A situation is heating up at the Rock St. Fire Station, and other news from city council

By Rachel Petterson, contributor

Disagreement over a 50-year-old agreement between the city and Hose Company No. 4 was on the agenda at last night’s city council meeting – and is now on its way to court. At issue is a request made this spring by Fire Chief Matt Tobia that volunteers from Hose Company No. 4 vacate the Rock St. fire station, colloquially known as Fire Station 4, by June 30. A 1973 agreement between the city and the then all-volunteer company included a provision that the city could assume full control of the station if Hose Company No. 4 no longer was providing “adequate fire protection for the City of Harrisonburg.”

On Thursday, June 21, Hose Company No. 4 filed a motion in court requesting declaratory judgment against the city. At Tuesday night’s meeting, City Attorney Chris Brown explained the action as Hose Company No. 4 “asking for the court to determine if they have the right to stay there and to prohibit the city from taking any action to remove them until the court rules on the merits.”

No one from Hose Company No. 4 spoke at the meeting, and The Citizen was unable a representative for comment by publication time.

The fire company also filed a motion for a temporary injunction to delay their leaving the station until after the June 30 deadline.

At Tuesday’s meeting, council unanimously approved a resolution in support of the request that Hose Company No. 4 vacate the Rock St. station. Both Tobia’s letter and the city resolution emphasized a long and cordial working relationship the city has enjoyed with the company for more than 100 years.

Michael Parks, the city’s director of communications, told the The Citizen that the city has been willing to negotiate a different date. And during the meeting, City Attorney Brown explained to the council that the city had not threatened legal action to enforce Tobia’s request.

Hose Company No. 4 includes both paid and volunteer firefighters and is a part of Rockingham County Fire and Rescue, not the City of Harrisonburg, although the county provides supplemental aid to the city when needed. In 1973, Hose Company No. 4 began to share the Rock St. fire station with city firefighters. This agreement stated that the city would maintain control of this fire station and had the right to ask Hose Company No. 4 to leave if the company “should cease to provide adequate fire protection for the City of Harrisonburg.” 

Now, according to the city, that time has come. In November 2022, Rockingham County Fire and Rescue moved all paid members of Hose Company No. 4 out of the Rock St. station upon the completion of the new North Valley Pike Fire Station, leaving only Hose Company No. 4 volunteers at the station in the city. 

According to Chief Tobia, having exclusively volunteer county firefighters at the Rock St. station complicates the chain of command, as the Harrisonburg Fire Department does not have direct authority over Hose Company No. 4 volunteers. 

“It puts our career personnel in an untenable situation, where they may be called upon to make decisions over personnel that they have no authority over,” Tobia explained. 

The county fire department has told the city that it has space for Hose Company No. 4 volunteers at other county-owned fire stations, Parks confirmed to The Citizen. While addressing council on Tuesday night, Chief Tobia said that the county fire chief said that Rockingham County “no longer needed that location from which to provide service to county residents.”

During the meeting, council members made clear to city residents that the Rock St. fire station will continue to be staffed by city fire and rescue personnel. Four of the seven bays at the station are currently used by paid, career city fire and rescue personnel, and the removal of Hose Company No. 4 volunteers would convert the station into an exclusively city-staffed fire station. 

Another reason for remove Hose Company No. 4 volunteers from the station is that the city hopes to build a new, one-story fire station where the current Rock St. station is located. Not having to maintain space for Hose Company No. 4 will allow the station to remain a one-story building – something that is “critical” to increase safety and response time, Chief Tobia said. 

City pursues grant to address effects of urban renewal 

City staff is preparing to apply for the Community Connectors Grant on July 15. This grant will be awarded to 15 small-to medium-sized cities nationwide to support projects that address the harm done by “urban renewal” projects primarily completed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which forcibly changed the infrastructure of communities and resulted in increased segregation of marginalized groups. 

Erin Yancey, the public works planning manager, and Jakob zumFelde, the public works transportation planner, gave a presentation on the effects of urban renewal in Harrisonburg, explaining that their focus would be on the city’s Northeast neighborhood. 

This grant would fund planning rather than any physical construction.

“The desired outcome of this grant would be to understand and acknowledge past harms and plan for re-establishing a safe and vibrant corridor connecting the Northeast neighborhood to downtown,” said zumFelde. 

They have begun gathering stakeholders but will continue more robust planning and gaining further input from the community once they have a funding source, such as this grant. 

Parks, the director of communications, confirmed to The Citizen that the city will pursue other means of funding to address the harm of urban renewal even if they do not receive the Community Connectors Grant, and that funding for construction would still need to be secured. 

The council gave its support for addressing the effects of urban renewal, with Council Member Chris Jones also expressing optimism that Harrisonburg might receive this grant based on its success in securing other grants. 

Council Member Monica Robinson emphasized the importance of seeking public input early and often and expanding the preliminary list of stakeholders to avoid the downfalls of urban renewal itself.

“Looking at it from my family’s perspective–and I’m sure this is what I’ll get from my mother and aunts who were directly affected by being displaced–will say once again, ‘well, when are they going to ask us about this? When are we going to get our two cents in?’” she said. 

City Manager Ande Banks said that city staff imagine an “ARPA-light process” for these projects, referring to the multi-step survey process that was conducted to decide how to use American Rescue Plan Act funding in 2022. 

Parks explained to The Citizen that city staff only last week began pursuing this grant and intend to seek varied and wide public input from those impacted by urban renewal both past and present. 

This photo shows the effects of urban renewal projects, whereby, amongst other effects, areas that were previously residential and walkable were converted to larger lots with businesses that require a car for many residents to reasonably access. 

New appointments to Boards and Commissions 

The city council approved several appointments to boards and commissions at Tuesday’s meeting in unanimous votes. They are as follows: 

  • Ferwerdin Barzanji to the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee (EPSAC) for a full term.
  • Heja Alsindi to the Planning Commission for the remainder of an unexpired term and Economic Development Authority for a full term.
  • Cheryl Mast to the Community Service Board (CSB) for a full term, and William Holland to CSB for the remainder of an unexpired term.

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