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Voters in Chelmsford, Stoneham back improvements

Voters in Chelmsford and Stoneham Tuesday signaled their support for major capital projects in their respective communities - a new fire station in Chelmsford and relocation of Stoneham’s middle school.

In Chelmsford, that means plans for a new Center Fire Station will face a second crucial vote later this month, when residents consider the town’s request to borrow funds for the construction of the $7.8 million facility. If funding is approved at the April 30 Town Meeting by a two-thirds majority, the project would move to the design phase. The debt would be repaid within the town’s property tax levy limit.

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In Stoneham, the middle school project will move to the design phase after voters approved a debt exclusion, or temporary property tax hike, to fund the town’s $18 million share of the planned $40 million project. The Massachusetts School Building Authority has agreed to reimburse the town for 57.5 percent of the project’s eligible costs, up to a maximum of nearly $22.1 million.

Tuesday’s vote came after residents at a Feb. 7 Special Town Meeting overwhelmingly supported the project, and gives local officials permission to proceed with plans to expand and renovate Central Elementary School, transforming the building into Stoneham’s new middle school. The vote was 2,009 to 1,688.

The debt exclusion will add $176 to the annual tax bill on an average single-family home. Stoneham officials expect to sign contract extensions tomorrow with Watertown project management firm Joslin, Lesser and Associates, Inc., the Boston-based design firm of Tappe Associates , and Shawmut Design and Construction, a leading Boston-based construction management and general contracting firm, to move the middle school project forward.

On Monday, the “real hard work the citizens expect of us’’ begins, said Jeanne E. Craigie, chairwoman of the Stoneham Middle School Building Committee. “This project will be a rebirth of the town, and we will always be mindful during this journey that our first priority is the children. We will do it safely, securely, within budget, and on time.’’

Supporters of the project were ecstatic. “With the success of this vote, residents of Stoneham have sent a clear message that they are vested in the future of their community as a whole,’’ said Stoneham resident Brian Gill, a vocal proponent. “Property values will increase as a result of this project, and the funding reimbursement allows a brand new, state-of-the-art educational facility at less cost than a rehab of the existing building.’’

Plans call for an 80,213-square-foot addition to the existing 56,197-square-foot Central school, which is 11 years old. Classroom lessons at the Central school will be taught over the din of construction. When the project is completed in the fall of 2014, the existing 58-year-old middle school will be demolished, the Central school will close, and students in pre-k to grade 4 will be redistributed to the town’s three remaining elementary schools. The new middle school building will house students in grades 5 to 8.

In the wake of the election, some Stoneham residents called on local leaders to establish an independent committee to monitor the impact of construction on Central students. “I’m nervous about the construction site being so close to the kids. I worry about their physical safety and the distractions they’re going to have to contend with,’’ said lifelong Stoneham resident Dick Pignone, who has two children at Central. “I think we need some kind of committee to act as a liaison between the builders and the parents, to ensure the kids’ safety, health, and education.’’

Superintendent Les Olson said he is “very aware of the concerns some people have expressed,’’ and pledged to “take all steps necessary to ensure the safety of students and staff as the project moves forward,’’ adding he believes “this project will ensure a quality education for our kids for years to come.’’

In both communities, voter turnout exceeded 25 percent. In Chelmsford, 6,008 residents, or 25.4 percent of registered voters, cast ballots. In Stoneham, 4,031 residents, or roughly 29 percent of the town’s registered voters, went to the polls.

“We’re very pleased,’’ Chelmsford Town Manager Paul E. Cohen said of the vote, which favored construction of a new fire station by a very narrow margin: 2,468 votes to 2,162. “This project has been five years in the making.’’

Voters had twice refused to approve a temporary tax increase to replace the crumbling Center Fire Station on North Road. If approved at Town Meeting, existing town offices on Billerica Road would be converted into office and meeting space for the Fire Department and an attached addition would be erected to house fire apparatus and equipment, a kitchen, and sleeping quarters for the firefighters assigned to Center Fire Station.

If the project is approved at Town Meeting, it would move into the design stage. Construction would likely begin in November, Cohen said, and the town would expect to take occupancy of the new station at the end of 2013. The fate of the existing Center Fire Station would be decided at a future Town Meeting, he said.

In both towns, incumbents fared well in the elections. In Chelmsford, it was a clean sweep, with George R. Dixon Jr. and Patricia Wojtas reelected to the Board of Selectmen; incumbent Nicholas A. DeSilvio besting write-in challenger Barbara Skaar; and Robert P. Joyce, S. George Zaharoolis, and Colleen A. Stansfield reelected to the town planning board.

In Stoneham, there were three contested races. Assistant Town Clerk Maria Sagarino was elected town clerk, besting four other candidates. In the race for three constable posts, incumbents Robert W. Nardone and Robert E. Moreira were reelected, and newcomer David B. Luciano won the third open slot.

The only upset for the incumbents came in the race for two open seats on the Board of Selectmen. Incumbent and board chairman R. Paul Rotondi lost his seat to Thomas H. Boussy; the other open seat went to incumbent Robert W. Sweeney.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com
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