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Danville officials explain process for selecting new fire station location

A property owner whose land was on a list of properties the City of Danville says it considered for the location of its new central fire station has questioned the process the city used to pick a location. Officials say the selection process was complex and thorough, designed to select a property that would meet a wide variety of requirements so that firefighters can respond well throughout the new station’s coverage area.

The city commission voted Sept. 10 to purchase the properties just next door, to the left of city hall, at 451 and 461 W. Main St. — Dexter Real Estate-Insurance and Off Broadway Terrace apartments — for $1.15 million.

The properties are partly owned by the Dexter family, including City Attorney Steven Dexter. Commission members have stated several times that Dexter has not been involved in the property acquisition; the city retained independent counsel for the matter. Commission members and city staff said 14 different properties were considered and researched to determine whether they could feasibly serve as the location for the new fire station.

Joe Morley, who runs Morley’s Wheel Service at 234 E. Walnut St., made a trip to city hall and filed an open records request to see the rest of the properties. Morley says he was confused about how his property was on the list, because no one contacted him or “stepped foot” on his land. He also said to be fair, he wanted it fully disclosed that the mayor is “a dear friend” of his.

“It’s flat, it goes from street-to-street, I had it all zoned highway commercial last year,” Morley said of his land. The land is a full acre and is “right behind the post office and has frontage on two relatively quiet streets — way quieter than Main Street,” he said.

If the city had approached him, Morley said he would have sold his property for $400,000.

“After paying $1 million for the new fire truck, they got a site with two properties that must be torn down, must be graded, and I’m not sure they can get out of the backside with a fire truck. The mayor told me they can turn it around and come out on Main, but you’re still coming out on a four-lane highway, in a busy part of town — right across from Speedway where there’s always a lot of traffic,” he said.

City officials say fire trucks will be able to pull through the station and never have to back in; and while some of the other properties initially considered may have had lower price tags, other costs required to appropriately develop them would have been much higher.

Mayor Perros, City Manager Ron Scott and City Engineer Earl Coffey sat down earlier this week to discuss how the city chose and analyzed the properties. Perros said there’s a lot that went into the decision that he knew nothing about when it started.

“Both Earl and the Fire Chief (Ken Pflug) did a great job of educating me and the rest of the commission on perspectives that involves the fire department and city management. That really helped me to think in several different dimensions, other than ‘pick a spot and go,’” Perros said.

Coffey said although the search began in earnest about a year ago, it stemmed from a facilities plan created in the early 2000s. As the process began, the city looked into severe structural problems of the existing central station on Main Street.

“An assessment was made, both for the size of the fire department, the needs, the service area out of the station … Many things were considered,” Coffey said. The architect concluded the structure “as it sits can’t meet our needs today or in the future. It needs a significant amount of work, and would be just as cost-effective to demolish the whole building and start from the ground up,” Coffey said.

As this analysis was concluded, a rough, square-footage footprint of “as small of a structure that would meet the fire department’s needs” was created. Coffey said it was overlaid onto the existing site, which showed it wouldn’t fit. So, the city began to review properties that were vacant and maybe on the market. It was looking for land that would allow the fire department to meet ISO response time requirements throughout the city.

“We looked at the corner property, owned by US Bank, too,” Coffey said. “We looked at where growth was occuring in the town. Ultimately, our population has changed, our demand for fire and emergency services is going up.”

They evaluated the potential locations for how well they would work in a crisis, such as when a railroad incident closed down half the town years ago, he said.

“So there’s transportation defects we have — how do we strategically locate emergency services around these features,” Coffey said. For example, he said most don’t realize that Clark’s Run is a physical barrier to transportation for emergency services, with only one bridge over it, to the south of downtown, “which is why downtown traffic can be restricted at times.”

Coffey said city staff evaluated uniformity of response time and began comparing “a handful of sites” for what response circles would look like and how well they would complement the coverage area for the other fire station on the south side of the bypass.

Those properties were brought to City Manager Scott “from time to time, and we’d talk about them. I forget at which point we were made aware the property next door may have been available, someone had seen an ad for it,”  Coffee said.

Scott said Fire Chief Ken Pflug also made points about the ISO grading schedule — a fire-response rating given to a community, which can play a role in lowering home insurance rates.

“So, if we had chosen to locate outside of that requirement for response time, our fire service would have suffered, property ownership insurance would have suffered, and obviously our service to our residents would have been less effective as well,” Scott said.

All properties seriously considered were reviewed by an independent appraiser, Scott said.

“We actually had started the process with the property next door (Dexter properties), and we got that appraisal, and we felt we might be able to find other property which was more cost-effective, initially. We had more than one property appraised, in trying to do that. I think we had three total properties appraised,” he said.

City officials said owners were not necessarily contacted if their properties were being considered. “It would not have been useful or productive for us to engage in conversations with owners of 14 or more properties,” Scott said.

“We can speculate on cost of the property, site development costs and layout, service area and access restrictions without engaging the property owner … Us confirming that for a property owner does not benefit the process, necessarily,” Coffey said.

“And I think that’s the answer for Joe (Morley),” Perros said.

“I will say we made two different offers … on two different parcels, based upon appraised values,” Scott said. As a city, he said they do not deviate widely from the appraised value when attempting to acquire property.

“And that’s where you get into comments we made particularly about a motivated seller. Someone that is motivated to liquidate their property is more likely to take something at or below an appraised value,” Coffey said.

Scott said some of the properties considered had many additional improvement costs needed due to contours of the land or being in a flood plain, for example.

“One of the properties, we felt like we’d have to build the majority of a street … So that goes above and beyond site development cost,” Coffey said. After analysis, Coffey said he and Scott came to the conclusion that “despite what we initially thought was a significant cost of the property next door, we felt like that was really the best opportunity.”

“Then when you consider the upside of owning that property immediately next to the emergency services and the police — there’s already been some planning meetings we’ve held with the fire chief and police chief (and) we are certain there’s going to be advantages for the police in the adjacency already,” Coffey said. “So it’s already proven to be a good decision in one sense. It’s aiding of the departments already before you even do anything.”

Scott said next to city hall is a safer location for the fire department and its personnel because they will now be able to drive in and out of the station onto Main Street. Right now, fire trucks have to block traffic on Main Street while they back in to the existing station.

“It will be designed so that they never have to back in, unless it’s a decision they make,” Coffey said.

Scott said with regard to the perception of a potential conflict of interest with City Attorney Dexter and the other owners of the property, “I think the staff, myself, the city commission, the  mayor — we were all keenly sensitive of that potential conflict early on in our initial first passing of consideration of that. We took steps to ensure there was no conflict because the city attorney wasn’t involved in any aspect of that.”

Perros said, “Not involving him in the process also means he was not involved in any deliberation — no discussions. When we went into executive session on this matter, he was not present.”

“Over any property on the list,” Coffey added. “He wasn’t involved in any conversations on any of the properties.”

Scott said many have asked what will happen to the old fire station: “It’s a discussion that the commission has had from time to time about returning it to the private sector for some sort of development, by creating a TIF district.”

TIF stands for tax increment financing. It’s an economic development tool used by public agencies, usually in partnership with a private business, to finance infrastructure improvements by earmarking future property tax revenues resulting from increased property values.

If the city could find a private partner to develop the old fire station land, that “would put that property back on the tax rolls,” Perros said.

Coffey said not only would it be back on the tax rolls, but it would be worth more. “So the net tax revenue, theoretically, should go up, if you manage that wisely. Although, not necessarily huge amounts — but it would not necessarily go down.”

(Danville Board of Education member Steve Becker recently noted publicly that when Danville purchases the properties it plans to use for the fire station, it will take those properties off the tax rolls, reducing the school district’s tax revenues by an estimated $8,800.)

Scott said in regard to the number of tenants in Off Broadway Terrace apartments, he has been told by the owner the residents have been notified to vacate after their 30-day rental period, as they lease month-to-month.

Some tenants in the apartments contacted The Advocate-Messenger earlier this month to take issue with a statement from Scott that the apartments have only one or two tenants. There are really nine or 10, they said.

“When I said one or two tenants previously, I based that upon information shared with me by the owner of the property,” Scott explained. “I think he used the term, ‘a very few current renters.’ Maybe I was overly specific.”

SO YOU KNOW

Properties the City of Danville says it considered for construction of a new downtown central fire station include the following descriptions, as based on the city’s provided list:

• Existing fire station

• Former Boyle Lumber (owned by Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center)

• Former post office location

• KSD property

• Site A (Stanford Road)

• Site B (East Walnut)

• Site C (Farris Court)

• Site D (Old Perryville Road)

• Site E (461 W. Main St.)

• Site F (480 W. Main St.)

• Site G (East Lexington)

• Site H (1085-1485 E. Lexington St.)

• Old South End Station (former 911 building on Hustonville Road)

• Danville Public Works Facility