BELFAST, Maine — Although a group of residents is distressed about the planned construction of a $1.4 million combined sheriff’s office and Emergency Management Agency in their Congress Street neighborhood, Waldo County officials say they can’t afford to build anywhere else.
Waldo County commissioners last month announced their intention to build a 9,000-square-foot building adjacent to the new Waldo County Regional Communications Center off Miller Street, emphasizing the need to modernize and upgrade the existing county facilities. The Waldo County Sheriff’s Office now is located in an 1851 house with old technology, and the EMA is in the basement of the former Waldo County Jail.
Seth Benz of Miller Street said Monday that he believes the plan has been put together too quickly and that it’s not well thought out. He has taken part in several neighborhood meetings intended to share information and concerns about the proposed building.
“My position is one of great concern and opposition to the current plan,” he said. “I cannot see how they can call something a community project when they haven’t, to date, really involved the neighborhood, let alone county residents whose tax monies are going to build this colossal structure. I would like, at least, to see that they’ve explored other options.”
Dale Rowley, the Waldo County Emergency Management director, said he doesn’t believe the county has any other reasonable options.
“If there are any real, true concerns, we can mitigate them. But we’re not going anywhere else, or the project will die,” he said.
County officials voted to spend money from its “undesignated” fund balance and from several other accounts to pay for the construction of the new sheriff’s office. The EMA portion will be built with a $360,000 federal grant and about $60,000 in county funds.
Officials said they would like to construct it quickly for economic reasons, not because they want to hustle it past the public.
“I think there’s been a whole truckload of misinformation,” said Waldo County Commissioner William Shorey. “People have got themselves in a complete uproar. My computer is practically burned out by e-mails going back and forth today.”
Shorey said that although some in Belfast would like the county to build its new facilities on land it already owns on the other side of the Route 1 bypass, near the county airport, that isn’t possible. That parcel would need $1 million just to get it ready for construction, he said, and the Congress Street lot is already zoned for this kind of development.
“The [Belfast] land use ordinance allows this,” Shorey said. “I don’t see what the big, big issue is, honestly.”
Among the big issues seen by Thierry Bonneville of Congress Street are concerns about noise, traffic and expense generated by the new building and the worry that it will lower property values. However, his main concern is that the residential neighborhood he prizes for its historic homes is simply not the right place for the sheriff’s office and EMA structure. Bonneville has helped to organize the neighborhood opposition to the plan.
“Belfast’s biggest asset is its old charms,” he said. “There are incredible examples of 19th century houses. … We paid a lot of money for these houses. We all invested a lot of time in making sure the houses looked the way they did when they were initially built.”
Rowley said Waldo County would be happy to address questions of sightliness with additional landscaping.
“If they don’t want to see the building, we’ll plant so many cedar trees,” he said. “If we had the money, we’d love to be down at the airport site. But we aren’t a rich county government.”
A neighborhood meeting on the issue will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.