After more than 70 years in the basement of the community hall, the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department could use more space — and early talks are underway about the potential to build a new station.
On Dec. 2, the Harpswell Board of Selectmen voted 3-0 to send a pre-application letter to Cumberland County, a first step toward a $30,000 grant that would pay for architectural and engineering plans for a new station.
The county has funds available through the federal Community Development Block Grant Program. If the project qualifies under program guidelines, the county will give the town the go-ahead to submit a full application, due in January.
The program prioritizes low- to moderate-income communities. The Cundy’s Harbor area meets those criteria, according to Deputy Town Administrator Terri-Lynn Sawyer. She expects to receive the go-ahead to apply.
Kevin Johnson, chair of the Board of Selectmen, estimated the cost to build a “smaller” station at $300,000.
“It’s very early in the process,” Cundy’s Harbor Fire Chief Benjamin A. Wallace Jr. said in an interview at the station on Thursday, Dec. 9. Any construction is years away — and the department doesn’t even own land where it could build a new station.
“We’re not even to the planning stage yet,” Wallace added. “We’re just talking about planning.”
The current station dates to 1950, according to town records. It consists of a four-bay garage and a tiny office under the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall, which the department owns. A dehumidifier runs 24/7 to avoid moisture issues, even after work to seal exposed ledge in the basement and address drainage issues.
The four trucks barely fit in their bays, even though the department jacked up the building and constructed an addition about 15 years ago. When drivers back trucks into the bays, the slightest miscalculation can damage the expensive vehicles. Once inside, some of the vehicles’ compartments and doors can’t open all the way.
“When I started with the department, the trucks were a lot smaller,” said Wallace, who has served as chief for 12 years. He joined the department in 1990, when he was in high school. He also serves as chief of the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department and works a full-time job as a lieutenant for the Portland Fire Department, where he spends most of his 24-hour shifts on Peaks Island.
“We’re using every inch of this building,” Wallace said. Besides more room for trucks, he would like to have storage space for supplies and a place where volunteers can gather.
Wallace sees a gathering place as essential to recruiting and retaining volunteers — a challenge for fire departments everywhere. When volunteers spend more time at the station, they build camaraderie — and if volunteers are at the station when a call comes in, they can respond faster.
A 2018 renovation of the Orr’s Island fire station was “very successful” in terms of its effect on recruitment and retention, Wallace said. “We’re hoping there could be just as much success here,” he added.
The Cundy’s Harbor department has 20 volunteers, including 10 interior firefighters and four people licensed to provide emergency medical services. The department could use more EMS providers and firefighters, as well as pump operators and other support personnel.
“We definitely need some new blood,” Wallace said.
If Cundy’s Harbor gets a new station, Wallace would like to locate it further north on Cundy’s Harbor Road. The department covers most of Great Island — everywhere north and east of the intersection of Route 24 and Stevens Corner Road. It can take 20 minutes to respond to a call at the end of Pinkham Point.
Years ago, most homes were in the village, Wallace said, but development has spread out across the island.
If the department builds a new station, the downstairs of the community hall could become storage space, Wallace said.
If the town applies for and secures the $30,000 grant, it would receive the funds and administer the project on behalf of the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department. If a station is later built, the department would own and operate it.
In the past, the town has secured Community Development Block Grants for the Cundy’s Harbor Library, Bailey Island Library Hall, and the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department. Orr’s and Bailey islands no longer qualify for the grants, according to Sawyer.
In addition to a Cundy’s Harbor station, the town is exploring the possibility of building a central “substation,” scaled back from an earlier concept of an “enormous” two-story building that would cost about $2.5 million, according to Johnson. A 2018 plan by the engineering firm Gorrill Palmer shows a two-story, 7,336-square-foot building that would stand 41 feet high.
The town’s Fire and Rescue Planning Committee is discussing the matter, according to Johnson, who serves on the committee. The substation would be on Mountain Road, between the EMS building and Community Drive.
“We’re going to scale it down to something pretty reasonable, for a few trucks, no meeting rooms … about the same size as what I have in mind for Cundy’s Harbor — four trucks, shower rooms, that type of thing, but nothing elaborate,” Johnson said.
Sawyer said that Harpswell’s three independent fire departments do not feel the town needs a large central station at this time, but “we want to plan for the day when it is needed.”
Each of the three departments — the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department, Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue, and the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department — has its own station or stations.
While the town does not operate a separate station, it supplements the work of the independent departments in other ways. The town has a full-time fire administrator, a 24/7 paramedic service, and two firefighters on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.