Arlington County is moving closer to resolving a long-running dispute over replacing the historic Cherrydale firehouse, having selected a parcel of land for the new facility and developing a letter of intent to purchase the property.
But like everything about the new firehouse, which has been beset by controversy since the process of building it began in 1989, nothing is quite that simple.
Some neighborhood residents are objecting to the county's plan to put the firehouse on part of the Koons Toyota dealership's property, saying there isn't enough room for the station officials have been promising. Under the plan, the dealership would continue to operate, with the firehouse built on a parking lot behind the business.
"We have serious concerns about how they're going to wedge both together," said Kevin O'Brien, vice president of the Cherrydale Citizens Association. "They are ignoring the wishes of the citizens," he said, adding that the community is concerned that the firehouse would be too close to homes.
The more immediate issue is that the county might not even be able to acquire the property. County officials said the dealership, which leases the site and has an option to buy it, has expressed interest in purchasing it and then selling a portion of the land to the county.
But the family that owns the land is resisting the dealership's effort to buy it, and the dispute has landed in Arlington County Circuit Court. A civil trial is scheduled to begin today. If the dealership is unable to force the owners to sell, county officials acknowledge that they would have to restart the process of negotiating for a firehouse site.
"This is kind of a hurdle that has to be overcome first before we can go forward with our own deal," said Arlington County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac.
County Manager Ron Carlee said he is optimistic that the dispute can be resolved and told residents in a recent letter that the county will begin design work in October "provided these legal issues can be resolved expeditiously."
In an interview, Carlee said the firehouse is a high priority for the county and that it could easily co-exist with the dealership. "We want to move this project to completion as quickly as we can," he said.
Attorneys representing the dealership and the family that owns the property did not return calls seeking comment.
Residents said they remain frustrated with how the county has handled the project.
"It's just absurd that they are considering squishing this onto a back lot," said Scott Springston, a former president of the Cherrydale Citizens Association who has followed the issue for years. "I'm so disappointed, I'm almost to the point of being furious."
Such emotions are typical of the debate surrounding the firehouse. The existing station, known as the Cherrydale Volunteer Firehouse, was the county's first -- built in 1919, with money from President Woodrow Wilson. It is one of 10 fire stations that serve Arlington County and has become a neighborhood fixture, a historic place with a gritty brown facade where residents socialize.
But by the mid-1980s, the county had determined that a larger, more modern firehouse was needed. The current building has only one equipment bay.
An advisory committee to the county manager was established in 1989, and by the next year it recommended as its first choice land known as the Nichols site on Lee Highway near Quincy Street, next to the current station.
In 1990, voters approved a $2.5 million bond issue to pay for the new station, and in May 1994, the County Board voted unanimously to start acquiring the land. A second bond issue of $2.76 million was approved later that year.
But concerns about possible environmental hazards and difficulty persuading the owner to sell caused repeated delays and, eventually, the rejection of the site, county officials have said. A report released last year by a citizens task force said "communication with the community" about the process "was nonexistent" between 1994 and 2002.
That task force wound up selecting as its first choice the land next to the firehouse, now known as the Nichols/Bromptons site, that the county had already rejected. But the property had been sold to a private developer, and the County Board approved a site plan in July 2002 to build townhouses and other residential and retail units there. The decision, which came over the objections of the county Planning Commission, angered many residents.
The task force made the Toyota dealership land, which sits two blocks west of the current firehouse, its second choice.
The owner of the third choice, where a Honda dealership now sits, refused to sell and criticized the task force for even mentioning his property in the report.