Jenkins Road residents feel left out of the process for firehouse site.
By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — Ron Early has made a career out of running into burning buildings without compunction.
But the Wake Forest Fire Chief was visibly feeling the heat Sept. 26 during a meeting with nearly 20 residents about a proposed fire station for 1509 Jenkins Road, who rapid-fired questions and criticisms his way.
“You’re going to destroy our neighborhood,” one woman exclaimed at the start of the meeting, held at Wake Forest Presbyterian Church.
Upset about the potential noise and safety of trucks entering the roadway and convinced they’ve been intentionally left out of the loop by town and nonprofit fire department leaders, they questioned the level of secrecy that the chief said was required for the special-use permit application process.
“Are your fingers broken?” Matherly resident Andy Mast lashed out. “Why did you not give us this information (earlier)?”
“I could not give you what could and could not be distributed as a public document until I got it back from the attorney,” Early said.
“You could have actually responded to my e-mail,” Mast replied. “It would have taken you 30 seconds. You could have said ‘Hey, I can’t give you the info, I have to wait. I don’t have the info.’”
“I couldn’t,” Early said. “I was told by legal counsel not to respond. We have a land contract going on, we can’t discuss it.”
Not what’s wanted
As part of the special-use permit process, the fire department is required to meet with neighborhood residents and try to work out some issues. They met once on Sept. 12, which was very contentious, and again last week.
Neither meeting resulted in the fire station being located elsewhere, however, which is what most of those objecting want.
“If you can provide a rational explanation for why you need a firehouse there … I’d love to have a station nearby,” Mast added.
Early provided a sheet with some data showing coverage and response times from the four existing fire stations, noting that the department’s weakness is in the northwestern quadrant.
Though he has stated that 80 percent of the calls will head east toward Capital Boulevard, the fire department doesn’t want to build on the highway — in part, because it will be too far away for the rural calls they respond to in that area.
Plus, Early said, commercial structures have irrigation systems which tend to handle a fire until firefighters arrive. Most homes do not, so they need to build their coverage around residential areas.
The fire department did come close to having a station just off Capital Boulevard, however. Several years ago, a shopping center was approved for the former Parker-Hannifin manufacturing site at Capital and Wake Union Church Road.
As part of that deal, Wake Forest commissioners made the future center owners set aside a plot of land for a fire station to serve the retail area and residential community to the west. But the recession deep-sixed the shopping center, so the fire department had to find another site, Early added.
A Capital Boulevard site isn’t ideal because the N.C. Department of Transportation plans to eventually turn it into a limited access highway.
Matherly resident Dennis Chapman criticized the data sheet, saying it doesn’t go far enough in showing the methods the fire department used to rule out other sites.
“I fail to understand why we as the public, for whom you’re providing these services, are being denied empirical information that you’re relying on to make these decisions. You have not provided us with any data,” Chapman said. “I worked for the federal government a good number of years. You don’t just come out and say ‘this is what we’re going to do because it’s the best thing for you,’ you have studies and you show people those studies.”
Though he would not reveal all of the fire department’s reasons for picking the Jenkins Road site, Early said response time is most important. Some of the other choices in the area were on properties that couldn’t be subdivided or sold, he said.
One neighbor who lives behind the proposed station is concerned about the loss of trees and wildlife from grading. The plan states that minimal grading will be done, but, she said, “it looks like there’s a substantial amount of grading.”
Early said the grading plan meets town codes, which define it as minimal.
Another woman objected that the station isn’t necessary, according to Wake County. The county contributes fire tax revenues to fire departments to operate in rural areas, but limits that contribution.
Early said months ago that Wake County only cites the need for two of the department’s four fire stations.
Early previously estimated it would cost $2.4 million to build and stock the station with equipment.
There is more than $1 million in reserve to help pay for that, but staffing it permanently may require a tax increase because of the recurring cost in salaries, insurance and health benefits for paid employees, town officials have warned.
Even if town commissioners agree with residents that the station is a bad idea in that location, it may not change things in the long run.
When asked last week what he’d do if commissioners voted against the site, Early said he’d resubmit. Town ordinances allow petitioners to resubmit every six months.
“If it’s not approved, we would still want that site,” he said. “We want the fire station there, because it’s what’s best for the community.”