West Lebanon fire station meets familiar resistance with new proposed location on Main Street


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-28-2023 6:15 PM

WEST LEBANON — The city’s latest proposed site for a new fire station — just about 1,000 feet from the existing building — is already receiving objections from nearby residents and business owners.

With the city’s pending purchase of three connected properties on Main Street in West Lebanon, the City Council will face a “once in a lifetime” decision for how to best utilize the parcels, councilors said.

The council has authorized a $1.8 million appropriation to fund the purchase of the properties, which total about 1 acre and sit in the center of the Main Street corridor the city hopes to revitalize. Officials also are considering a roughly $4 million project to redesign Main Street, which will include a roundabout to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety as well aesthetic improvements.

At a public hearing on March 15, attendees generally expressed enthusiasm about the city’s acquisition of the land, which they said could help create a more vibrant downtown district in West Lebanon. But community members were less favorable to the suggestion the property be used for a new West Lebanon firehouse.

“It doesn’t seem to align with the beautification plan to draw cafes, small businesses and growth to Main Street,” said Tanya Murphy, who runs a furniture store at 14 Main St., one of the properties being acquired.

“I think (a fire station) is a big waste of the downtown Main Street of West Lebanon,” said resident Nancy Gregory, who said the corridor “could be a really cool place to be” if developed to encourage more community engagement and shopping.

City Manager Shaun Mulholland, who proposed this property acquisition in hopes of relocating the West Lebanon fire station, characterized the community’s criticism as dismaying and surprising.

“I’ve never seen such opposition from people to a fire station in their neighborhood as I’ve seen (during my time) here,” Mulholland told the Valley News in an interview.

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In recent years city officials have tried without success to find a location to build new fire stations to replace their both existing facilities, which are outmoded and too small for modern-day operating needs.

A 2019 study of Lebanon’s public safety buildings conducted by Manchester-based Lavallee Brensinger Architects found that both city fire stations — including the downtown Lebanon station on Park Street — are not Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible, lack space to store and maintain firefighting equipment, and are inadequate to protect the health and safety of personnel.

“One of the leading causes of occupational death and injury to firefighters is cancer,” Lebanon Fire Chief James Wheatley told the Valley News. “Which is due to many factors but (especially) the contaminants that we are exposed to.”

Many carcinogenic contaminants are unintentionally carried into the firehouse by personnel on their bodies, clothing and equipment when returning from a fire call, Wheatley explained. Over time, industry experts have found, these toxic particles are dispersed throughout the station, including in the living quarters.

Modern fire stations, Wheatley said, typically have “isolated corridors” where personnel can decontaminate their equipment as well as themselves, “so that we don’t take those toxins into the areas where we do our everyday living, eating, sleeping and other work.”

The West Lebanon Fire Station is located on Main Street just one block north of the new city-acquired parcels. The station sits on a less-than-a-quarter-acre lot that is too small for an expansion, according to the study.

A larger West Lebanon facility will allow the department to accommodate more equipment, vehicles and personnel, according to Wheatley.

“Our city is pretty rapidly growing and our call volume is growing, so we are going to need to add additional equipment and staffing to that station,” he said. “We probably need to expand that station to add at least another ambulance and probably two to three personnel in the future as well.”

While community members at the March 15 meeting recognized the need for fire station improvements, they contended that a fire station would not spur further economic development.

“There will always be possibilities to find a location for a fire station,” said Chris Lynn, a business owner on Main Street. “But to own a piece of property that could have such a potential impact on the neighbors and a direct impact on the citizens and business owners who pay taxes is vital in this case.”

The search for a new location for a fire station has not yielded many possibilities, according to city officials.

“We have already tried other locations and every time we find a location (we hear) ‘Not here, not in my backyard, over there someplace,’ ” Mulholland said.

Other properties examined by the city were either too small, on land with environmental restrictions or were not “accessible” enough locations, according to Mulholland.

Wheatley explained that “accessibility” generally refers to the fire station’s proximity to the homes and properties in its service area, which factors into personnel’s response time to medical or fire emergencies.

“We try to have a fire engine with four personnel on scene (of a fire) within four minutes or less to meet national standards, because every 30 seconds fire doubles in size,” Wheatley said. “So keeping that station on Main Street where it is keeps us in the center of where all our call volume takes place for that side of town and gives us our best opportunity for those response times.”

Moving the station elsewhere, Wheatley said, could increase the response time for medical emergencies, which constitute 80% of fire station responses.

The city pursued a property on Miracle Mile, occupied by Liberty Utilities, which Wheatley said would have been a viable option. But Liberty decided to stay at the location.

In 2021 the city proposed building the fire station at 38 Maple St., a 2-acre former church property in a mostly residential neighborhood a few blocks from the existing station. But residents strongly opposed the location, expressing concerns about noise and traffic. The City Council later voted unanimously against acquiring the land.

“Ultimately it will be the council’s decision,” Mulholland said of the latest proposal. “But I’m sticking to my recommendation.”

Even if the City Council approves the new property’s use for a fire station, Mulholland said, it would be “several years” before the city would build one. The city’s first priority is to expand the central station on Park Street, Mulholland explained.

Unlike West Lebanon, the Park Street property is large enough to accommodate an expansion. But the most efficient and effective method will be to entirely demolish the facility and build anew.

“That’s actually where we are heading with this,” Wheatley said. “We’re working with some local partners right now to temporarily relocate. It would include moving our personnel and our apparatus to a temporary location in this district where it wouldn’t affect response times.”

Wheatley said they are currently working on a plan to present to the City Council, which will include the implementation of a temporary relocation, a new facility design and the demolition and reconstruction logistics.

“Things are moving quickly,” Wheatley said.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.