Putting out fires
As fire district tries to find new home, challenges arise with sites

Putting out fires

Durango Fire Protection District's station on Camino del Rio is out of date and cramped, there's no doubt about that. But for years, finding a permanent location has been a wild goose chase for properties around town./ Photo by Jonathan Romeo

Jonathan Romeo - 10/28/2021

In what could be one of the most monumental changes to Durango in years, plans are in motion to establish a massive, new emergency services center in the middle of downtown.

For years, the Durango Fire Protection District (DFPD) has searched for a permanent location to serve the downtown area, with its current facilities near the Powerhouse Science Center out of date and in disrepair. The property itself is owned by the City of Durango, which may have its own plans for future development at that location.

Over the summer, in a sudden and shocking move, DFPD announced plans to purchase the 9-R Administration Building on E. 12th Street, next to Buckley Park, for its new headquarters. Soon after, the fire district floated a lofty vision of inviting the Durango Police Department (also in search of a new location) to create a new facility that would be a cornerstone of downtown, where the majority of the district’s 2,000 calls a year take place.

Those plans, however, have not been without detractors who say relocating to the 9-R building would be a disaster, pointing to the already congested traffic in the tight area that would increase response times to emergencies. And, opponents of the plan say, the new center would have a disastrous effect on Buckley Park, the only green space downtown that hosts festivals throughout the year.

Over the past couple weeks, these tensions have surfaced at City Council meetings from members of the public who say the logical choice is to rebuild a new fire station at its current location near River City Hall. And, from the onset, there’s been a great deal of confusion from the public and even city councilors on the basic facts of DFPD’s proposed plan.

In a joint meeting between DFPD and the City of Durango last week, Chief Hal Doughty attempted to clear the air, but opponents are still fighting the project.

“9-R is our site,” said Doughty, who became chief in 2015. “Sure there’s challenges, but there’s challenges at every site we look at.”

‘What do we do now?’

The organization now known as Durango Fire Protection District moved into the River City Hall location in 1983, which at the time was seen as a temporary fix while a more permanent spot was secured. (A conglomerate of fire districts came together in 2002, forming DFPD as a separate entity from the City). But, once the fire department was settled in, the effort to relocate lost momentum.

“Looking back now, it would have been wiser to have that rise up on the list of things we needed to do,” Bob Ledger, who retired in 2017 after 24 years as city manager, said. “But it didn’t take on a life of its own in those days like it has now.”

Over the years, major issues have surfaced at River City Hall. For one, the fire station itself doesn’t meet fire codes. Recently, water started leaking through the roof and into the building. And whereas the fire department used to have three to five people on duty, usually all men, the station is now staffed with a minimum of eight people, both men and women, with the bunkrooms too small to house everyone safely.

“There’s more room in a cell at the La Plata County Jail,” Doughty said. “It is absolutely jam packed.”

About five years ago, Doughty picked up the effort to find a permanent fire station, evaluating 32 sites around town – some City owned, some private. The two biggest obstacles, Doughty said, were finding sites big enough to house all the department’s needs, as well as properties actually for sale.

The most viable site that emerged was on the corner of Camino del Rio and College Drive, which now serves as the parking lot for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and is City-owned. DFPD invested $40,000 to conduct evaluations and analyses of the site, but the plan was derailed when the idea of a convention center took priority.

“Which was incredibly disappointing,” Doughty said.

Doughty then scheduled a meeting with then-City Manager Ron LeBlanc. The two started formulating plans to make DFPD’s current location at River City Hall work, which included relocating city staff. Despite all the challenges, Doughty said the plan started to grow legs.

But then, in April 2019, two new city councilors were elected – Kim Baxter and Barbara Noseworthy. Five months later, after differences with LeBlanc, City Council abruptly terminated his contract in September 2019, and plans for the fire station fell by the wayside. “It just became clearer and clearer that the favor of the council was that River City Hall should not be a fire station,” Doughy said.

Who said what?

Here’s where the confusion sets in.

Baxter and Noseworthy, for their part, are adamant they did not oppose any plans to keep DFPD at River City Hall, arguing they were never even given a complete and full rundown of the situation. But Doughty maintains it was his sense the City had other plans for the river-front property, whether as the site of the Camino underpass or future high-end development.

And it’s not like River City Hall is not without its own complications. For one, the site is located in the 100-year flood plain, making grant funding more difficult to secure. Above all, old uranium tailings were used to build the roads in that area decades ago, which could make new construction there incredibly expensive, carrying huge unknowns. (It should be noted the 9-R building has a big asbestos and lead paint problem, too). But to date, there has been no real study on how to mitigate the uranium tailings or the risk it poses to human health.

“That’s missing,” Noseworthy said at a council meeting last week. “And it would be needed for any work on that property.”

Then, the situation drastically changed when Durango School District 9-R put out to bid this summer its historic administration building at 201 E. 12th St. DFPD, learning of the sale about a week before bidding closed, quickly put together a proposal with the help of an engineer. Doughty admits the process happened fast, with virtually no public knowledge, which has rubbed some people the wrong way.

“We decided it was upon us as a fire district to take matters in our own hands,” Doughty said last week. “I felt like I was sneaking around trying to spend taxpayer dollars in secret, but I was in a competitive process, and felt like there was a need for confidentiality. So we kept it quiet until 9-R announced the successful bidder.”

In June, after reviewing four different proposals (including one by the Shaws, developers of the adjacent Smiley Building, for a mixed-use development with affordable housing for teachers), 9-R announced it would sell to the fire district for $5 million in cash and nearly $2 million of in-kind services. This plan includes an already in-motion plan with 9-R to sell Buckley Park to the City.

A train wreck coming?

One of the main criticisms, however, is that DFPD has committed to move without first conducting traffic studies and evaluations on emergency response times for operations out of the 9-R building. Whereas River City Hall is located along an arterial road, Camino del Rio, the 9-R property is nestled among side streets and congested travel areas, leading some to believe it will take longer for emergency crews to respond.

Doughty has taken a hard stance that he will not conduct studies until the property sale is final, citing the past experience with the D&SNG parking lot, when the district spent $40,000 on studies and ultimately was shot down. “I would love to have every single question in the bag before we close on the property,” he said. “But my (board of directors) is not inclined to spend a bunch of money… to develop plans for a station that may not happen.”

Even still, Doughty said he’s not worried that response times will be drastically impacted. Initial plans call for fire trucks to leave out of the front of the building onto 12th Street, a tight road with diagonal parking on both sides. To head south, trucks would presumably have to go down E. Second Avenue or head west down 12th Avenue and make a left onto Camino del Rio. 

Doughty has promised neighbors he would not use Third Avenue as a route. This means vehicles would have to go west on 12th, then turn right to head north on Main to access emergencies north of town.

To get back to the station, trucks would have to access a back bay on 13th Street, amid the bustling traffic of the Smiley Building. This would also require fire trucks to travel up two steep roads: E. Second Avenue or 13th Street.

But members of the public aren’t convinced this will work.

“This is a potential train wreck coming with emergency services in the wrong location,” Ted Wright, a Durango resident, said at a city meeting recently. “It’s very puzzling to all of us.” 

While it seems the traffic situation holds endless scenarios, Doughty maintains things are workable and in fact, this is an opportunity to fix existing traffic issues. “Traffic is the most critical factor, we know it’s already a known problem,” he said. “But in our minds, we have a good plan.” When asked last week by the City Council if the district was still interested in River City Hall, Doughty doubled-down on the 9-R location. 

One question continually raised is: What if DFPD purchases the property, only to conduct a site analysis and find the issues can’t be fixed? Doughty, for his part, said it would be a “travesty,” but worst case, the property would still be a highly sought-after piece of real estate for resale.

A lot of “what ifs”

As far as next steps, DFPD can’t finalize the sale until the City approves the subdivision of the 9-R building property (3.3 acres) and Buckley Park (1.5 acres), which is expected to happen Nov. 2. Then the most intensive planning of the fire station can begin, Doughty said.

One major part of the equation is involving the Durango Police Department, although the City maintains nothing is official and it’s still evaluating the feasibility of this plan. The full build-out for the center would be around $14-$17 million, and Doughy is confident the fire district can fund the project even without the police department, though it would be a major “blow to the program.” All the moves and money involved would mostly come from taxpayers.

And, of course, a lot of “what ifs” remain. Will parts of Buckley Park be lost to accommodate the new fire truck traffic? How will events like San Juan Brewfest shut down Main Avenue along 12th Street if emergency traffic needs that route? And what about the trees and sledding area?

??“The fire district seems to think … the fire chief’s opinion is enough planning,” Holly Johnson, a Durango resident, said at a City meeting. “We should be holding them accountable for an accepted methodology on planning a fire station.”

Robin Wiles, who owns property near the proposed project, said the public has not been well informed on the ramifications.

“This is creating an all-emergency service center in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” she said. “Something this consequential requires serious consideration, and the public deserves to be heard.”

Acknowledging the confusion, the City and DFPD vowed last week to be more transparent. “I think the communication and openness hasn’t been the best,” said Baxter. “There’s a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding out there.”

Everyone agrees finding DFPD a permanent location is a necessity for the safety of the community. But for years, the district has been strung along or problems have nixed any potential relocations. The problem has only gotten worse as real estate in Durango becomes ever harder to come by. In a pinch, it appears Doughty saw an opportunity with the 9-R building and now is committed to making it work. And while issues have taken forefront, Doughty said the positives of relocating and the benefits to the community have been lost.

“I’ve got this vision of something that can be really great for our community,” Doughty said. “We get that people are concerned. We will never please everybody, but we do have to serve everybody.” ?

Putting out fires

DFPD Capt. Nate Baier says the bunkroom situation at the station on Camino del Rio makes it tough for crews who spend overnight shifts./ Photo by Jonathan Romeo