Arlington’s Fire Station 8 has stood along Lee Highway for nearly a century, founded by African American volunteers who feared that white emergency crews would not protect them or their homes.
The county wants to replace the cramped, outdated facility with a modern one farther north, where response times lag well behind the county standard.
But the proposal, which the Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote on Tuesday night, has generated a swell of opposition — from African American neighbors worried that this proud yet painful chapter of their history will be forgotten, and from residents of all races who say a fire station at the county’s preferred site eight blocks north won’t solve the response-time problem.
The controversy is the latest example of a persistent challenge in this densely populated county just outside the nation’s capital: The demand for infrastructure competes with a desire for green space, even as tight municipal budgets force officials to look for the most economical ways to build and preserve modern facilities.
The saga of Fire Station 8 started about a year ago, when residents learned that the county planned to close the building and move the crew. People mobilized, including three descendants of those first firefighters: Wilma Jones, Kitty Clark Stevenson and Marguarite Reed Gooden.
“The county leaders kept saying the fire station was moving, and we asked multiple times, ‘Why is it moving?’ We never got an answer,” Clark Stevenson said.
When Jones and others pointed out the importance of the site to residents of the Hall’s Hill and High View Park neighborhoods, county officials said “they’d throw up a historic plaque,” Jones said.
But opponents of moving the station are also citing the county’s own data, which shows more than twice as many 911 calls from the more densely populated area around the existing fire station than from the county’s northernmost neighborhoods, which are primarily composed of affluent, single-family homes.
The county also wants to encourage new high-rise developments along Lee Highway in the coming decades, adding to the number of residents — and, presumably, 911 calls — close to the existing station.
Residents of the historically black but now racially diverse neighborhood around the station teamed up with two adjoining and predominantly white neighborhoods and pressured the County Board to appoint a citizen task force in December.
That group’s report, issued May 31, said both the current site at 4845 Lee Hwy. and the county land at Old Dominion Drive and North 26th Street, eight blocks to the north, were viable.
But its consensus recommendation was for a new and bigger station at the current site. County Manager Mark Schwartz said last week that he still recommends building a new station on Old Dominion.
Schwartz and Fire Chief James Bonzano say the eight to 11 minutes it takes for a fire engine or ambulance from Station 8 to reach the northern part of the county is simply too long.
Emergency crews should arrive within four to six minutes after someone calls for help — a standard being met in most of the county, save for its northwestern corner and the west end of Columbia Pike, officials said.
Schwartz told the County Board last week that moving the fire station could shave one to two minutes off the time it takes to get to the neighborhoods north of Yorktown Boulevard, although “there is a still a portion of far north Arlington that will not fall within the four- to six-minute response time.”
If the board wants to consider sites other than those along Old Dominion or Lee Highway, Schwartz said, he will need “six months out of the public eye” to research possible locations and negotiate with landowners.
Richard Samp, one of two of the 10 task force members to vote in favor of moving the station to the Old Dominion site, said three consultants in the past 17 years have identified inadequate response times as a significant concern in north Arlington.
The county has no fire stations north of Lee Highway.
It would cost between $14 million and $15.6 million to demolish the existing station and rebuild on that site, plus $3.7 million to erect a a temporary station during construction.
A new station could go up on Old Dominion for about $14 million, Schwartz said. Moving the existing county fuel pump from Lee Highway to the new site could cost an additional $1 million.
The task force suggested that Arlington could look into partnering with Fairfax County to create a joint satellite station or substation. Neighborhoods in Fairfax’s northeastern reaches, which adjoin Arlington’s northern areas, also have problems with response times.
A substation would cost at least $7.5 million.