In recent weeks, Cherrydale residents have finally been able to get a glimpse of what their new fire station will look like, a sleek brick facility that will sit on Old Dominion Drive and, county officials hope, be a gateway to the historic Arlington neighborhood.
If the Arlington County Board approves the station site plan, as it is expected to do at its board meeting Saturday, the vote will cap more than a decade of public debate that grew so bitter that some neighbors say it left them disillusioned with the civic process in the county.
Over the years, there has been at least one other design and four prospective sites for a new Cherrydale station, which will sit near a five-way intersection off Old Dominion Drive and North Quincy Street, about a block from the current station. Last December a fierce, months-long battle over where to build the station culminated in a contentious public meeting, where sign-waving residents confronted then-Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D). Favola stormed out of the meeting.
"I am very hopeful this day will be a milestone moving forward and setting the plan for finishing the project and the timetable," said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D).
The county Planning Commission approved the site plan Monday night by a unanimous vote. At the meeting, Cherrydale Citizens Association President Maureen Ross gave a measured endorsement of the new design, one dependent on the county's going ahead with plans to put in new sidewalks.
"We're becoming pleased with the project," Ross said. "Don't ever let it be said it's not on the wrong site, but for what it is, it has come around to potentially working well for everyone."
But it comes as no surprise to those who have watched the lengthy debate that several questions remain. The county has not finalized a deal to buy the properties where the fire station is to be built, although officials say negotiations are underway. Nor has a project cost been set.
The county is to use about $11.3 million in bonds that have already been approved by voters to cover the project's design phase, according to Deputy County Manager Ken Chandler.
And privately, some firefighters have questioned whether the county can focus on building an expensive station while it is still dealing with fallout from construction problems with Aurora Hills Fire Station No. 5 near Crystal City. The general contractor on that project was fired this past summer for allegedly shoddy construction that could cost up to $4.8 million, officials said. The county will eventually recoup the money through the contractor's insurance company, officials said.
"This is the final chapter on this fire station . . . assuming they ever build it," said Scott Springston, a former president of the Cherrydale Citizens Association. "They [were] slated to build another one years and years ago, and then sat up there and did nothing. I've had people come up to me and tell me, 'They'll never build it,' so who knows?"
The drama began in 1989, when the county decided it needed a new firehouse near the existing Cherrydale fire station at 3900 Lee Highway. The simple brick building was constructed in 1919. With its cozy bingo nights, it has long been a center for a neighborhood that has struggled to retain a small-town feel with its bungalows and quaint shops, although it is just minutes from downtown Washington.
Voters approved a $2.5 million bond issue for a new station in 1990, and the County Board later sought an adjacent property for the facility. A second, $2.76 million bond issue was approved in 1994.
The county later dropped its bid to purchase the property over environmental concerns about the site's soil, and neighborhood residents have long argued that the county made a mistake. A developer later bought the property to build tony townhouses.
Capt. Michael G. Staples, the head of the Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association, was stationed in Cherrydale in the 1990s. He said the debate dragged on for so long that he remembers older drawings of the proposed fire station that were tacked up on the wall for years. They finally yellowed and were taken down, he said.
Once that site had been lost, a citizen task force, which included community residents and volunteer firefighters, came up with three alternative sites for a station -- a considerable challenge in a densely populated neighborhood with little available land.
The site that the County Board eventually selected -- a parking lot behind the Koons Toyota dealership on Old Dominion Drive, west of Military Road and North Quincy Street, was not among the task force's picks. (The county is working on a deal with the Toyota dealership to build a parking garage to compensate the business for the loss of the lot, officials said.)
That fact still rankles some neighbors, many of whom say they cannot forgive the board for what they viewed as circumventing the "Arlington Way," the county's oft-lauded system of community participation. Feelings boiled over when residents confronted Favola during last December's community meeting at the fire station. Favola later said she left because the crowd was not "civil" enough.
"It was one of the most emotional meetings I ever attended," Favola said. "But in the end, I think we worked out a design that will fit into the neighborhood and ameliorate the neighbors' concerns."
Yet some of Cherrydale's longtime civic activists say that when the County Board finally approved the new site last December, they were so disheartened that they lost interest in the project.
"I think it has very much jaded Cherrydale to the control of the neighbors in the county process," said Lita Miller, 34, who lives three houses away from the approved site.
Fisette said he believes that the community has calmed down now that the location controversy is in the past and that residents will welcome the station.
The two-story firehouse, which is to have four equipment bays, will face Old Dominion Drive, just west of the intersection of North Quincy Street and Military Road. It will initially house one engine company -- with room to sleep 12 fire fighters -- and may also include additional paramedic and fire command personnel, according to Assistant Fire Chief John J. White. One unusual feature will be a safe room where crime victims or others can take shelter in the event of a personal emergency.
County Planning Commissioner Eric Dobson, a Cherrydale resident who led the county's design task force, said the new station's presence -- where passersby on busy Old Dominion Drive will see the firetrucks parked in front of the station -- will form an important gateway to the community.
"People want to see the firetrucks, the equipment . . . it's the whole idea of a civic building," Dobson said.
For the most part, neighbors say they like the station's design. But the noise generated by the firetrucks, traffic on Old Dominion Road and the hoped-for sidewalks remain concerns.
"It's still in the wrong spot, but if it's got to go there, they've done a pretty good job" in designing a station to fit the location, Springston said.
Cherrydale resident Al Thomson, above left, points at then-County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola as she walks out of a December 2004 meeting. Thomson said the county was not listening to the residents' concerns. At left, one person makes plain his discontent with the County Board's site approval.
The current Cherrydale fire station on Lee Highway will remain in use in conjunction with the new station.
The current Cherrydale fire station, which was built in 1919, has been designated a historic structure.
County Board Chairman Jay Fisette.