Ron Carlee decided to come clean last week. Arlington County made a mistake; it’s time to admit it and move on, he said.
For the last decade, the county has been trying to expand and move the Fire Station No. 3, home of the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department. At a community forum Wednesday, Dec. 11, Carlee, the Arlington County Manager, stood up to apologize to residents of the Cherrydale neighborhood for years of mistakes by county government.
“We didn’t do a good job keeping this community informed,” he said.
Since 1990, the county has had relocation of the Cherrydale Fire Station as a priority. But blown opportunities and conflicts between the department and some community members have turned the Cherrydale decision-making process into a contentious battle of wills between county government and citizens. Community forums represent the latest and most serious push in a decade-old process of relocating Fire Station 3 from 3900 Lee Hwy.
Residents gathered to ask questions and in many cases criticize Carlee, Fire Chief Ed Plaugher and the County Board. “Trust me, this is painful,” said Plaugher after the meeting. “We like being loved; we don’t like being yelled at.”
But it’s something that has to happen, according to Assistant Chief Shawn Kelley. “There needs to be an avenue of venting,” he said. “It’s just a long history of nothing happening.”
INACTION FROM COUNTY officials was indeed one of the major causes of distrust and criticism among Cherrydale residents.
A 1990 department study determined that the best place for an improved fire station would be on Lee Highway, next to the current station. But years passed without county government purchasing that property.
Now, county officials say an analysis of countywide fire department coverage, conducted by Plaugher, shows that the station should be moved closer to Ballston, ideally located on Quincy Street.
Many people at Wednesday’s meeting were outraged that county officials had not made Plaugher’s study available for residents to review before the public forums. Carlee agreed that the study should have been made available, and arranged for copies to be circulated at libraries across the county.
“This process has been backward from the very beginning,” said Reade Bush, an area resident and a member of the Cherrydale Volunteer Fire Department. “I appreciated the fact that the county has acknowledged some responsibility in the problems of the past in getting the station built. But I’m still concerned about the openness of the process.”
RESIDENTS AND OFFICIALS can’t afford to get bogged down with past problems, said Plaugher.
“We need to keep our eye on the prize,” he said. The major issue is determining the site that will provide the best coverage and will allow the quickest response times in emergencies.
Despite Plaugher’s statement that Quincy Street locations would best match “operational criteria,” other factors were considered in his study. “The Arlington County Fire Department supports the recommendations made by [previous studies] but also account for political and demographic factors associated with the relocation of resources,” the report explained.
The report, released to the public Thursday, Dec. 12 in response to citizen comments at the previous night’s meeting, also said that county inaction on buying land earlier could mean much higher costs now.
“The most expensive aspect of relocating a fire station… is real estate and all of the associated roadblocks that occur when the desired property is not readily available,” the report said. “The proposed station locations… did not account for county owned property. By utilizing property already owned by Arlington County, the cost and issues associated with relocation are lowered significantly.”
TIMES HAVE CHANGED since the original study recommended the site on Lee Highway, said Plaugher. “People have to recognize a lot has changed in Arlington County since 1990,” he said.
Cherrydale residents still favor the site on Lee Highway, but Carlee said their preference is based on the 1990 study, which has become outdated. The most recent study projects increasing numbers of calls from the Ballston/Virginia Square area in the future, meaning the station should be moved south of Lee Highway.
That’s not surprising, but it shows further county mistakes, according to Mike Clancy, who ran for County Board this year and in 2001 focusing on public safety issues.
As the county board continued higher-density development in Ballston and Virginia Square, it should have planned for an additional fire station long ago, rather than allowing development to outpace fire department capabilities, said Clancy. “We have to provide the infrastructure to support all this density.”
Audience members last Wednesday said the County Board is ducking accountability for those decisions, and others related to the fire station relocation process. “It would have been reassuring to have a county board member here,” said Linda Simmons, a resident of nearby Bellevue Forest.
But Carlee said the process did not involve the board yet. He was accountable for where plans are right now, he said, while he prepares to make a recommendation to the board.
Cherrydale residents questioned the information behind Carlee’s recommendations, though. Financial problems with the Lee Highway site are only the beginning, Bush said.
Information that shows an increasing number of emergency calls from Ballston should be taken with a grain of salt, said Bush, because many of the calls are false alarms. “If people call 911 on Military Road it’s more likely to be a real emergency than in Ballston,” he said. The Military Road corridor would likely see longer response times if the station is moved closer to Ballston.
Tracy Price, a Cherrydale resident for the past two years, said she and her neighbors have been disappointed that the fire department has not taken more seriously the concerns of the local volunteer firefighters, like Bush.
But Plaugher defended the relationship between the department and the volunteers. Disagreement over the site of the Cherrydale station shouldn’t involve relations between volunteer fire personnel and paid staffers.
Nevertheless, perception of conflict has begun to have an impact on the relocation process. “It’s out in the open,” he said. “It’s out as part of the dialogue, and I’m not quite sure how it fits.”
It’s important to keep the priorities in line though, he said. “This is not about our relationship with the volunteers, and we can’t make it that.”
CREDIBILITY IS a major issue for Carlee.
There will be years of effort to relocate and expand many of the county’s 10 fire stations, he said, and if he can’t rely on the public’s trust now, it will ruin his credibility in the future. That’s why he was committed to engaging in public dialogue at the Cherrydale community forums.
Credibility is also the reason it’s important to accept Plaugher’s recommendation, said Carlee. If county staff can’t rely on the fire chief’s decisions, then it’s time to find a new fire chief.
By supporting Plaugher, Carlee caused some people to question the validity of community forums. “Carlee made it clear he’ll back Chief Plaugher,” said Bush. “They seemed to have already made a decision that the station must go on Quincy Street,” he said.
Carlee said he hopes he will be able to make a recommendation with the support of the Cherrydale community. But even if they come to an impasse, the process will have been beneficial, he said. “We’ll understand why we disagree and what we disagree on,” he said.
It’s important to choose the best site now, based on projected changes for the future, he said. “We need to make sure we don’t make a $6 million, 40 year mistake,” he said.
Moving the station to Quincy Street would improve safety through nearby intersections and would provide the best response time to the greatest number of residents, according to Plaugher.
Some Cherrydale residents aren’t convinced, but they’re willing to discuss the issue. “If in the end we’re wrong and the fire chief is right, we’ll stand up and say so,” said Bush.
Carlee said he is hopeful that the department and the residents can come to an understanding.