Plan to build a new $21.6 million fire station on the former horse show grounds in Philomont have sparked protests from the people who love the open space and the old firehouse and who are opposing the November bond referendum for the project.
A community meeting is planned at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Woodgrove High School. That will be the community’s first chance to get some answers from the county staff managing the project.
The November ballot voters will see a bond referendum that, among other things, authorizes the county issue $21.6 million in public debt to build the new fire station on land that until last year hosted the Philomont Horse Show, a Philomont Volunteer Fire Department fundraiser since 1957. But after 2019, the volunteer fire department, which owns the land, retired the show.
“For the last 5 or so years, the show ran mainly for the tradition,” reads the department’s winter 2020 newsletter, announcing the end of the show. “The dwindling rider attendance, likely due to the many other events and activities that fill the weekends nowadays, resulted in low turnouts and unfortunately, insufficient financial return.”
The department has also seen dwindling attendance to its annual barbecue, and the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary that once supported the station has been retired.
The station is now staffed fully by career firefighters—few volunteers remain, and none are currently firefighters. With training requirements for firefighters, paramedics and EMTs becoming more rigorous, the community-minded Philomont volunteers now largely serve administrative roles and on the Board of Directors. The volunteer fire department formally requested that the county plan to take over the community’s fire-rescue needs in 2015.
But plans to abandon the current fire station and build a new station on the 7-acre horse show grounds have drawn resistance from its neighbors. Several people from the village went to the county Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 15 to express their opposition to those plans.
One of those was Madeline Skinner, who owned the Philomont General Store next to the fire station at the intersection of Jeb Stuart Road and Snickersville Turnpike for 16 years, served on the former Philomont Ladies’ Auxiliary for 20 years of which she was president for most of 15, and formerly served on the volunteer fire station’s Board of Directors.
In an interview, she said she was also part of fighting off another proposal to build on the horse show grounds—at that time, a training center, with a helipad and other facilities.
She also helped lead a push to bring some new equine event to the grounds to keep it in use, work that was somewhat derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But even without a new horse show, she said, the space should be left open, preserving the rural character of the village—as designated in the county’s 2019 comprehensive plan, and suggested by the Village Conservation Overlay District that covers the area in county zoning ordinances.
“We love our horse show grounds,” Skinner said. “We would like that to be a green space for us, a park, and we feel at this point that we want some answers. We want some justifications that they can back up.”
Today, most of the buildings on the grounds have been taken down, the grass has been allowed to grow high, and the property is closed off with gates and chains.
“We’re just not used to the ‘No Trespassing’ signs on a community asset,” Skinner said.
Opponents of the fire station like Skinner say there is another option that avoids taking on $21.6 million in debt, years of construction, obtaining a zoning exception and destroying open space: the current fire station.
The winter newsletter also details some of the ways to current firehouse has grown over the years—from a two-bay firehouse on donated land, built for $17,000 in 1956, to a station with six bays, separate male and female bunk rooms, a self-contained breathing apparatus repair room. The station has also seen recent renovations with HVAC improvements and a renovated kitchen, bathroom and showers.
And, Skinner said, there is unused space in the fire station now that could be adapted to other needs like modern decontamination, plus unused space on the 2.3-acre fire station property where more could be built if needed.
She pointed to other historic volunteer fire stations that have renovated to serve the modern department’s needs, such as in Ashburn and Middleburg, which were celebrated when they opened.
“Is it going to be the Taj Mahal, like everyplace else? No,” Skinner said. “Will it be efficient, and will it fit the rural historic village standards? Yes.”
Nonetheless the station’s leadership say it cannot support 24/7 operations.
“For reasons too numerous to list, our facility cannot be reconfigured to meet the latest County standards,” wrote Board of Directors Chairman Doug Frost in the winter newsletter. “Thus, in about five or six years, we will see the construction of a new LCFR facility to meet the anticipated future needs of our ever-growing community. We anticipate the new facility will include space for a Philomont-based ambulance service that will benefit all of us. This addition of an ambulance stationed in Philomont remains at the discretion of LCFR.”
Even as the fire department works abandon the current fire house, the county is still putting money into it—it is among the rural public sites that the county is working to bring broadband connectivity.
Questions about the project have not been met with answers. County Fire-Rescue Chief Keith Johnson has declined repeated requests for interviews and comments, saying the public will have to wait until county officials are done with a presentation planned Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, the Philomont fire chief and Board of Directors chairman, while expressing a willingness and eagerness to talk publicly, have said they wish to clear information through the fire department’s Public Information Officer before speaking.
The Sept. 30 meeting, which comes only weeks before the bond referendum to finance the station goes in front of voters, has been a longtime request of the people who want to protect the village.
“We have been nonstop since last July of 2019 contacting various offices, whether it be [district Supervisor] Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), Chair [Phyllis] Randall (D-At Large) or Chief Johnson, asking for community input, asking for a voice, and we have been ignored completely until now,” Skinner said.
Area residents may submit questions in advance with an email to LCFRPIO@loudoun.gov.