Editor: Serving for 10 years as secretary to the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department in the 1980s and ’90s, I had high admiration for the dozens of volunteer firemen and the other directors of the department’s board. The fire station, its members and its supporting public represented the heart and soul of Philomont. Decades of willing contributors, fundraising dinners and events, an annual horse show, an active Ladies Auxiliary, all made the department the center of community life.
Over the years, a new horse show ground of seven acres was purchased. This, with the station itself, the engines and equipment—the assets of the department—were acquired with the contributions, sweat and wide support of the entire community. These assets now include a bank account of $1,600,000. In 1994, four bays were added, and two years ago $200,000 was spent on building improvements, bringing the station to its current service-ready capacity; its condition rated “good” and code compliant by outside consultants.
As Loudoun County began to take over operation and control of all its volunteer fire departments in the 1990s, tensions grew between Philomont’s volunteers and the county’s paid firemen. Gradually, volunteers left the department and directors resigned until today the group has devolved into seven “administrative” members. These seven elect the board of directors, of which there are five, and these five make all of the department’s financial decisions. There are no operational members.
The community is mostly in the dark as to the operation of its once proud collective institution. The more so because the circle of seven men has been refusing the applications of others to join the department. Lloyd McCliggott who served with awarded distinction for 19 years as chairman of the department’s board before its realignment, has full appreciation of the past and concern for the future of the fire station. He and others have asked to join and been denied. They can point to issues that appear more pressing than massive plant investment—the problems of access to houses on the area’s narrow driveways for the fire trucks they already have, and access to water once on the scene. The construction of more dry hydrants could help.
All emergency calls to the station—fire, ambulance, rescue and support to other stations—average less than one per day, and Philomont now has only four paid county firemen. Yet plans are underway in the Loudoun Fire and Rescue administration with the support of the closed Philomont board—no dissenting members allowed—for a $22 million fire station with a 20,000-square-foot footprint, a grand structure that could accommodate 32 paid firemen; with double-wide drive-through bays, additional engines, administrative offices, inside and outside exercise patios, a grilling patio, and other amenities.
As land for the project the Philomont’s seven administrative members have offered the community’s seven-acre horse show grounds. Whatever the legal foundation for this proffer, without wider community approval it surely lacks ethical standing. A bond issue for the $22 million project was on the ballot in the 2020 general election, turned down by all three districts in the Philomont station’s first-call area.
A consultant’s study of the new plan was completed this year, but withheld from public view for two months, then released with only two weeks for the community to digest its findings before a public meeting for comment. The meeting was held at a high school 15 miles away from Philomont. At a Board of Supervisors meeting where the plan was on the agenda, the discussion was dominated by the Loudoun fire chief’s presentation promoting the new building, along with the Philomont administrative members, and the apparent support of District Supervisor Tony Buffington, who said comment to his office runs in favor of the new station. He’s been asked to share these communications. But petitioners are asked to pay $1,000 to see them.
The planned building seems better suited to a densely populated suburban area, not the sparsely housed landscape along the narrow Rt. 734 that connects the Philomont community. It would dominate the landscape, transforming the village.
Of course, the community honors county fire officials and will listen to their reasoned explanation of requirements for men and equipment in the region, but most here believe the need can be met by a far smaller investment of county funds and without turning over the village horse show grounds to the project. A wide majority sees the proper use of these acres as much-needed parkland.
The $22 million investment begs wider public and official review.
By John Gardiner, Unison