Facing criticism around plans to build a new fire station on an open field in Philomont, as well as their refusal until Wednesday night to answer questions about those plans, county fire-rescue officials have said they will study renovating the current fire station as an option.
That followed advice from Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), who called it “the next prudent step” to examine whether the current building could be renovated to a modern standard, or torn down and a new one built on the same lot.
The other option—and the only one officially on the table until Wednesday night’s community meeting at Woodgrove High School—was to build a new facility on a 7-acre parcel that until this year hosted the annual Philomont Horse Show. That property is owned by the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department, which since 1957 had hosted the horse show there as a fundraiser, but retired the show this year. The department also offered the land to the county fire-rescue department to build a new station, abandoning the current station between the Philomont General Store and Philomont Community Center.
But county planners have already expressed skepticism about staying on the current site.
“The option of the complete teardown and rebuild on the current 2.6 acres, you can tell with 2.6-acre sites opposed to a normal 5-acre site, as well as well and septic—one might jump to the conclusion that it couldn’t fit,” said Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure Deputy Director Bruce Johnston. “But we’ll go ahead and do the study.”
Prior to the meeting Wednesday, Fire-Rescue Chief Keith Johnson had declined multiple requests for information or meetings from the community, including from the Blue Ridge Leader and Loudoun Now.
“The fire department is sort of the center of gravity in our little village, and we feel quite a bit that we’ve been left out of the loop,” said Tom Lacey. “The proposal to terminate the horse show and build a structure here should have been brought out a long time ago. It’s caused a certain ill will between a lot of citizens and the fire department.”
Many of those expressing concern over the proposal were themselves formerly involved in the volunteer fire department and the Philomont Ladies’ Auxiliary that supported it.
The Snickersville Turnpike Association wrote to county supervisors asking for more community meetings, worrying that the one meeting Wednesday before a bond referendum this November is not enough. Loudouners will be asked to authorize the county to issue $21.6 million in debt, based on preliminary estimates of the cost to build a new fire station.
“We feel it is imperative that public discussions about the pros and cons of a new fire station in Philomont be extended to provide for greater citizen participation and education,” reads the letter. “To date, the process has not been transparent.”
Peter Weeks, a member of the Snickersville Turnpike Association, said if the county does not show interest in setting up more community meetings, the people of Philomont will likely set up their own and invite county officials to attend–much like what happened in Aldie where similar objections to a firehouse project ultimately prompted county leaders to find another location for the project.
Former Planning Commissioner Chairman Al Van Huyck drew comparisons to the years-long battle over a new Aldie fire station, which saw the county buy and subsequently abandon two separate sites, including the historic Aldie Tavern, under pressure from the community.
“The community fought that very hard, and the fire department tried very hard to put it there,” Van Huyck said. “My question is, what did you learn from that experience about community involvement? I heard you mention Lucketts, where you worked with the community, but it’s my understanding that our community in Philomont has not been able to have meetings, has not been able to contact you. We have a long list of emails rejecting meetings.”
Johnson said those meetings were not possible during the COVID-19 pandemic until the state entered Phase 3 of the governor’s Forward Virginia plan to reopen Virginia and allow gatherings—which it did on July 1. He also said the meeting Wednesday happened earlier in the planning process for the station than similar meetings in Aldie.
“Personally, I think that we’re ahead of the game here,” Johnson said.
A handful of Philomont villagers defended the plans to build a new station on the horse show grounds, including current and former volunteers.
“Every time we renovate or make changes, we do that at the expense of some other portion of the station,” said Philomont Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Peter West. “We simply do not have enough room to accommodate all of the functions that we need to achieve in this building.”
According to both volunteer and county fire officials, the current station is too small to accommodate modern, larger fire engines and trucks, lacks a fire protection system, and has inadequate sleeping, shower, exercise, and administrative spaces for 24-hour staffing. It also lacks decontamination areas to prevent firefighters from being exposed to toxins and carcinogens when returning from calls.
Construction is tentatively planned to begin in 2025.
“The only thing that we’re not open to is doing nothing, because the first responders who live in that building deserve a better building,” Buffington said.