BELLEAIR BLUFFS – A group of residents opposed to building a new Largo fire station across from Belleair Bluff's City Hall prompted a discussion lasting nearly an hour at the City Commission’s April 14 workshop meeting. A petition signed by 112 residents was presented by the group’s spokesperson.
Lori Spence of Bluff View Drive represented the opponents. She told the commission she and others had canvassed residents living in the vicinity of the proposed station site.
“As you can see, 112 citizens, to date, think planning for the proposed fire station should not go forward,” she said.
Among the reasons cited were noise from sirens and fire station activity, unhealthy diesel fumes from the fire engines, safety concerns for children playing in the nearby playground, and declining property values stemming from the station’s presence.
Spence and others who spoke on the issue said a lack of information from the city on plans for the station was a major concern.
Spence said, “The lack of transparency on this matter is astounding.”
The residents, she said, want the commission to either “look elsewhere for an appropriate site, or fix the fire station we already have.”
Resident Jackie Hudson, a Del Rio Drive resident who helped circulate the petitions, said no one she talked to knew any details on the proposed station.
“We need more information, on the costs, impact, and other possible sites. That’s really all we are asking for,” Hudson said.
Mayor Chris Arbutine disputed the residents’ claims they lacked information.
“How many (commission) meetings have you gone to?” he asked. “This has been going on for the past two or three years.”
Spence admitted she had not been to the meetings, but said most residents cannot attend them.
Arbutine said the proposed station is still in the formative stages. “It is an idea with a lot of pros, but there are a lot of details to be worked out.”
The city has little choice but to consent to building a new fire station, he said.
“The state has mandated this to be done. It is part of the EMS contract,” he said. “We don’t have the option of saying we don’t want to do it. We are mandated to do it.”
The existing fire station property does not have the space to redo the station to meet current regulatory requirements, which Arbutine said were contained in a document “several inches thick.”
Public safety was the main concern in selecting the station site, Arbutine said. Recent cuts by the county to the EMS budget would increase the average emergency response times from 4.5 minutes to 7 minutes.
“We are trying to keep the (lower) response time, and this is the best location in Belleair Bluffs to do that,” Arbutine said.
The goal of the commission, Arbutine said, is to make sure the residents are safe. If someone has an emergency, “the four and a half minute response time matters,” he said.
Arbutine agreed the residents need to know what is going on with the fire station. He said he did not know what was happening until contacted by the county three months ago.
Construction plans for the station will be discussed with the parties involved, Largo, the county, Belleair Bluffs and Belleair, and when an agreement is reached, meetings will be held to talk about moving forward.
“Will the residents be included (in these discussions)? Absolutely,” Arbutine said.
Plans for a new fire station on the city owned property actually began seven years ago, when the City Commission paid $877,000 to purchase the residential property across from City Hall. At that time, a stated priority for acquiring the land was “to provide a site for a proposed new fire station that would replace aging Station 43 nearby on Indian Rocks Road,” according to an article in the Belleair Bee.
In June of 2012, then-Largo Fire Chief Michael Wallace told the commission that construction of the new station could begin in October of that year, with a completion date of summer 2013. A Bee article mentioned a feasibility study “that determined the Bluffs location was big enough and had the right amenities to support the proposed station.”
Those plans fell through, and the fire station issue has been on hold since.
While Arbutine assured the residents they will be a part of “open meetings” on the new station, Commissioner Jack Nazario said the city could do a better job of keeping its citizens informed. Nazario said the city’s website could provide updates and details of the latest changes and status regarding the new station. It would present “one repository of the facts,” he said.
Largo Fire Chief Shelby Willis was present at the meeting. She assured the residents that sirens would not be turned on in the middle of the night.
Commissioner Suzy Sofer suggested the existing fire station be opened up so people could see the conditions inside. That station “is a camping trip compared to the luxuries enjoyed at the Largo stations,” she said.
Nazario said redoing the existing station has been turned down by the firefighters. “It is not a place they want to be,” he said.
Following the fire station discussion, opponent Lori Spence said she doubted the comments being made by the city officials would change the opinion of many who oppose the station’s planned location.
“People are going to be disappointed if it goes that way (a decision to build on property across from City Hall). They want the old station to be considered,” Spence said.
In a later comment, Spence said the opposed residents are planning to hold another meeting to discuss their strategy. She said they are still determined to fight putting the station on the proposed site, next to residences and a playground.
Spence said she was pleased to hear city officials say they would keep the residents more updated on the fire station situation. “I was encouraged by that,” she said.