- A roughly $1 million fire training facility has been approved for construction in South Richmond, Virginia, after environmental concerns fueled the City Planning Commission’s rejection of the fire department’s request for approval.
- Construction of the building is slated for completion by June 2024 in Richmond’s 8th district, an area highly susceptible to heat, according to a Climate Equity Index developed by the city’s Office of Sustainability.
- The project has drawn criticism over plans to replace grass with concrete pads. Many opposers believe that rainwater from the concrete will find its way into a nearby wildlife sanctuary, whose soil beds and stream are already choked with debris and pollution.
In June, the Richmond Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously approved an exception that would allow construction of the fire training building near the Hickory Hill Community Center on a site bordering the Serene Wildlife Sanctuary, roughly 100 meters away. The zoning exception, spelled out in the City Charter, authorizes the construction or use of buildings or structures “when reasonably necessary in the public interest…in any district in which they are prohibited.”
The zoning appeals board said the project proposal reflects an ability to meet health and safety requirements during construction and operation, safeguarding the welfare of “occupants of the adjoining and surrounding property.” The board’s approval comes weeks after the City Council voted to move forward with plans to build the three-story facility at 3000 East Belt Boulevard in Southside.
The council’s sign-off emerges on the heels of the City Planning Commission’s 3-2 vote to turn down the fire department’s proposal on April 3. During that meeting, Urban Design Committee planner Ray Roakes noted that the committee recommended denying the fire department’s request at a previous meeting.
However, 8th District council member Reva Trammell and Mayor Levar Stoney submitted a resolution to the City Council in April, overruling the Planning Commission’s decision with an argument in favor of relocating the Fire and Emergency Services Department training facility to the Hickory Hill Community Center.
“They had the wrong information. They could even have been burning straw and water,” Trammel told Facilities Dive, alluding to the Planning Commission’s rejection based on grounds of environmental suitability. She declined to comment further on the resolution and directed queries to Mayor Stoney.
Stoney’s spokesperson Gianni Snidle said Trammel has worked with the fire department on due diligence exercises aimed at balancing community needs, gathering feedback, and collating concerns before the Hickory Hill Community Center was identified as a site for “an important training facility” for the Richmond fire department.
Petula Burks, a spokesperson for the UDC said that Stoney did not overrule the Planning Commission’s decision. Burks pointed out that it was the City Council which, when given the chance, voted to move forward with the training facility.
“Mayor Stoney has worked to ensure the city of Richmond is run in the most efficient and effective way possible. Instead of expensive out-of-city training for our firefighters, this facility will save taxpayers’ dollars, provide important training to our firefighters, and protect and expand the community’s use and enjoyment of the green space by planting more trees, and bolstering the community center as a public asset,” Snidle told Facilities Dive.
The building, which is to be developed from shipping containers, will be used to train recruits by simulating disorienting firefighting scenarios with live burns and theatrical smoke produced by Superior Smoke Candles. That smoke contains zinc chloride mist, which causes eye irritation and exacerbates conditions for people with respiratory problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is widespread concern that the smoke will be detrimental for 8th District residents. The city’s Climate Equity Index tool shows that nearly 11% of adults in the area suffer from asthma.
At the April 3 Planning Commission meeting, Dexter Goode, senior capital projects manager at the city of Richmond, said there will be only four days of “active smoke” each year.
“I’m 100% in favor of this,” council member Trammel said at the meeting, pointing to significant support from proponents in the 8th and 9th Districts.
The committee referenced strong opposition from 11 community members. They include Cullenwood Community Association Action Committee president Kenneth Gibson, who urged the Commissioners to honor the UDC’s recommendation of denial, and Mechelle Esparza-Harris, executive director of the Serene Wildlife Sanctuary, who raised environmental impact concerns, noting the absence of any direct outreach to the wildlife sanctuary.
Esparza-Harris’ daughter, Kendra Esparza-Harris, who is a Serene Wildlife Sanctuary member, seconded that opposition with concerns about the loss of green space that would result from the building construction.