The Southampton Fire District is getting its “ducks in a row” for a new firehouse it could build if the district were to eventually take control of the Southampton Fire Department—a contentious idea that has been floated for several years, according to Fire District Board of Commissioners Chairman David Price.
The district, represented by attorney William Glass, took a step in that direction last Thursday, December 6, by submitting plans to the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals to secure approval to build a full-fledged firehouse—not a substation—on a vacant parcel it purchased in North Sea several years ago.
The district’s leaders said this week they have no immediate plans to actually build the firehouse but want the plans approved in case they need to push forward if there were a break with the village.
Mr. Price said the goal is to have the project approved and shovel ready in the event that efforts to absorb the department move forward.
“A lot more ducks need to be lined up before we build,” he said, noting that he hopes the discussion about unifying the district with the department will be put back on the table. “I still believe for most of my whole 30-some years in the department that it would be best consolidated.”
The application comes after years of acrimony between the Southampton Fire Department, which is operated by Southampton Village, and the fire district, which contracts with the village to provide fire protection to Water Mill, Tuckahoe, Shinnecock Hills and the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.
Fire district commissioners for years have unsuccessfully tried to wrest control of the department from the village, which owns the department. Village officials have remained adamantly opposed to giving up the department.
“So you’re actually getting the ball rolling for yourselves in a sense?” ZBA member Keith Tuthill asked at last week’s meeting.
“In a worst-case scenario—let me preface it by saying that—there would be a separate department,” replied Mr. Price. “This is for a long-term goal of a unified or consolidated department or district use.”
The district, which bought the property at 401 North Sea Road for about $1.7 million in 2009 with the intention of eventually building a firehouse, is seeking from the ZBA a special type of hearing, focused on a “balancing of the public interests,” in the hope that the ZBA would exempt the district from zoning regulations. If the district is unsuccessful in the petition, it would have to seek a variance to allow for a 60-foot-tall tower and a 44-foot-tall building, exceeding the 32-foot-tall building limit under current zoning.
The ZBA took no immediate action on Thursday and is expected to further discuss the application in January.
ZBA Vice Chairman Adam Grossman said the board doesn’t typically see these types of applications. “In my 10 years on the Zoning Board of Appeals, we’ve never had this kind of a hearing,” he said, adding that the board has not had a fire district application before it either.
If the district were to consolidate with the department, the Southampton Village Board would lose its control of the department. The current district’s board of fire commissioners would be dissolved, and a new board would be elected to oversee the district.
The idea of passing control to the Southampton Fire District has gotten many fire department members up in arms in recent years.
In 2009, the fire district funded a study that analyzed the cost-effectiveness of fire protection in the area. The Village Board declined to co-sponsor the study because fire department leaders were adamantly opposed to consolidating with the district. And in 2010, some commissioners blamed the village for stalling in providing necessary information to complete the study, which came back suggesting that the agencies, including the North Sea Fire District, merge under a single fire district.
Southampton Village Board Member and Village Fire Commissioner Richard Yastrzemski said that the conversation about the village relinquishing control to the district hasn’t been successfully resolved for more than 20 years. Many firefighters have the outlook of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
“It brings up some very tough memories for these guys,” he added. “When the word ‘joining’ is used, it becomes a political battle. The fire department is not here to be a political puppet. We do a valuable service and just want to do it, given we have the equipment and housing to do it.”