Plan commission favors clearing neighborhood for station

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Marcia Nelesen
Wednesday, April 9, 2014

JANESVILLE -- A Monday vote by the Janesville Plan Commission adds two more council members to those who would approve plans to build a new fire station just to the north of the current station on a footprint that would displace a dozen homes.

The vote was 3 to 2 to recommend that option to the council over a second option that would take only seven homes and avoid disturbing a historic home. Voting in favor of the first option were council members Kathy Voskuil and Douglas Marklein. Ed Madere also voted in favor.

Councilman Sam Liebert has already said he prefers that location. That's three of four votes the council needs to approve it.

Councilman DuWayne Severson has questioned the cost and the effect on neighbors. Councilman Jim Farrell has said he wants to look at other locations. Councilman Matt Kealy has never supported a new station, while Councilman Brian Fitzgerald has not indicated his preference.

The matter will go to the council April 14.

Residents and plan commission members Deb Dongarra-Adams and George Brunner preferred sending both locations back to the council with positive recommendations.

The commission was asked to decide the appropriateness of one or both locations and the scale and architecture of the building.

Seven members are on the plan commission. But one seat is vacant, and Judy Adler opted not to participate in the discussion because she is employed by the city to relocate residents affected by the new station.

Voskuil and Marklein both noted that one couple, the Farrells, have now changed their minds. The Farrells asked Monday that the city choose the option to take a dozen houses, including their own. The couple said they do not want to stay in a gutted neighborhood and fear the value of their property would fall if it were one of few left on the point and hemmed in by the station.

Another woman who spoke, though, said she would like to stay in her home. She said she would haunt the fire station when she is dead.

A new central fire station at or near its current location of 303 Milton Ave. has became controversial because of its cost—anywhere from $9.2 million to $9.5 million—and because its large footprint would destroy so many homes. The council was also accused of being underhanded in its decisions after voting to build the new station on or near the current site in closed session in November.

Some neighbors said they did not discover their homes were targeted until a Gazette article Feb. 26.

In supporting his vote, plan commission member Madere said public safety is an essential city service, and quality service depends on appropriate facilities.

The station should provide a positive image of the community, especially because it is on a busy street and is a gateway to  downtown, something else the city is spending a lot of time and money on, he said.

Marklein complimented the architect on the design, saying it mimics the feel of the current station, which was built in a modernistic style in the 1950s.

Marklein said he didn't think the building would “breathe” if it were squeezed between homes on both sides. The new structure would also be set back to be less obtrusive to the remaining neighborhood.

Dongarra-Adams and Brunner preferred to forward both locations to the council with positive recommendations. Brunner said he didn't believe he had enough information to choose between the two or even decide on the architecture, for that matter.

The plan commission will get a second look at a detailed design when the city applies for a conditional-use permit to construct the building.

Resident Rebecca Farrell, 339 Milton Ave., broke down when she addressed plan commission members during the public hearing. She said she supports a new station for the firefighters, but the entire neighborhood is “heartbroken.” She asked the city to take her home because she doesn't want to be one of only several that would remain there if only seven were destroyed.

“I hope you remember times and moments like this and never conduct your business like this again,” she said, crying. “The way you did this was deplorable.”

Her husband agreed. The couple were initially against moving because of the city's poor communications.

Neighbor Joyce Shea, 706 Prospect Ave., said she believes city officials have already made up their minds to take her home and  had their minds set since the November closed session.

“I think everyone here already knows that,” Shea said.

Still, she begged them to “build around my little house,” and said at age 76 she is too old to move.

 “When I die—if the ghost chasers are correct on television—I'm going to come back,” she said.

“I'm going to haunt the fire department. Every time the firefighters go to sleep, I'm going to set off the alarm.”

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