Twenty-year-old question lingers |

Twenty-year-old question lingers

Geraldine Haldner

There has been talk of a new fire station in Vail for more than 20 years. So far, however, little progress has been made on plans or funding.

“When I got off (the council) in 1985, we were moving ahead with condemnation of the Hud Wirth site,” Vail Town councilman Rod Slifer told his colleagues Tuesday.

A special meeting had been prompted by Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin, who recommended allocating $250,000 for an additional six firefighters – the human equivalent of a third fire company.

Vail maintains its own fire department and has two fire stations – the main facility on Vail Road in the heart of Vail Village, and a smaller branch on Columbine Drive in East Vail. All in all, the fire department employs 16 firefighters.

Studies done in 1974, 1990 and 1997 all found response times to West Vail were longer than in other areas of Vail and that a new fire station in West Vail would improve overall fire service both in and out of town – with a double backup.

“When you have two calls for service at the same time, you have deployed all your forces,” McLaurin told the council. “I am less concerned about the location of a fire station than the number of firefighters we have.”

In fact, McLaurin said, the Main Vail station – after three decades of use and additions – is nearing the end of its useful life.

“It’ll work for some time longer,” he said, adding that the period of time depends on “what breaks next”

If it’s the boiler, he said, the fix will be a tough one.

“I would hate to put a $25,000 Band-Aid on a building that is falling down,” he said.

The last time the the council considered a third fire station was last fall, when town staff members were preparing the budget. Council members agreed to keep the additional station alive as a second-tier priority item – but delayed funding it with up to $4 million to 2003.

The previous councils had a history of delays on the matter, too, having moved it to 2001 in 2000 and to 2000 in 1999.

One reason for the council’s indecision may soon be a barrier of the past. Local businessman Hud Wirth recently agreed to consider selling a 3.6-acre coveted parcel of vacant land just west of the West Vail Lodge to the town for $2.6 million. If the sale goes through in August, the parcel could become home to a fire station – after other parcels in West Vail have been considered and dismissed for years.

Council members said Tuesday they aren’t ignoring the need for a fire station, but it isn’t clear if West Vail is the logical place for it to be.

“We are scrutinizing it better than anybody has before us, and more than likely we will have it addressed by the time we are out of office,” says Chuck Ogilby, who has served on the Vail Council since 1999 and whose term is up in November of 2003.

Ogilby and councilwoman Diana Donovan, who was re-elected in November to a four-year-term, both point out that the council is moving ahead with the purchase of the Hud Wirth site – even though they stop short of committing the land to a third fire station.

“I think it would be a huge mistake to measure fire service to West Vail by whether or not there is a fire station there,” says Donovan, who believes there are opportunities to move the Main Vail Station west, like the Municipal Town Center site, taking care of two logistical problems at the same time.

“It is a very expensive project,” Donovan said, adding that the town will have to do its homework and find the most cost-efficient solution to bringing the town’s fire infrastructure up to date.

Slifer, who has watched the fire station question linger, told his colleagues a mill levy question for more firefighters may be an easy sell to taxpayers after a season of extreme fire danger.

“I feel, politically, the timing is perfect to address the need for more fire protection. I personally think we need a station and we should have it in West Vail,” Slifer said.

A new station in West Vail would relieve pressure on the main station, Slifer said, and give the town time to consider the future of the aging firehouse.

Donovan, however, said building one station only to have to rebuild the next one is bad financial planning.

“If we put one in West Vail, we’ll have to rebuild the main station, too,” she said, adding that having a state-of-the-art fire station near Vail’s two commercial cores is more important than having one in an outlying neighborhood.

“In West Vail we’ll lose a home; in the village we’ll lose a village,” she said of the year-round fire hazards posed by the density of buildings in the village and high-rise hotels in Lionshead.

Vail’s fire department, on average, responds to about 2,000 calls per year, including false alarms. In 2001, the last time the council considered call volumes, East Vail led with 94 actual calls for service, most of them for car accidents and rescues on Vail Pass. West Vail follows with 25 actual fires or car crashes; Vail itself generated 17 calls for help.

“I realize it is an equity issue,” Ogilby said of the fact East Vail has its own small fire station and Lionshead and Vail Village are within a mile of the Main Vail Fire Station. “I see why some people say why shouldn’t West Vail have the same.”

A community survey conducted over the weekend to test Vail taxpayers’ willingness to pay higher taxes indicates close to 70 percent of Vail residents would support higher taxes to fund more firefighters and construct a new fire station.

The council agreed to consider the funding of a third fire company – and the station they would call home away from home – before mid-August, in time to place a tax question on the November ballot.

Ogilby, meanwhile, encouraged his colleagues to consider packaging funding for a new fire station and more firefighters into a “Vail Renaissance” tax question that would address other needs in town, too, such as streetscape projects, new parks and a conference center.

– Geraldine Haldner

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