November 07, 2012 - Orion Township residents may be in line for a new fire station.
Estimated to cost less than $1.5 million, the new fire station will replace Fire Station #2 on Silverbell Road.
This development came about when Orion Township Fire Chief Robert Smith requested renovations or an expansion to the current building.
"I didn't go into this looking to buy a new station. I looked at trying to expand the one I have and put the money into it, but we're land locked," Smith said. "The problem I've got is [Station #2] needs a lot of renovation to it. The windows are in bad shape. I've got two heaters that are not functioning, [and] the building needs to have a fire suppression system put into it."
Smith also said Station #2 lacks sleeping quarters.
"Somehow, I need to come up with a room or something so these guys have someplace to go sleep." As if that weren't enough, Station #2 "doesn't even have a female locker room or anything in it [like] the other stations do now. We have females in the department, [and] we have to accommodate them as well as anybody else," Smith insisted.
Even if these renovations could be made, "it's still a station that's too small because of the equipment that's in there," Smith added.
There are three major housing developments negotiated to go in there in the next couple of years. It appears the station has outgrown the needs it was first built to serve.
Smith made these concerns known to Orion Township Supervisor JoAnn Van Tassel who devised a land swap plan with developer AVB.
"The [swap] came about because I wanted to expand the station, but the developer came up with another [idea] that the supervisor devised," said Smith.
The property in question "is divided into four unequally sized parcels," Van Tassel explained.
"One parcel will be used to build [a residential development of 162 units.] Another part of it, the part that goes out to M-24 will be used by Palazzo di Bocce to expand their parking.
The third parcel along Bald Mountain Road is the area that is proposed to be donated for a passive park, (e.g. nature trails). There is a fourth piece immediately south of the residential area that is proposed to be swapped to the township for the fire hall. The value is that it provides more parking area and buffer to any residential area to the east or north," Van Tassel said.
In exchange for the proposed Fire Station 3 and the land upon which it sits, AVB Properties LLC agreed to let the township have the first two years rent free, with years three and four to cost $75,000 and $85,000 respectively.
The Board of Trustees approved this idea at the Oct. 29 meeting, with Clerk Penny Shults the lone opposition.
"I believe there is need for a new fire station or an expansion of the existing fire station but the manner in which they have done this I disagree with completely," said Shults.
Instead, Shults looks to Fire Station #3 as a successful model for township property management.
"Any time you have a development of this nature, you get all of the people who have an interest in it [and] you bring all those people to the table. There's wisdom in crowds; there's wisdom in asking the taxpayers what they want. There's wisdom in public comment, and we had none of that," Shults said.
But Smith also considers Fire Station #3 an example of what to do with Station #2.
"Station 3 [has] got future in it. We can expand within that station and still be ok. That's what I'm hoping to accomplish [at Station #2] by moving forward and actually putting another station to have future needs that can be addressed."
Beyond the haste made in this decision, Shults also criticized the large bill Van Tassel is leaving for the new supervisor.
"Basically, by this decision, the previous supervisor has hamstrung the incoming board. We will be required to build a new fire station. We will not be allowed to stay there after this four-year period is up. We will begin to pay rent after two. We did not carefully plan for this," she repeated.
Smith estimates the cost for the new station to be on the order of $1.2- $1.5 million. "The reason I say that is because the one we just built was $1.6 million, but that included buying some property, designing the station, [but now] I'm not buying the property, I'm taking the plans from Station #3 and I'm just gonna hand them to the builder."
In so doing, Smith and Van Tassell said they believe they are saving design and architectural costs.
Trustee John Steimel was with the majority who voted to support the land swap. He said the way he sees it, if the fire chief says a new station is needed, the board has to respond.
The fire chief is "adamant that it needs to be replaced somehow, and obviously because of the growth in that area he needs it bigger. We can't do that at the present site. With information that I'm getting from the fire chief, I've got to find a way to put in a new fire station," Steimel said.
He said that when you are faced with the need for a new station, the board has to consider all the options for building it. Funding is an important, though secondary consideration. "The first thing you have to ask is 'where am I going to put it?'," Steimel said.
Though he admits no appraisal has been done on either parts of the swap, Steimel said that one "could look at it and ask if an acre with a building on it is worth as much as 20 acres of land that you can use in the future. I'm going to guess that by the time you get the two pieces appraised it's a pretty good deal," Steimel said.
Clerk Shults took exception with the township's ability to fund the new station. "No money has been set aside to build that new fire station. We have not made any projections going out into the future concerning this," Shults said.
Van Tassel found no reasons to be alarmed by the opportunity, however. "There are various ways to fund it," she said. "One is to use the money that is sitting in the general fund balance. The same taxpayers that pay into the fire fund are the same taxpayers that pay into the general fund," Van Tassel said.
"If you don't want to use the general fund balance to build it, there are other options," she continued. "One of those option is called lease-to-own. You contract with a company who would build the building and lease it back to you and at the end of the ten years you own the building. You design the building and they build it to your specifications. That is something that is done every week in various municipalities across this county. There are even communities whose water and sewer lines are built on a lease-to-own basis."
The third option would be for a special tax assessment. "You could have a limited millage for a limited time," said Van Tassel.
"I personally prefer to use the money that's sitting in the general fund balance, because you could make the decision and move forward and have that fire hall constructed next year," she concluded.
Shults disagreed with Van Tassel, and considers the general fund reserved for "general activities of the township." Furthermore, she argued," the fire fund, going forward, is in a huge deficit; when they built the new fire station on Gregory Rd., it was built entirely out of fire fund dollars. A millage increase? Ridiculous. How could we do that to our voters? How could we do that to the people? They are still people who aren't working. How do we do that? You cannot do that.
"We have given our fire station away in exchange for 14 acres of property that we did not need," Shults said.
"I just think that now is the time to move," said Supervisor Van Tassel.
"I think this is an opportunity the township has, and expecting the developer to hold on to the land that they want to donate, the developer is more likely (to sell to someone else). I think this is an opportunity for the township. Now is the time in my opinion."