliminating the money to buy a property at Fairview Country Club on King Street. At the time, members said the reports and data justifying the new station were out of date. In 2017, the RTM also cut funding for an up-to-date analysis.
But after a fire last summer in northwest Greenwich destroyed an unoccupied home, advocates renewed their efforts. The RTM’s District 10, which covers that end of town, got approval for a nonbinding “sense of the meeting resolution” calling for the station to be funded in the 2019-20 budget.
District 10 member Nancy Gray is optimistic that the project will clear the RTM because the longer response time for fire units in that part of town puts life and property at risk.
“In my time on the RTM I have never seen so much overwhelming data and evidence on a life safety issue,” Gray said.
That point wasn’t made as completely three years ago, she said, and support has grown for the station.
But the project still faces stiff opposition from within the RTM.
Late last month, before the BET took its vote, 12 members issued their own analysis of townwide response times from 2013 to 2018, and they analyzed best practices for fire departments. It recommended the kind of independent study that the BET authorized last week and questioned reported response times throughout town.
The 12 RTM members who signed the analysis included Budget Overview Committee chair Lucia Jansen and vice chair Dan Ozizmir, as well as Finance Committee chair Rob Perelli-Minetti and vice chair Mike Basham.
On Wednesday, Jansen said she supported the BET’s steps to get “a deeper independent analysis that will carry this research effort to greater detail and make recommendations based on townwide response times and industry best practices.”
But Tesei criticized that analysis and issued a memorandum about it to the BET and to RTM Moderator Tom Byrne. The action “negatively impacted an otherwise productive discussion by inserting unsubstantiated claims, factual errors and inaccurate conclusions with the appearance of some official capacity,” Tesei said. The analysis was done without any involvement with his office, town staff or key stakeholders and had “glaring inaccuracies.”
In the memorandum, Tesei said the new station would improve the element outside of the department’s control, which is travel time.
Jansen questioned Tesei’s reaction, saying the 12 RM members “were all quite surprised with the first selectman’s aggressive objections” to their study.
“The analysis effort was exclusively focused to understand fire department response times across town and was not confined to any specific neighborhood,” she said. “For anyone to conclude otherwise is erroneous conjecture and is based on assumptions that are contrary to the facts found in our analysis.”
Several of the RTM members spoke out last week before the BET vote, urging a truly independent study. RTM members who voted against the 2017 study said they doubted it would have been “independent” because the fire department was involved.
At last week’s BET meeting, member Karen Fassuliotis also raised the question of how independent the 2017 study would have been. She said she knows there is a “perceived problem” but said she needed to see independent analysis.
“To say that ‘trust me we know what we’re talking about’ is like, and I mean this respectfully to the fire department, having the fox guarding the chicken coop,” Fassulioitis said. “We need an independent eye to tell us if we do have a real problem.”
But Tesei said the RTM opposition was coming from a “vocal minority.”
“I have complete trust in the Greenwich Fire Department and GEMS administrations and their expertise, which they have ably demonstrated in our joint quest to provide the best possible life safety services for the northwest corner,” he said.