Update: Philomont Fire & Rescue Station project briefed to Board of Supervisors

By Laura Longley

UPDATE: In its Oct. 5 meeting, the Philomont Fire & Rescue Station project was briefed to the Board of Supervisors as an Information Item, and while several members voiced their support of an approach, no vote has been taken on this item to authorize further action.

BACKGROUND: One year ago the Blue Ridge Leader shared news of a historic rural hamlet where, it’s fair to say, the board of the local volunteer fire department had just lit a fire that quickly engulfed the community.

The blaze in the tiny village of Philomont began when board members of the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department put out a newsletter announcing plans they had developed with Loudoun County Fire and Rescue to abandon the existing firehouse for a big, shiny, new 18,500-square-fooot facility.

Their plans were to build it on a nearby field long dedicated to horse shows. Decades ago, the community had raised the funds to buy that seven-acre parcel and then transferred ownership to the fire department. In the newsletter, the board noted it intended to give the property to the County.

If they’d had no inkling of these plans, nothing prepared early Philomont voters for the bond referendum on the November ballot: to approve $21.5 million in Loudoun taxpayer funds to build a new firehouse on the Horse Show Grounds.

Were the fire departments putting the cart before the horse?

Clearly, this move was viewed as a done deal. The community pushed back, however, and convinced the Board of Supervisors to approve a study examining the feasibility of renovating the existing facility rather than building a new one.

The 80-plus page study took 10 months to complete. It was submitted to the volunteer board and LCFR Chief Keith Johnson and staff in early July. Yet it was not shared with Philomont residents until late August, two weeks before LCFD officials gave a Power Point presentation to the community and conservation groups.

Despite the length of the study, the community wondered why, if the consultants could develop two bird’s-eye views of large stations surrounded by asphalt, they could not produce floor plans and elevations that would illustrate whether a renovation could meet operational standards.

A Loudoun County Supervisor’s questions

Questions also began arising about the future of the Horse Show Grounds and existing firehouse.

Loudoun County Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) posed questions about those issues to PVFD Chief Rick Pearsall.

“If Loudoun County decides to utilize the Horse Show Grounds for construction of the replacement fire station, would the Volunteers transfer ownership of the Horse Show Grounds to Loudoun County?” Pearsall: Yes.

“If Loudoun County decides to utilize the existing station property for construction of the replacement station, would the Volunteers transfer ownership of the existing station property to Loudoun County at no charge to the County?”

“If not, what amount would the Volunteers request from the County in order transfer ownership of the existing station property to the County?”

Pearsall replied, “PVFD has not conducted a market analysis of the current fire house and grounds, however we estimate the property with the current annual cell tower revenue of $55K (Note: we have had offers that exceed $500K for the purchase of the  cell tower leasing rights) and the building improvements made over the last 2 years would justify a higher than normal assessment value. PVFD estimates the 2.2 acre site with its improvements and the cell tower contracts to be worth on the order of $2M to $2.5M. For planning purposes, Loudoun County should assume the price to the county to acquire the existing fire house property to be $2M.”

Meanwhile, community members are raising this question:

“Have Loudoun fire officials given project architects LeMay Erickson Willcox the opportunity to flex their creative muscles?”

This same Reston-based firm that has designed more than 125 public safety facilities, including many of the new stations in the County, is also recognized for its award-winning renovations.

LEW Portfolio image: Middleburg Firehouse renovated by LeMay Erickson Willcox

Locally, cofounder Paul R. Erickson designed Middleburg’s renovated station. According to Firehouse magazine, the existing station was “a severely undersized and outdated facility compromised with a structurally failing roof and water damage in the apparatus bays” and cramped residential wing into “a compact 16,000-square-foot design with a new two-story wing, providing space for 14 semi-private bunkrooms. With the bunkrooms on the second floor,” Firehouse explained, “the main level is dedicated to operational spaces and a shared training/community room. The apparatus bays were retained and expanded with new bay support spaces and a training mezzanine.

“The exterior character of the building,” noted Firehouse, “benefits from a simple, yet carefully considered palette of residential materials intended to blend into the neighborhood, while subtly announcing its presence as a civic building.” Total cost (in 2014 dollars): $4,306,000.

Perhaps the firm’s most ambitious and ultimately exceptional renovation is the transformation of Engine Co. 16 in Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia retained LeMay Erickson Willcox to provide a major interior renovation of this historic flagship station of approximately 25,000 square feet.

As the firm’s website explains, the work included major demolition of the interior of the fire station with a new floor plan design and new building systems, including mechanical and electrical systems. There was no increase in floor area. Work on the exterior of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was limited to widening the bay doors, window and roof replacement, and stabilization of existing masonry elements.

In addition to modernizing the facility, the design returned the 80-year-old structure to its former glory as a civic landmark. Specific features included recreating and installing the lost original copper weathervane, replacing the copper vaulted roof vents, repointing the brickwork, replacing all the windows with divided lights, and refurbishing the stately cupola.

Knowing the capabilities and creativity of this firm, which holds a master license agreement with Loudoun County, the residents of Philomont and members of the region’s conservation and preservation organizations are left wondering why the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Department and Philomont Volunteer Fire Department board did not invite the architecture firm’s principals or staff to put on their thinking caps and more fully develop renovation plans to share with the community and Supervisors.

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