The Biddeford City Council voted Tuesday to keep the Hills Beach fire station, which has been closed for a number of years, instead of giving it to the Hills Beach Association. The group had hoped to use the station as a community center. ED PIERCE/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD – The Hills Beach Association’s effort to create a community center at the defunct Hills Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue Station in Biddeford has been thwarted. On Tuesday, Sept. 3, the Biddeford City Council voted to deny the request to turn the property over to the organization at no charge.

The council first discussed the request in November; at that time they voted to discontinue use of the station and work with the HBA to recommend future use of the property. When the issue came before council members in June they tabled the motion to get more information.

Tuesday’s vote puts the issue to rest. No plans about what to do with the building and land have been made.

However, some councilors talked about possibly selling the property at 162 Hills Beach Road. The building is assessed at $144,000 and the land at $344,100, for a total of $488,100, according to the assessment tool on the city of Biddeford’s website.

Hills Beach Association President Patricia Boston told the council Tuesday, “our goals is to use this as a community center … which is what this was used for when the association rented the top floor from (the Hills Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department). In addition, she said, “(we) intend to make (it) available to other Biddeford residents.”

The 2,756-square-foot building was built by the Hills Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue Unit in 1984 on land that is owned by the city.

“Both the labor and all the funding required for the construction of the building was provided by the Hills Beach community,” Boston said in a memo to the City Council dated May 29.

The building was closed in 2007, according to the city of Biddeford’s website. The Biddeford Fire Department currently only uses a portion of the building for equipment storage, Fire Chief Scott Gagne said in a telephone interview prior to the June meeting.

“The deed included a provision that the title would revert to the City if the premises were no longer used and maintained by the HBVFRU as a fire department,” Boston said.

An alternative use for the building was brought up by Raymond Cronkite, who said he founded the Hills Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department.

“Originally, (the fire department) was very active,” he said. However, “when District Fire Chief Albert Lamb retired (and) … state laws changed to mandate extensive hours of training which people didn’t have time for,” the station closed.

The Hills Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue never dissolved its nonprofit organization, Cronkite said. There is a group raising money to repair the building, which has fallen into disarray and form a search and rescue group, he said.

If the group formed and we’re given the building “We (would serve) a community purpose at no expense to the city of Biddeford. There’s no extensive training and this would be repurposing the present structure into saving lives and again at no cost to taxpayers,” he said. He said that the Hills Beach Association would still be allowed to use the second floor for a community center as it has in the past.

Biddeford City Council members debated whether the property should be given to the Hills Beach Association for the use of those who live in the area the building is located in or whether the city should keep it and sell it or find another use that would benefit the city as a whole.

Because the building was built by the community, and because the Hills Beach Association is willing to rent the space to residents throughout the city, City Councilor Norman Belanger said he favored giving the property to the association.

Councilor Michael Swanton agreed. “Unless you have an owner, that’s responsible for the building, it’s going to turn into dust. And by giving it to the Hills Beach Association they will be proper stewards of this building,” he said.

City Council President John McCurry opposed gifting the property to the association.

“If we sold if for $344000, just the land, that’s 17 cents on the tax rate,” McCurry said. “That was the tax increase this year alone. I can’t see us giving away property. I think we need to sell it or do something with it and make it fair for everyone,” he said.

“My role here is to look out for the benefit of all citizens of the city of Biddeford,” Councilor Marc Lessard said. “If I lived in Hills Beach I’d be right there signed up donating money to make this a community center. … but I also have to look our for the people in the city of Biddeford that live over by where St. Andre School used to be or St. Andre’s Church used to be and out on South Street and out on Guinea Road … I’m not a realtor but I know if we were to put out that land tomorrow it would sell for at least a quarter million dollars.”

Five councilors, McCurry, Lessard, Laura Seaver, Stephen St. Cyr and Robert Quattrone voted against giving the property to the Hills Beach Association; and four councilors, Belanger, Swanton, Amy Clearwater and Michael Ready voted in favor.

— Managing Editor Dina Mendros can be contacted at 780-9014 or [email protected]

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