AUGUSTA — City councilors expressed multiple concerns Thursday night about the site where the city plans to build a fire station in north Augusta, which would need $500,000 worth of work to stabilize to support the weight of firetrucks.

While some councilors expressed support for sticking with the site, others described its selection as being “bungled,” fear it could lead to long-term problems even if that money is spent, and the site isn’t the ideal location anyway.

The soil of the site selected for the new station is believed to be unable to bear its weight and that of the water-filled firetrucks that would be kept there. Officials fear that if the station is built on the wet, clay-heavy soil as is, its cement floors will crack.

Rather than abandon the lot and plans to build a station there within a year, the city staff recommends spending about $500,000 to install structural steel pilings extending at least 60 feet down to provide a solid base for the fire station and the concrete floors that will bear the weight of the trucks, as well as ambulances.

Some councilors expressed doubts about that plan Thursday.

“I’m sorry, I just feel this has been bungled. I’m disappointed,” Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said. “My feeling is we ought to put a ‘for sale’ sign on that lot and see if somebody is going to buy it.”

Paradis said he wasn’t enamored with the site to begin with.

He said it was “sold” to city councilors as economical for construction because the city already owned it. He said he’d prefer a station on Civic Center Drive, closer to the hospital and Interstate 95. He suggested looking at the land the city owns around the Augusta Civic Center as a potential site.

He said he wasn’t comfortable with spending $500,000 to stabilize the ground at the proposed site.

Other councilors, however, echoed an architect’s concerns that clay soil, or, conversely, ledge, could be discovered at any new sites selected, adding similar cost at a new site, and they worried about the effect of delaying the project for about a year to find a new location.

“I think we should keep it where it is and make sure it’s engineered appropriately to last the number of years it is designed to last,” Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said. “I don’t believe we’re going to save any money or time, or find a better spot, or come up with a better end product if we delay it. So I believe we should move ahead with it.”

Mayor David Rollins said he’ll sponsor an order to approve funding to address the soil concerns and move ahead with the project at the site, across from the intersection of Leighton Road and Anthony Avenue, to be voted on at next week’s council meeting.

Councilors gave the city staff numerous questions they want answers to before deciding what to do.

New At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander expressed concerns about the longevity of the station if it is built on pilings in unstable ground.

“I’m hesitant to build a new fire station for heavier equipment” at a site with unstable soil, she said. “This site is for the next 100 years. It is important that it is the right site for a fire station. You don’t want to rush it.”

Alexander said the city should have a thorough engineering study done to ensure the building, atop the pilings, would last well into the future.

Ellen Angel, the architect hired by the city to work on the project, said using pilings to stabilize such soil is an established, legitimate technique. She said she was involved in one project in which an eight-story building was built on soil that needed to be stabilized by pilings. She said it was built 20 years ago, is still occupied and has shown no cracks. She also said it would be hard to find any buildings in Boston that aren’t on pilings. She said she could provide examples of other fire stations built on pilings.

She said a soil test wasn’t done until the fire station was designed and a specific location on the lot was selected for it.

City Manager William Bridgeo said there were no signs the soil wasn’t up to the task of supporting the weight of a fire station until the city had test borings done as part of the engineering for the site, which revealed “soupy” clay soil.

If the building weren’t a fire station where heavy firetrucks will be kept, the pilings might not be needed, as the soil may be stable enough to support lighter-duty structures such as a home or one- or two-story office buildings, said Bridgeo and Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager. But engineers expressed concern the concrete floor of the new station could crack if built on the unstable soil with heavy firetrucks constantly rolling in and out of the station and across the floors.

The projected budget of $3.6 million for the new station doesn’t include the recently discovered need for about $500,000 worth of pilings to stabilize the site.

In November 2014, voters approved bonds of $3.6 million for the fire station and $1 million for a new multipurpose firetruck before the need for $500,000 in additional funds was known.

However, St. Pierre said the city has $847,600 collected in property taxes on new development in five Tax Increment Financing districts in the city, and each of those TIFs was established with potential allowed uses including expenditures for Fire Department infrastructure. That money could more than cover the additional cost and, if councilors approve, be used to keep the project moving forward.

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, researched other sites in north Augusta, looking for alternatives where a station could be built. He said all the potential sites presented their own development challenges, such as bad soil, ledge or existing buildings that would need to be demolished.

St. Pierre said starting over and buying a new site and redesigning a station for it could add up to $1.1 million to $1.2 million in cost to the project; and any new site, as Angel also said, earlier, also could have either clay in the soil that would require pilings, or ledge that would require blasting, either of which would add more cost.

Fire Chief Roger Audette noted the city is having a large new firetruck built that won’t fit into any of the city’s existing fire stations. It is due to arrive in the city in December and scheduled to go into the new station.

He said he and other officials looked at the Augusta Civic Center property but determined it didn’t have enough space to accommodate a fire station safely, and there was too much activity there as well, especially during concerts and other events.

The proposed fire station site, known as the Quimby lot, was acquired by the city for $175,000 in 1999 in hopes of using it to attract business to the area. However, the city never drew development to the site. Bridgeo said the fire station will take up only a portion of the lot, and the rest still could be developed.

The new station is expected to speed response times to the burgeoning north Augusta area.

In 2008 a Matrix Consulting Group study recommended the city build and staff a new fire station in the Civic Center Drive area near Interstate 95 to speed response times in the area.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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