Zoning battles aren’t unusual when developers propose high-rise buildings amid single-family homes, but some Montgomery County residents are fighting the development plans of an unusual opponent: their local fire department.
The Bethesda Fire Department’s board of directors says it needs to replace or renovate its 46-year-old headquarters to keep pace with emergency calls as downtown Bethesda continues to transform from a leafy suburb into an urban hub. As part of one plan, the board is seeking a zoning change that would incorporate a new station into an eight-story apartment building. The apartment developer, the board says, would build a modern, more efficient fire station — estimated to cost about $14 million — at no cost to the fire department or taxpayers.
But some residents say that although they’re fine with a new fire station, an eight-story building would be out of character with long-established neighborhoods nearby. Others say it would mar the “Green Mile” — a stretch of otherwise heavily developed Wisconsin Avenue between downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights that is now lined mostly with homes and a golf course. The fire department, they say, should explore other ways to fund construction.
The debate has grown testy.
Jeffrey Slavin, mayor of the town of Somerset, south of the fire station, called the fire department’s board “very adversarial” and “tone deaf” to community concerns. He dismissed as “scare tactics” statements made by department leaders that they can’t continue to provide proper fire-rescue service without a modern station.
“There are a lot of ways they could raise money rather than taking the easy way out and hooking up with a developer,” Slavin said.
Grant Davies, a town of Chevy Chase resident who oversees land-use issues for the department’s volunteer board, rejected other residents’ assertions that the board is making “thinly veiled threats.”
“We’re not threatening anybody,” Davies said. “We’re just saying we need to plan for the future.”
Montgomery planners have recommended denser zoning for the nearly two-acre station site at the southwest corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Bradley Boulevard. A higher building, planners say, could provide more affordable housing and “enhance” the fire station as a public facility.
Beyond involving some of suburban Washington’s wealthiest communities, the zoning fight reveals the tensions — build more and up, or preserve an open feel? — simmering as inner suburbs grow into small cities. Increasingly, even public facilities, such as fire stations and libraries, sit on pricey, scarce land eyed by developers.
Montgomery Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said the debate reflects residents’ concerns about “encroaching urbanism,” particularly in areas adjacent to burgeoning downtowns.
“People very jealously guard that more suburban, neighborly experience,” Berliner said. “That’s very important to them. Anything that threatens that is viewed with great suspicion and alarm. It’s something I’m sensitive to.”
Residents in older cities such as New York and Philadelphia have lived above fire stations for decades, and the idea is gaining new life. In Southwest Washington, a Hyatt hotel is being built above a new fire station, while in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard area, a four-story apartment building of affordable and workforce housing opened above a new fire station in 2009.
The Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, which is separate from the Bethesda Fire Department, also is seeking to rebuild its station and possibly add a multi-story residential and commercial complex on the northern edge of downtown Bethesda, at Old Georgetown Road and Battery Lane. There has been little public opposition to rezoning that site, which is surrounded by more mid-rise apartment buildings than the Bethesda Fire Department parcel.
The Bethesda Fire Department, founded in 1926 as a volunteer agency, owns three stations. The county supplies the firefighters and paramedics, fire engines, trucks and other equipment. A nonprofit corporation governed by the board owns the stations and land.
The arrangement is common in Montgomery, which maintains a hybrid mix of volunteer and career firefighter departments. Of Montgomery’s 37 fire stations, all but 11 are owned by nonprofit organizations stemming from their origins as volunteer departments, said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the county’s Fire and Rescue Service.
Station No. 6, at Wisconsin Avenue and Bradley Boulevard, serves about 30,000 residents and workers in and around downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights. The station’s response area had about 4,000 calls for service in fiscal 2014, Piringer said.
On a recent tour, Davies pointed out problems with the dingy, two-story station that was built in 1969 and serves as both office and home during 24-hour shifts: no separate sleeping quarters for women; garage ceilings too low for larger trucks; a temperamental heating and air-conditioning system; a cramped kitchen; and no exercise room. Modern fire stations also are one level, Davies said, to prevent people from getting hurt as they rush downstairs for middle-of-the night calls. (The fire pole has become a decorative relic.)
A new fire station would be about the same size but would be reconfigured to better serve an expected 24 percent increase in the area’s population over the next 25 years, Davies said. The station, he said, also would be the first responder for any accidents on the light-rail Purple Line, which is scheduled to open in the area in 2021.
“The station is functional now and meeting the community’s needs,” Davies said, “but the community is changing.”
The idea does have some community support. Al Lang, mayor of the nearby town of Chevy Chase, said allowing the fire department to redevelop its property would help the agency keep response times low as the population increases — and when government funds are tight.
“For me,” Lang said, “it’s a way of getting this very important infrastructure and public safety enhancement in a very fiscally responsible way.”
But some residents say it’s the county’s responsibility to ensure sufficient emergency response. After all, they say, they pay for fire protection as part of their property taxes. Moreover, they say, residents across the street from Station No. 6 bought their homes not knowing that they might end up in the shadows of an eight-story building.
“We want the station to stay, but as just a fire station,” said Naomi Spinrad, vice president for development issues for the Chevy Chase West Neighborhood Association. “We think it’s appropriate for that corner, we think it’s appropriate for public safety, and we think it’s appropriate for the community.”
Leslye Howerton, the county planning department’s project manager for the 20-year growth plan being updated for downtown Bethesda, said a building atop a fire station would fit with nearby five-story residential buildings. Any new building, she said, would have to be set back from and “step down” to two or three stories adjacent to single-family homes.
“We were very careful about looking at the neighborhood” before recommending the zoning change as part of the growth plan, Howerton said.
Davies, of the fire department board, said the panel is still considering merely renovating Station No. 6 and other ways to raise money or finance a new station without partnering with a developer. He said the board probably won’t decide until next year and wouldn’t start any construction until at least 2020. Until then, he said, the department needs the zoning change to keep the redevelopment option open.
The planning board has three more work sessions scheduled on the downtown Bethesda plan before sending it to the county council for approval in late November.