On Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners of the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department began the process of replacing the aging and outdated Fire Station 31, located at Estero Blvd. and Donora Blvd, by giving Fire Chief Matthew Love authorization to make an offer on an appropriate piece of property contingent on board approval and assessment of the property.
Love began the meeting by providing an overview of the assessment of Station 31 and department needs. In 2017, a needs assessment was done with modeling of response times in a variety of scenarios, looking at actual calls for fire service over the past several years and what the full response time would be if Station 31 did not exist. The majority of island locations were in the 12-15 minute response range, and that was not taking season traffic into account.
The modeling concluded that while the ideal situation would be for the district to have 6 stations, the optimal location for a Station 31 replacement would be between its current location and Times Square, specifically at Estero and Delmar.
The building housing Station 31 is well beyond its useful life. In 2002 a building assessment concluded that it should be torn down or receive substantial renovation that would give it another 10-15 years. The fire district chose to renovate. Now the district is spending increasing amounts to keep it habitable and safe, said Love.
Using the existing land to build a new station is not feasible, Chief of Operations Scott Wirth explained to the board. It sits on about an eighth of an acre and any new construction would need to meet current height, setback and parking rules. A general contractor in his non-fire life, Wirth served as the general contractor for the new downtown Fort Myers headquarters and 10-bay station prior to coming to work for the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department.
Wirth showed the board some models to depict the minimum space needed for three engine/ambulance bays, plus training space and a stairwell. The three bays alone, which could sit at-grade, require more space than the entire plot of land the current Station 31 sits on, eliminating that site as a rebuild site.
Love covered the considerations used in the decision of what to build and where, including, among other issues, the use and value of Station 31 and the Voorhis department headquarters, funding options, parking needs, training needs and fuel accessibility.
As the board has discussed the future of Station 31 several times over the past couple years, one question was ownership of the land if the district no longer used it for a fire station. The property the station sits on was donated by Don and Ora Zimmer in 1951 and 1961, with a provision that it be returned to the family if abandoned. A search for surviving heirs was unsuccessful and the district’s attorney recently completed the process to confirm fee-clear ownership of the property by the district. A generic estimate of the property value came in at $1.5 – 1.7 million. The Voorhis headquarters building was estimated to be worth $1.2 million if zoned commercial and about $420,000 if zoned residential. It is currently zoned specifically for fire department use.
Wirth told the board that he spoke to surrounding districts about their recent station building costs, but noted that the Fort Myers Beach district is different from most as it has elevated land values and building limitations due to flood zones. An estimate to rebuild Station 32 in today’s market, which originally cost $3.1 million, came to $4.3 million plus land. Bonita Spring built their headquarters station for just over $5 million plus land costs. With land at a premium, the first goal is to find land, then, depending on the space available, building design can begin.
Asked to estimate the amount of land needed to build a new fire station, Wirth estimated at minimum, one acre and that would likely not meet all the district’s needs for storage, office and training space. He estimated that the time needed for land purchase, design and construction would in the 3-5 year range.
Funding a New Station
Finance and Administrative Services Director Jane Thompson began her presentation by telling the board to take impact fees off the table as a funding source. The district already has millions in construction fees for Station 32 & 33 authorized for impact fee reimbursement, but the amount of fees collected is so paltry that it would take 500 years to receive what is already authorized.
One option is a referendum that would ask voters to put a specific mill rate into effect just for this project for a limited number of years to pay it off, much like the recent half-cent sales tax School Board referendum.
Some of the district’s reserves could be used for a purchase, but would need to be paid back quickly, Thompson said.
A bank loan could be used. Based on a hypothetical $7 million loan, the millage rate would go to 2.78 from its current 2.61 rate. No one knows the cost to build the station at this point, so the $7 million was used as a ballpark figure. “I looked at homeowner impact at 3 mill; impact would be $15 – $17/month,” said Thompson. “0.5 mill would equal about $2 million in district income.”
Asked what amount he thought it would take for land and a new building, Love responded, “Seven million-ish.”
The difficulties of purchasing land as a public board led Love to seek advice from the board’s attorney. The board can only use a closed session for labor contracts and litigation discussions. “He said that the board can grant district staff the authority to make offers on property, contingent on board approval and assessment. As a public board we cannot pay more than the assessed value for land. This system allows us to act quickly. Once we bring the offer to the board and it gets ratified, the amount then becomes public. Otherwise the district is at a distinct disadvantage in negotiating for land.”
Board Chair Larry Wood called a vote on a motion by Jacki Liszak to authorize Love to make an offer on land for a new station contingent on board approval and assessment, which passed 5-0.
The next Fire Board meeting is February 27 at 6pm at Town Hall.
By Missy Layfield