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Critical Fire Station Location Being Revisited … Again

July 31, 2012 by Blue Ridge Leader filed under News, Public Safety No Comments

By Mary M. Bathory Vidaver

In December 2011, Joyce Sowa woke up in time to watch blood spurt from her chest as her estranged husband pulled out the knife with which he had stabbed her. As she turned and reached for the telephone, he stabbed her in the back. Dialing 911, she attempted to escape from her attacker. Before she passed out on the stairwell, with further wounds to her eye and arm, she told the 911 operator, “I’m dying.”

Within minutes of receiving the call for help rescue workers from the Aldie Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company arrived at her home in the village of Aldie and arranged for her transport by helicopter to Fairfax Hospital. “The doctor said if the first responders hadn’t made it when they did, I wouldn’t have made it. When my sister arrived at the hospital, she was told I probably wouldn’t make it.”

Sowa was still recovering from her wounds when a few weeks later, after a closed session during their first meeting, the Board of Supervisors, led by newly-elected Blue Ridge Supervisor Janet Clarke (R), directed staff to initiate a public process to explore alternative sites for a long-needed replacement fire and rescue station for the Aldie company. Although the prior Board authorized the purchase of a station site on the eastern edge of the village behind the state weigh station in 2008 and invested some $250,000 of county funds in sitework plus another $430,000 in architectural and engineering plans, the new Board voted for a do-over.
At the Feb. 14, 2012, meeting county staff presented and the Board approved a work plan for this public process. At that same meeting the Board also went into a closed session to discuss the sale of the property purchased in 2008.

Since then, according to sources who asked to remain unnamed because they were not directly involved in the process, the county has received two offers of properties for sale, one at the west end of the village and one east of Gilbert’s Corner. They have also received three offers to purchase the county property. Lewis Rauch, Director of the Loudoun County Office of Construction and Waste Management, confirmed the receipt of offers for the two alternative sites, but preferred not to go into details because the Board had not yet been briefed.

According to Rauch, he has sent a memo to the county administrator requesting the item’s placement on a future Board meeting agenda. With the Board in recess, such presentation will likely not occur until the fall. According to Rauch, “Once we have direction from the Board, we will do a public input session, but we need direction from the Board.”

None of this had anything to do with Sowa, her experience, or her doctor’s opinion about the timing of her rescuers. When Clarke made her January motion, she stated, that the new search would “be a public process which is different from what the Board has engaged in the past with respect to this particular facility.” However, she chose not to publicly disclose the generous campaign contributions – $2,990 – she received from opponents of the original replacement site.

Campaign finance records posted on the Virginia Public Access Project and the Federal Election Commission websites indicate that neither donor had previously written a check for a local or state election. One donor appears never to have written a campaign check before his donation to Clarke; most of the other donor’s prior campaign contributions were to his law firm’s political action committee.

Clarke and her donors insist that alternative sites for the firehouse exist and that the community was not invited to participate in the first process. However, history suggests otherwise. According to a presentation delivered by county staff to the Board of Supervisors in September 2011, the search for a new site began in the spring of 2007. Over the next eighteen months, county staff considered 20 properties without success. In fact, several of the properties proposed by opponents had already been considered and rejected by county staff.

In some cases, the landowner was unwilling to sell (county policy prefers to avoid condemnation if a willing seller can be found and rejects outright the condemnation of property if the property is in use as a residence). In other cases, environmental factors, such as steep slopes (Aldie is at the bottom of the Bull Run Mountains) or floodplain (Aldie sits directly on the Little River) eliminated a property from consideration. In other cases, road and traffic conditions were either unsafe or would overly delay the company’s response times in its primary service area. When the Little River Estates developer offered to sell the county one or more lots, staff and the Board quickly agreed to purchase two lots at the development’s entrance, just behind the Route 50 weigh station.

It is clear from public records that the developer was already facing financial difficulties when he made his offer to the county. The extent of those difficulties was reinforced when a creditor of the developer contacted the Board of Supervisors just after the county’s public announcement of the purchase, seeking confirmation of the sales price and closing date. At the time of the county’s purchase, only two lots had been sold to homebuyers, and only one of those sales had closed prior to the county’s purchase. Thereafter, the developer’s bank foreclosed on the unsold lots.

Based on legal filings, it does not appear that the developer ever informed his customers of his decision to sell two lots at the cul-de-sac’s entrance for the construction of a firehouse nor does it appear that the homebuyers undertook independent research to investigate purchasers of the adjoining lots.

With regards to statements by Clarke and others, that there was no public process, former Blue Ridge Supervisor Jim Burton commented that there was no one living on the neighboring lots and no one but the developer to ask for input. Input from the existing Aldie community had been solicited at the beginning of the site selection process through the volunteers. The received message, according to statements made by staff in both public and private meetings before and after the purchase, had been to find a site within the village, or at least no further east than the intersection with Route 15. This was confirmed by the president of the Aldie volunteer company, Bernie Boteler.

According to the September 2011 presentation, the two lots purchased by the county met all of the criteria established by the Aldie volunteer company, the county’s professional fire & rescue staff, the engineers, and the Board. The property was west of Gilbert’s Corner, on ground that was relatively flat yet high enough to avoid the frequent flooding experienced by the current station. There was easy access to Route 50. There was a willing seller and a price, which while high compared to the properties’ assessed value, was still within budget.

The criteria in the current search remain the same – with one exception. Despite the desires of the volunteers and the recommendations of county fire and rescue staff that the new firehouse be located west of Gilbert’s Corner, the search area was expanded to include properties east of Gilbert’s Corner.

Boteler stated that the volunteers are very concerned about a site east of Gilbert’s Corner and the impact it would have on the company’s ability to respond to its core community. Does Sowa believe that she would still be alive today if the emergency team had come from a site east of Gilbert’s Corner? “No, never,” she exclaimed.

As for a property on the western edge of the village, the county’s mapping system indicates that any property of 5 or more acres will have environmental or topographical challenges: wetlands, floodplain, sharp grades. Overcoming such challenges typically carries a significant price tag.

Should the Board decide to move forward with an alternative site, it must write off the approximately $250,000 spent in sitework on the original site. However, according to Rauch, his staff hopes to recycle much of the building design work prepared for the original site despite the substantial tailoring undertaken to meet the neighbors’ requests.

Such a decision will also continue to delay the station’s construction, as sitework on a new site is undertaken, land use applications are filed with the county’s building and development department, and bids for construction are solicited. Given that the September 2011 presentation and earlier documents indicate that the current station fails to meet standard county requirements for public safety operations, this leaves professional fire and rescue staff and volunteers to continue operating in substandard conditions for as long as another 24 to 36 months. The alternative, according to a member of the county’s Fire and Rescue Department, is to renovate the existing firehouse or implement some other stopgap measure. This, too, has a price tag.

One decision has been made, however, with another pending. In 2011, the opponents of the site filed lawsuits against the county and the developer. They also sued their neighbors down the street, whose houses, built by the company that purchased the lots from the bank, were smaller and less expensive. Plaintiffs argued that a fire house and the half-million dollar homes of their neighbors were inappropriate based on the covenants the sales agent showed them. That the developer never legally filed these covenants was irrelevant to both plaintiffs and the circuit court judge, who ruled in their favor. Still, even as they directed staff to sell the existing two lots and begin the site search anew, the Board directed the County Attorney to file an appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court. As of July 18, the court had not yet indicated it would hear the county’s appeal.

What happens if the county wins its appeal and successfully sells the property, but fails to find an economically viable site? Clarke did not respond to either email or telephone inquiries for this story. Not having been invited to participate in the new search, Boteler referred this question to the county’s Fire & Rescue Department. County staff prefers not to dwell on such possibility either on or off the record. Joyce Sowa considers most of this irrelevant. She, like most county residents, just wants to know that emergency services will always be close at hand.

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