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Chappaqua Firehouse Expansion Looms Over Commissioner Races

The outcome of a failed October referendum on a proposed Chappaqua firehouse expansion looms over Tuesday's Board of Fire Commissioners races. Pictured are voters waiting to cast ballots in October.
The outcome of a failed October referendum on a proposed Chappaqua firehouse expansion looms over Tuesday's Board of Fire Commissioners races. Pictured are voters waiting to cast ballots in October. Photo Credit: Maggie Christ

CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. -- The recently rejected proposal to expand the Bedford Road firehouse looms over Tuesday's elections to a pair of seats on the Board of Fire Commissioners for New Castle Fire District No. 1.

The first seat, which is currently held by board Chair Chris Weddle, is up for a new, five-year term. Former New Castle Councilman John Buckley, who is also a longtime Chappaqua volunteer firefighter, is the only candidate running. 

The second seat, which was held by Gerry Golub until his death last year, features a special election for the remaining three years of the term. Vying for the latter seat are fire district Secretary Nancy Zezze, who was appointed on an interim basis last year, and write-in challenger Danna Schoenberg, who was a critic of the rejected plan.

Schoenberg, in a campaign flyer, notes that people who want to vote for her must write in her name along with "three year term" to specify the seat.

The board has five seats with staggered terms.

Voters in late October overwhelmingly rejected the proposal amid arguments that the commissioners, who govern the Chappaqua Fire Department, did that set aside any voting time beyond the state minimum of a three-hour, nighttime window. Critics also charged that the board understated the total cost of the expansion proposal, which calls for acquiring the Chappaqua Animal Hospital site and constructing a three-bay addition to fit newer trucks that have grown due to safety and environmental mandates. A related proposition, which called for buying the site, was rejected by a narrower margin.

Following a backlash over allotted time for the October referendum, commissioners approved an extension of Tuesday voting hours, which will run from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. The firehouse will, as always, serve as the polling place.

Regardless of Tuesday's outcome, the winners will continue to deal with the fate of the firehouse. Following negotiations with the animal hospital site's ownership - a previous purchase contract was slated to expire following the referendum's defeat - current commissioners voted to hold a second referendum that will merely deal with buying the property. The vote is set for Feb. 7, although no hours have been determined.

In a questionnaire interview for the League of Women Voters of New Castle, Buckley called for a general review of the fire district's practices.

"What I propose is a full evaluation of the District top to bottom. The District needs to review its policies, it needs to weigh its current way of doing business in a manner so as to protect the public monies and maintain the public trust, it needs to evaluate its real estate holdings and make a decision about whether the public would be better served by selling a parcel or purchasing others."

Buckley, in the questionnaire, suggested that the board should explore selling its older firehouse on Senter Street - it currently houses small and antique trucks, as well as an exercise space - or the Elm Street parking lot as a way to pay for the animal hospital property. The current board opted to roll the purchasing proposal into a broader bond proposal for the expansion, with the intention to sell the Senter Street firehouse down the line.

"I am upset the District spent the monies it did on the project without getting the public's approval."

Buckley, in the questionnaire, also called for improved communication from commissioners.

"The lesson learned from the latest vote is that what the District did was not good enough. I too was with the District residents trying to vote (I voted for the purchase of the property, but against the expansion). I would examine what we have, what we can do to better get our message across. The members of the Board of Fire Commissioners work for the residents who elect them."

In response, Buckley suggested outreach meetings for residents, mailers (if they are not too costly), using a message board, along with using Nixle alerts.

Zezze, in the questionnaire, emphasized the need to acquire the animal hospital property, and to sell the Senter Street building to defray its purchasing cost.

"This property is unique and will serve the future needs of the District."

For improving communications, Zezze's suggestions in the questionnaire were similar, as they also involve public meetings, using Nixle and a message board. 

Schoenberg, in a flyer, blasted the current board's handling of the expansion project.

"The last vote was a disaster—hundreds of voters waited in long chaotic lines to vote down a $15.27 million plan that they learned about from fellow citizens, not from the Board, whose duty it is to inform the public. The BOFC owes a duty to its citizens, not just to its firefighters."

The challenger called for better financial disclosure and communication with residents.

"Change means fiscal prudence and communication with voters so they actually receive the information to which they are entitled. It does NOT mean reintroducing the $15.27 million expansion project that the current Board and architect tried to push through without the public’s input or by giving more detailed financial data."

Schoenberg, who has spent her adult life in communications, marketing and law, called for a permanent restoration of absentee voting, which the current board opted to eliminate - it can bring it back on a case-by-case basis - and to use social media, email and signage as communications tools.

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