After a county contractor’s feasibility study found it would be possible to build a new Philomont firehouse on the site of the current one, rather than on the former Philomont Horse Show grounds, neighbors at a public meeting on the project Thursday night said they still aren’t satisfied.
The feasibility study was kicked off after another meeting in the same room, the cafeteria at Woodgrove High School, last year, where Philomont area residents expressed outrage at plans by the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department and the county fire-rescue service to build a new fire station on the horse show grounds. County leaders pledged to study the possibility of renovating the existing firehouse, which has been in service since 1956, with expansions in 1975 and 1994.
That study found that while the existing building is too cramped for a modern, 24-hour fire station, the lot could be made to work by adding onto the building or tearing it down and building a new one, although it would still involve some compromises by the fire department.
Both possibilities would also involve increasing the project budget. Renovating and adding on to the current station would cost an estimated $26.9 million, while tearing down and building a new station on the same spot would cost an estimated $27.8 million. The county had budgeted $21.9 million for the project, assuming they would be building a new fire station on the horse show grounds, which the volunteer fire department owns.
Those options also may not leave the horse show grounds untouched—they both involve setting up a temporary fire station during construction. If that goes onto the horse show grounds, they will have to be prepared with things like driveways to accommodate those heavy vehicles. Supervisors are expected to hear their options for a fire station at a meeting in October.
The feasibility study’s ideas found few proponents from Philomont at the follow-up meeting Sept. 9. Peter Weeks, president of the Bluemont Citizens Association and vice chairman of the Loudoun Historic Villages Alliance, compared the Philomont fire station debate to a similar debate in Aldie.
“The process was deeply flawed. We did not listen to members of the community until, and thanks to Supervisor [Tony R.] Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and others, pressure was put on and there was a chance that was made, a positive change,” Weeks said. “Instead of being in the middle of a historic village, it’s now on the outside, in a better location. Likewise, there has to be respect for the historic villages here in western Loudoun.”
In Aldie, after buying three properties and a protracted battle with village residents, the county moved plans for the fire station outside of the village to Gilbert’s Corner, the intersection of Rt. 50 and Rt. 15.
“It’s pretty obvious nobody wants the new firehouse on the old horse show grounds, and it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to be tough to put it, according to the county’s facts, on the old one,” said one resident. “Has anybody ever looked for another property around town? Good grief. It’s got to be around there somewhere.”
The fire department and county capital infrastructure planners estimate they need five acres to build a fire station to Loudoun County’s usual standards.
Philomont Volunteer Fire Department Operational Director Richard Pearsall and John Myers, president of the Loudoun Career Firefighters Association, both came to the meeting to talk about the importance of getting their firefighters out of the old station. With inadequate decontamination, Myers said, carcinogens are carried into the station’s living spaces on the very gear that is meant to protect firefighters. And Pearsall said the old station cannot keep up with the decades of growth in Loudoun since it was built.
One thing, county fire officials say, is certain—they can’t keep operating out of the old firehouse. The equipment bays are too small for modern gear and vehicles; the layout does not allow for proper decontamination, while cancer is the biggest killer for firefighters; it has inadequate sleeping, administrative and exercise space; there are no separate showers and locker rooms for men and women; and, perhaps most ironically for a fire station, it has an inadequate fire protection system.
“This current site that we have, we had to make many concessions, and we’re willing to do that, but there’s some things that are not negotiable when it comes to the health and safety of the firefighters who work in our facilities,” said Loudoun Fire-Rescue Chief Keith Johnson.