The plans for the new fire station were grand.
It would sit on a gentle slope in North Arlington and be a gleaming addition to an old county neighborhood. Planners imagined a building of red brick and glass with a clock tower, a station large enough to hold a fire engine, a medic unit and a support truck, allowing firefighters to efficiently respond to emergencies throughout several communities. Moreover, it would be a fitting replacement for the legendary old Cherrydale firehouse, the county's first, built in 1919 -- with money from President Woodrow Wilson to ensure its completion.
That was nearly 10 years ago.
Today, in a saga that has spanned three county managers, two different county boards, two fire chiefs and a bond referendum, the dream of a new Cherrydale fire station has turned into a nightmare for community residents.
In 1994, residents of the historic community thought their new fire station was on the way. For five years they had drawn up plans, scouted sites, talked with county officials and voted, along with other Arlington residents, to approve $2.7 million in bonds to pay for the new firehouse. The new station, then estimated to cost about $6 million, was to be built right next to the old one -- which has doubled as a community center and social hall over the decades -- on Lee Highway near Quincy Street. The original building, with a gritty brown facade that has become a fixture in the neighborhood that bears its name, would continue its tradition as a place for local residents to gather and socialize.
But the new station never materialized. Instead, the land that was to be its home has been sold to a private developer who plans to build a townhouse community on it. The townhouse project was approved by the County Board over the objections of its Planning Commission -- a decision that has angered many in the neighborhood.
County Manager Ron Carlee and Fire Chief Edward P. Plaugher have proposed at least two alternative sites for the new station -- both closer to Ballston -- in hope of quickening fire response times in the urban corridor. (Cherrydale is about a half-mile north of Ballston along Quincy Street.) That proposal has also infuriated many in the Cherrydale, Donaldson Run and Maywood communities who say that if the station is built closer to Ballston, response times in the residential neighborhoods will suffer.
"We've had nothing but difficulty dealing with the county on this issue," said Scott Springston, president of the Cherrydale Civic Association.
In many ways, the conflict that has developed between the neighborhoods and the county illustrates a breakdown in the heralded "Arlington Way" -- county officials' long-held practice of communicating with constituents about even the smallest of changes.
After voters approved funding to construct the new station in the mid-1990s, county officials began moving forward with acquiring the land from owner Neal Nichols. Current county staff said that soon after, county officials handling the station relocation became concerned about environmental hazards in the site's soil. They also said that Nichols didn't want to sell the land under the county's conditions. But county officials never told community residents what was going on. The mid-1990s turned to the late 1990s, and one county manger was replaced with another, and then another. Meanwhile, the money approved for the project sat. The land sat. And the community boiled.
"There was certainly a breakdown in the process here," Carlee said. "We didn't communicate effectively with the community on what was going on with the Cherrydale fire station, and now we have to do right by the citizens."
The tension over the firehouse is another example of the county's often awkward adjustment to its increased urbanization.
Plaugher plans to relocate several of the county's 10 firehouses. He said his plan is to move the stations around to accommodate population increases in the county's main urban corridors -- along Wilson Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Highway. Because there have been major population increases in both corridors -- which now typically consist of high-rises as opposed to single-family homes -- fire officials said they need to adjust their fire response methods.
"This is really about how the county can keep up with development," said Mike Clancy, a resident of nearby Maywood who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the County Board in the past two elections. "They're trying to figure out how to adjust to growth in the [Rosslyn-Ballston corridor] and not jeopardize the safety of others in the residential communities."
Yet residents in Cherrydale and surrounding neighborhoods are most upset that they were left out of the process when the county changed its mind about the site -- especially because they had invested so many months figuring out where the new station should go. And even after a marathon public forum last week, where county officials expressed mea culpa about the process and said they were open to listening to the community, residents still expressed a healthy dose of skepticism about how much substantive input they would have in the final decisions.
"I appreciate that the county has taken responsibility, but I am still concerned about whether this is fully an open process," said Reade Bush, a volunteer firefighter who has been involved in the issue since 1989.
That distrust was not always present. For several years, residents and county staff appeared to be working in concert, a true embodiment of "the Arlington way." Everyone agreed that a new station was needed: A rising population and slow deterioration of the then-70-year-old Cherrydale Fire Station compelled the county and community to take action. In 1989, the county appointed a task force to come up with several possible sites for a new firehouse. Public discussions were held. Residents pored over analyses. By the time the bonds were floated, the neighborhood thought it had itself a new station, one whose image they had helped craft.
But then something went wrong. Even though the board -- then led by Mary Margaret Whipple, a current state senator -- wrote in May 1994 that it had "determined that a public necessity exists" for acquiring nearly 60,000 square feet for a new firehouse, there were problems on the horizon.
The board authorized staff to engage in negotiations with the landowner, but problems quickly arose. County records show that Nichols wanted the county to buy the entire parcel of land; the county wanted only part of it. The county tried to negotiate a deal; it even considered seizure and condemnation, records show.
There was also concern over what county officials termed "environmental hazards." The county has consistently said that much of the reason for its inaction was its considerable concern about oil and petroleum contamination in the soil when the site was an auto shop. But county and state records indicate that any contamination was minor. In addition, the state Department of Environmental Quality was asked to review the reports. In June 1995, an agency report to county officials noted, "The Department of Environmental Quality finds no indication of an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment. Therefore, this case is closed. No further action by you is required in this matter."
Residents hold this up as evidence that the county has shirked its responsibility and gave up on the property too soon. But Carlee said that county staff had concerns that conflicted with with state analysis and that the county was leery about about acquiring land that it felt had even the slightest amount of contamination.
"The county tends to be much more conservative when it comes to land acquisition," Carlee said at the forum last week. He said that this kept the county from "moving aggressively" to acquire the property, so the land continued to sit.
But that explanation hasn't appeased neighborhood residents who say that they still don't think the county is being straight with them. At last week's forum, residents noted that at a recent meeting with Plaugher, they were told that the county would consider returning the fire station to its original site -- even though it has already been sold to a private developer. At the Dec. 11 meeting, both Plaugher and Carlee said their preferred site for the fire station should be Quincy Street, closer to Ballston.
"I am very concerned about this process," said the Rev. Randolph Bragg, pastor of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.
The church's land on Military Road was named 10 years ago as a potential site for the new firehouse. Bragg and some of his parishioners said they think the county may be targeting their land again. County officials said they are not currently considering the site, but Bragg remains skeptical.
"We want to make sure that we are being told up front what the county's plans are, so that we can have a say in the process," Bragg said.
County officials said faster response times to Ballston are their primary concern. They point out that although 30 percent of the Cherrydale station's calls are to Ballston, they expect that number to rise to 40 percent over the next several years. They also note that the county plans to move Fire Station No. 8, which is currently near Falls Church, closer to the Cherrydale neighborhood, which should mitigate any concern about residential neighborhoods receiving enough coverage.
Residents said the county has been talking about moving Fire Station No. 8 for years but still has not done so. In addition, they say that the increasing ages of residents in some of the residential communities such as Cherrydale -- as opposed to the younger Ballston neighborhood -- dictates that emergency services be close.
"This feels like a stiff-arm," said John Undeland, a Cherrydale resident since 1967. The whole process, he said, "is very inconsistent."
Nonetheless, county officials and residents will have opportunity to discuss their differences over the next several months, before any decisions are made. The two sides will meet next month to discuss a process for making a decision, and neighborhood groups will have an opportunity to give their input about the new recommendations.
While many community residents continue to be disappointed with the county's responses to their concerns, others say they are encouraged by the chance for a fresh start.
"I was at least glad they came clean and admitted that they were wrong," said Springston, the Cherrydale president. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens now."