OCEAN PINES – Discussions on a proposed South Station renovation, and the funding needed to make the project a reality, highlighted a town hall meeting last week.
Last Thursday, the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department (OPVFD) hosted a town hall meeting to discuss proposed renovations to the South Station.
As officials look to bring the decades-old facility into compliance with standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, Americans with Disabilities Act and local building codes, they told community members last week they are proposing an extensive renovation that calls for a demolition of its living and administrative quarters and the addition of a two-story building, as well as a new bay.
“This is not the Taj Mahal,” said OPVFD President Dave VanGasbeck. “We’ve worked very hard to get this down to what we believe to be the bare minimum that complies with all the requirements at this given point in time.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan submitted a supplemental budget that included $1.35 million for renovations to the South Station. And in the weeks that followed, the department learned it would receive an additional $250,000 in state bond funding.
“I want you to know that $1.6 million that we are getting from the state of Maryland was the result of the hard work of Wayne Hartman, our delegate, and Mary Beth Carozza, our senator,” VanGasbeck told community members last week. “We had nothing to do with it other than filling out a couple of forms.”
Officials noted the renovation project is estimated to cost $8.6 million and that the fire department would contribute $1 million in reserve funding. The department is also seeking the community’s support to fund the remaining $6 million, which will be mortgaged over a period of 30 years.
“The next step would be for the board to approve a referendum to begin that process …,” VanGasbeck said. “Our wish, our hope, if we do get approval from the community for the funding, is we would go forward with the mortgage process and begin in the second quarter of fiscal year 2023.”
Preparations for a renovation project at the South Station began last year, when the department contracted with Manns Woodward Studios to complete a feasibility study. Of the options presented to the department, officials opted for an extensive renovation. In addition to settling concrete in the administrative portion of the building, the department has also reported accessibility issues and the lack of adequate living and decontamination space.
“No major renovations have happened on this building in 35 years,” said Gary Campbell, principal at Manns Woodward Studios. “Fire stations back in the 80s were designed to be a 20- or 30-year building. We are at the 40-year life of this building now, and we are seeing the effects of that over time.”
The proposed design, presented to community members last week, includes a three-bay renovation, and the addition of a single bay and new administrative and living quarters. The facility would also feature a community room and training space, as well as a new decontamination area and gear room.
“This building should be durable and designed to last 50 years,” Campbell said.
But before the department can move into the design phase, officials say they are seeking the board’s support to hold a referendum. If approved, association members would see an assessment increase of $42 a year, or about $3.50 a month.
“I don’t want everyone to look at this as a cost,” said Fire Chief Steve Grunewald. “I want you to look at this as an investment into the future of Ocean Pines.”
In attendance for last week’s town hall meeting, Hartman said he and Carozza began the work to secure state funding last year, after seeing the need for improvements at the station. He noted the department has three years to utilize the money.
“The need was there,” he said. “We fought the good fight and were successful.”
During public comments, General Manager John Viola said he had received several questions from association members regarding the proposed project. He asked if the department was utilizing its North Station building.
“That building is an operational, active fire house …,” VanGasbeck replied, noting that many volunteer stations remained empty until an alarm sounded.
Grunewald added that the North Station was not used as the department’s main station because it increased response times. From the South Station, he noted, the department has a response time of six minutes.
“From the North Station to the Point is 12 minutes …,” he said. “Additionally, if we were to close that station, our [Insurance Services Office] ratings go up, which means your homeowners insurance will go up more than $42 a year … It is used on a daily basis.”
Viola also questioned how a new South Station facility would impact recruitment and retention.
“We see fire station design as a huge tool for recruitment and retention …,” Campbell replied. “It is something we see every time a renovation is done. Recruitment increases … You want to create a space where people want to be.”
Ocean Pines Association (OPA) Director Amy Peck asked how the department would operate as renovations are completed.
“Where is the fire department going to operate while all of this is happening?” she said. “Are you going to move to the north building, and if that is the case how does that affect our ISO rating?”
Grunewald noted that the department would potentially start with renovations to the engine bay. And as the living and administrative quarters are rebuilt, staff would move to a trailer.
“The response time is important …,” he said. “Everything will still operate out of here with fire and EMS.”
Peck also asked if the department had considered a capital campaign, or additional grant funding.
“We talked to the general manager and the result of that discussion was to wait until after this presentation to the community,” VanGasbeck replied.
Department personnel last week also took questions from community members in attendance.
Resident George Solyak asked if the association had considered collecting impact fees from nearby development projects. VanGasbeck said the department had suggested the association approach the Worcester County Commissioners.
“We have begun those discussions with the OPA board …,” he replied. “That is on the table.”
Resident Jack Collins questioned if the department had any alternative approach if the referendum did not pass.
“We have no plan B at this point in time,” VanGasbeck said.
Resident Joe Reynolds questioned if a referendum was even needed.
“OPA does not own the structure or the property …,” he said. “I don’t see any need to have a referendum by the board of directors because the agreement between the board and the fire department could cover this easily by OPA covering the mortgage costs each year as part of what OPA provides to the fire department under our current agreement.”
Association President Colette Horn said the board and the fire department would need to discuss the terms of the arrangement.
“Going forward, whatever role we play in funding this, it will be within the limits and scope of our governing documents,” she said.
One resident questioned why the department had not proposed other alternatives.
“I can’t understand why this is all or nothing …,” he said. “What if the board says no to this, what happens?”
Officials argued the department had looked at other options but decided the proposed project was the best use of association dollars. VanGasbeck pointed out the feasibility study highlighted some of the alternatives that were considered.
“We have not padded this,” he said. “What we’ve done is gathered the minimum requirements and put them into option three.”
Horn said those questions were something the department should consider when seeking the community’s support.
“If it goes to a referendum, the decision is going to be in the hands of the membership,” she said. “And I would encourage fire department leadership to be aware these are valid questions being asked. You are going to have to sell this to the community and answer questions as to why other alternatives are not feasible.”
At the conclusion of last week’s meeting, Director Josette Wheatley and her husband presented the department with a $1,000 donation raised by the community to be used in the renovation of the South Station. The department also encouraged association members to visit the OPVFD website to learn more about the project.
“I think this process is important,” VanGasbeck said. “You need to know that we want to be transparent in what we do and how we do it.”