Two years ago, Hillsborough County updated its public safety plans with a stated goal of adding two dozen fire stations by 2030 to address mounting calls for fire rescue service from a growing population.
County officials made headway over the past two months. They broke ground on the top priority in the master plan — a new fire station in central Brandon. They are scheduled to do likewise in September on a new station on Rhodine Road in Riverview, the second-highest priority.
Crossing number three off the list, a new fire station in Lake Magdalene, however, won’t be as easy. County officials have been searching for where to put it for 17 years.
The county has looked at 15 potential sites since 2004 in the area bordered by Bearss and Fletcher avenues and from North Dale Mabry Highway east to North Florida Avenue. Some of the parcels ended up being too small, contained wetlands, were too expensive, faced political opposition, didn’t pass muster with commissioners or had other shortcomings.
The county thought it had a winner in its most recent proposed location on the north side of West Bearss Avenue between Lake Magdalene and Lake Emerald boulevards. It was in a strategic location, had a willing seller and the $252,000 contract purchase price was $43,000 lower than the appraised market value for the 1.36 acres of vacant residential land.
A June 4 staff recommendation, reviewed by a half-dozen senior county officials including Fire Chief Dennis Jones and Deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel, called the proposed site for what would be the county’s 47th station “the optimal location.”
But not to the neighbors. The choice was extinguished following opposition from residents in the affluent waterfront community of Lake Magdalene.
“This will have dramatic impact on quality of life with sirens and flashing lights at any time of the day and night, in addition to potential decreased property values,” said one commentator on the county’s online public opinion survey conducted April 26 to May.12.
It was a common theme. Half of the responses from the 239 participants were negative. Only 16 percent were positive and the rest were neutral. Traffic tie-ups, noise and light pollution topped the concerns. Some suggested the county look elsewhere for commercial property.
“I think those people are being shortsighted,” answered Chris Boles, treasurer of the Hillsborough County Firefighters Local 2294.
Those who favored the location noted the quicker response times on emergency calls. Computer modeling projected the station’s location would cut 5 minutes from response times in the near vicinity and provide respite for neighboring stations that would translate to quicker times to answer emergency calls in Avila, Nowatney, Forest Hills, Carrollwood Village and Northdale.
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National Fire Protection Association guidelines call for emergency personnel to respond to a scene within six to 10 minutes depending on whether the call is to an urban, suburban or rural area. The county’s goal is to meet that national standard on 90 percent of its calls. Data from 2017 showed the county missed its response goal 45 percent of the time in urban and suburban areas and more than a third of the time in rural locations.
Longer response times come amid a larger population. In 2007, when the county already was looking for a station site in the Lake Magdalene area, the population in unincorporated Hillsborough was less than 800,000 people and annual calls for service totaled 80,000. Today, an estimated 1 million people live in the county, and fire rescue calls topped 114,000 in 2020.
In response to the criticism received in the online survey, the county noted eight stations already are in close proximity to residential neighborhoods and wireless technology allows firefighters to control traffic signals remotely, minimizing the need to blast sirens every time a firetruck or ambulance leaves the station.
Five days after the survey’s public comment period closed, property owner David R. Campbell of Tampa signed the sales contact with the county. Commissioners originally were slated to consider the purchase agreement on July 14 as part of their consent agenda, in which dozens of non-controversial items are approved in a single vote.
Commissioner Ken Hagan acknowledged he intervened when he saw the item on a draft version of the meeting agenda. He questioned whether the county administration had considered the public opposition.
“You don’t just do a survey and then, irrespective of the results, you just propose to move it forward. If there’s that much opposition, you need to take another look and see if there are any other options,” said Hagan.
That doused the county’s interest in completing the purchase. The county is no longer pursuing the property, a county spokesperson said Tuesday.
Hagan, however, said he didn’t have personal misgivings. As a child younger than 10, he and his family escaped, but lost all their possessions, when a fire destroyed their home. The planned new station would serve Hagan’s Carrollwood neighborhood..
“As far as I’m concerned you can put it next door to my house,” said Hagan. “I know the value of it.”