Council might delay vote on fire station location

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, March 8, 2014

JANESVILLE--Councilman Douglas Marklein said he would recommend Monday the council slow its timetable to build to new, $9.5 million fire station until it gets more information.

Several other council members agreed they are not ready to vote on a location.

Meanwhile, the head of the city's historic commission said he was shocked the commission wasn't notified of the city's plans to demolish a historic house, but he said he's confident the city will give the commission time to weigh in.

The council is scheduled at its 7 p.m. meeting Monday to decide which of two locations to approve for a new station.

The locations are in the area of the current station at 303 Milton Ave. One plan would mean the demolition of seven homes, and a second option would mean razing a dozen homes.

Some neighbors discovered their homes were targeted when they read a Feb. 26 article in The Gazette.

The council voted 6-1 in closed session in November to narrow a list of 11 or so possible sites to the two they are considering Monday.

Marklein said he still doesn't have enough information to decide which of the two sites to choose.

The process is moving “pretty fast,” Marklein said.

“I want to see where the numbers come in,” he said. “We need to get at least a million out of it.”

He said there now appears to be questions about the other locations and costs that need to be answered before “anybody wastes too much time in the process.”

The siting decision made in closed session was based on numbers presented by fire officials who weight response time three times heavier than other factors, such as traffic and the environment, he said.

Councilman Jim Farrell said most of the feedback he received from the public has been negative.

“I don't know if at the time that we discussed this at the closed session we understood what the design was,” Farrell said.

He said he wasn't in favor of closing the meeting in which the decision was made.

“It's gone this long, and I'd like to have maybe a little bit more justification, a little more analysis, of the impact on these neighbors,” he said.

One of the neighbors is Farrell's friend.

“To talk to somebody that's a friend of yours, it puts a real human element on it,” Farrell said. “I don't want her life to be uprooted because of this.”

Councilmen DuWayne Severson and Brian Fitzgerald said they need more information to make a decision.

“I'm not there yet,” Severson said.

Residents have since suggested other sites to him, and he said the council should look at those options.

A delicate balance exists between “a facility that meets the needs of appropriate fire protection but at the same time respects the folks who have their homes there,” Severson said.

Councilman Sam Liebert said he doesn't know if he can make a decision on Monday.

“It might seem fast to the public, but it's been in the works for 10 to 15 years,” he said. “The longer we wait, the higher the cost.”

“It's tough,” Liebert acknowledged.

Some people have to move.

“But it's part of living in civilization, where we accept those potential risks,” he said.

“Anything that makes response time slow is a negative,” Liebert said.

Still, he doubts whether residents can find housing similar to what they have now with the money they will be paid.

Councilman Matt Kealy was the sole vote against building a new station. He wants to renovate the existing station at its current site at a cost of $2 million to $3 million.

He said he has received many phone calls and emails and other feedback from residents agreeing they cannot afford $9.5 million.

“I don't normally support a referendum, but should we ask the voters if they want to spend $9 million?

“Balancing wants versus needs—that's something we need to do.

“When I ran (for office), I said we wouldn't tax people out of their homes,” Kealy said. “This throws people out of their homes.”

Kealy agreed the process, once it hit the public, has been “extremely fast."

“I don't feel enough notice was given,” he said. “This issue came in front of us in the fall … Now we are ready to draw up the plan and ready to move people out of their homes?

“I don't think we've done a review of all the stations, and their proximity for all their (response) times,” he said. “We haven't factored in future growth.”

Council President Kathy Voskuil is the sole council member prepared to decide between the two sites Monday. But she said she wants to assure the public there will be “significant public engagement and comment regarding the process. That is extremely critical.

“There's a public process involved in every decision of the council, and this fire station will follow that public process,” she said.

"At any point it can be altered and changed," she said.

The agenda for Monday's meeting asks the council to authorize staff to “proceed to final design and construction bidding based on the preferred site option selected by the council.”

Voskuil urged residents to come to the meeting or contact council members.

Any decision would be referred to the plan commission and return to the council for a final decision, she said.

Neighbors are not the only people who received little notice of council plans.

Tim Maahs, chairman of the city's own historic commission, said he was “absolutely shocked” the commission had not heard the city would tear down a home on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Second Empire home is not in a protected overlay district, so the city can simply contact the state historical society and justify its plans to demolish the house, said Gale Price, committee staff liaison.

Maahs found out about the possible demolition when contacted by a Gazette reporter Feb. 26.

He then contacted Price.

The matter is now on the historic commission's Monday agenda, which meets two hours before the council.

Maahs said it has been common practice in his six years on the commission to have the council ask for advice on actions being taken in historic districts. He is not sure the commission will be able to make a recommendation with the information provided Monday. Still, he said he has faith the council will give the commission the time needed to do so on this issue.

Maahs said the entire block has historic significance.

“We're just learning about this publicly. I would like to think this could be slowed down to be sure that everyone involved, especially the homeowners, have an opportunity to hear and fully understand what's going on,” he said.

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