BETHANY - After a number of years of planning, discussions (some heated), Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance approvals, a successful 2004 referendum, further delays and revisions, and recent new selectmen and finance board approvals, voters at last week's referendum gave a final green light to build a new central firehouse on the former airport property. It will replace aging and cramped Center Fire Station on Rt. 63

The vote was 316-266 to increase by $1.285 million the original $2.6 million approved in April 2004, for a total appropriation of $3.885 million. This includes all financing costs of the project as well as site work and a traffic light at Munson Road on Rt. 63.

The delay between the two referenda grew out of the original bids, which turned out to be higher than available funding. Considerable cuts and trimming of a number of building features followed. Despite increased building costs in the interim, the new firehouse will now cost less than the original bids, all of which were over $4 million, according to fire officials.

The Board of Finance was to meet this week to decide where money for the project will come from, whether from bonding, the upcoming budget or a combination of methods. It will not have much tax impact until the 2007 fiscal year, Finance Chairman Russell von Beren said.

Saying he was "relieved" at the vote, Fire Chief Robert McSherry estimated that construction will get underway by the end of March or early April. With no frost in the ground this winter, he said, six months of construction should see Volunteer Firemen's Association members "in by the year's end."

Carlin Construction Co. of New London, lowest bidder on the first proposal, will handle the new project. The firm is a specialist in the "design build" approach that eliminates cost overruns.

The new 16,950 square-ft. firehouse will be located at the north end of the town-owned airport property, near the town garage.

Built in 1950 and added on to several times, Center Firehouse reached the limit of physical expansion some time ago. It has also become increasingly unsafe because it fronts immediately onto a busy state highway and doesn't meet the department's need for adequate training, meeting and storage space. It has no showers or locker area, the kitchen is closet size, vehicle space is crowded and it doesn't meet federal and state requirements.

The new station, about 5,000 square feet bigger, will be fully OSHA compliant, equipped with decontamination and gear-washing areas plus showers, a bunkroom and larger space for training, office and department meetings as well as more space for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

The Volunteer Fire Department membership has grown in recent years to 74 members, according to McSherry. The Ambulance Corps has 34, with many of them firemen as well. He praised the department's younger members as a "great group of kids," who work hard to gain the technical knowledge needed. This requires nearly 200 hours for minimum certification. One group is almost ready to take the Firefighter Two training, he said. Ambulance service requires another 180 hours plus annual recertification.

The Firehouse Building Committee members are: Warren Buchter, the former fire chief; Richard Ives, Nikki Phillibert, John Ford and Raymond Lizotte.

The Bethany Volunteer Firemen's Association, which owns Center Fire Station, plans to donate the building to the town once operations are transferred to the new facility. At that point, First Selectwoman Derrylyn Gorski said, it is her intention to have an engineering firm look at the building and evaluate its condition and the cost of possible renovations. "Once we know that," she said, "we can make plans." The next step would be to appoint a citizen committee to make recommendations to the Board of Selectmen, but an objective, professional opinion must come first, she said. The fact that the narrow property borders Regional Water Authority watershed land also must be taken into consideration when planning future uses, she added.