Fire board

The future of the North 40 housing project is discussed Tuesday evening at the Aspen Fire Protection District board meeting.

The Aspen Fire Protection District’s North 40 housing project encountered a setback during Tuesday evening’s board of directors meeting — and it mostly came down to setbacks.

Board President Karl Adam acknowledged the thorough work done by the department’s housing committee but had serious reservations about the renderings presented at the meeting.

“I just think it’s too much,” he said, noting a designated green space near a parking area. “I would love to see a plan with no green space. I want to know what that green space is costing us.”

Dennis Murray, vice president of the board of directors, was perhaps the biggest champion of the proposed green space, as it, in its current iteration, allows for developmental flexibility — not just for the department in general, but for future generations, he said. Chiefly, after much-sought feedback from stakeholders, the potential need for a day-care facility.

“We can do a Japanese tea garden,” he said to underscore the possibilities. “But if you move it, you can’t have a day care, so we just take that off the table now or 30 years from now, whatever.”

Adam brought the question to the dozen or so stakeholders who attended the meeting, many of whom have served alongside Murray thus far in the planning process.

“Fellow members of the housing committee, will you please walk me through the day care? I’m the only person up here who has two young children, and I still don’t get it,” he quipped.

There was some disagreement. Some in the crowd expressed their desires to see additional housing in the space, while others conceded the challenges posed by the lack of day-care options in the community.

“But where do our responsibilities stop?” Adam said. “I mean, how many businesses are we going to get into?”

At that, Deputy Chief Parker Lathrop, who was sitting at a table alongside Adam, was asked to speak as a father of three.

“There is one infant day care in the upper valley, that’s it. There is a wait list of 85 children for literally six spots,” he said. “Child care has been nothing less than the most stressful thing in my life for the past multiple years. Anything that you can do to help alleviate a major stress in a responder’s life, it may even help you get responders.”

Fleet manager Ken Josselyn piggy-backed off Lathrop’s statements on the matter, but from a different perspective.

“From someone who is completely against the day care from an operational standpoint — I can think of 100 different ways to use that space — I do recognize that that day care allows us to put firefighters in the trucks in the long term,” he said.

The debate became heated at one point as department and board members’ tempers flared.

“Since we do not have a consensus, I would like to see a different iteration without a green space,” Adam said. “I would slide the whole thing over and increase the setbacks a little bit more. To me, it’s easy.”

At that, he approached one of the renderings on display to visually explain his thoughts.

Eventually, Murray relented, and a subsequent meeting for Aug. 21 was scheduled to revisit the matter.

“I don’t know what part of the neighborhood you’re trying to appease … but we’ll draw it,” he said to Adam.

Recommendations debated

The other major point of contention addressed at the meeting involved community outreach efforts regarding the overarching direction for the department’s future. Several months ago, an internal steering committee that included almost half of the fire department compiled a 22-page report that outlined its recommendations for an improved operational plan. The plan focused primarily on services delivered, response times and training needs as areas for improvement.

“The addition of full-time/career firefighters will bolster our ability to uphold our mission, meet the needs of the community, and provide superior training and structure to the current volunteer model,” it states. “The Operational Plan calls for volunteers and full-time staff to work together in preplanned, structured, dedicated shifts that provide 24/7 coverage.”

Adam commented first.

“First and foremost, I thank the committee for all the work they did,” he started. “I think there’s a lot of items that need to be considered at the board level before we can have a solid basis for how best to move forward as an organization. In the time being, we have currently set the budget to allow for [Chief Rick Balentine] to hire a training officer, which is something he can facilitate at any time. He’s got it in his budget.”

Beyond a training officer — a position the board approved last November but has yet to be filled — Adam did not feel that additional paid firefighting staff should take priority.

“We’re trying to undertake a $16 million capital improvement plan right now to build additional housing for our organization, and I think that needs to take precedent right now. We have borrowing that’s riding on that. We have approvals for our plans. To me, our focus needs to be there for the time being,” he said.

Board secretary John Ward and treasurer Stoney Davis vocalized their agreement with Adam, but other people still in the room — several of whom served on the steering committee — were visibly fuming, shaking their heads in disapproval.

Adam was firm in his stance that the conversation should wait for a later date.

“When districts go to combination departments, what happens to the volunteer model?” he asked rhetorically. “It usually fails. What happens to our taxpayer if the volunteer model in Aspen fails? If you guys ask us to make a hard decision right now, it’s going to be no paid staffing. I can almost guarantee it.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.