FLEETWOOD-Ashe County Schools gave Fleetwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue the go ahead this week to begin testing the old Fleetwood Elementary School property as a potential site for the department’s much needed new firehouse.
The Ashe County Board of Education met with Fleetwood Fire officials Monday night during an executive session at the end of the board’s regularly scheduled meeting, and later approved an agreement for “entry and site investigation,” which could help the department confirm whether or not the property could meet its future needs.
It’s a move that could help Fleetwood Fire chart its future ahead of the planned widening of US-221 which will ultimately claim its current location.
“This will really allow us a chance to conduct our due diligence,” Rick Surber, Chairman of the Fleetwood Fire Department Board of Directors, said. “Is it suitable for our sewer and water needs and can we build the kind of firehouse we’d need on the site – that’s essentially what we’re trying to figure out.”
The old elementary school, which is still owned by the county and now known as the Fleetwood Community Center, is located just across the highway from where the current firehouse sits. But those few feet could mean the difference between a problem and a solution for the department according to Surber.
“If we find that the site works, it would offer certain advantages, like ready access to Railroad Grade,” Surber said. “But right now it’s early, and this is one of the sites we’re considering.”
How’d we get here?
The question of where to move isn’t a new one for Fleetwood Fire & Rescue. Its leadership has worked with state and local officials with the North Carolina Department of Transportation since at least early 2013, but the ongoing widening of US-221 has put the department in something of a bind.
The project’s planned path will force Fleetwood Fire to move from its current location at 9005 US-221 S, as soon as Thanksgiving, according to Surber.
“We’re guaranteed through the end of November, and we’ll file an extension then,” Surber said. “But we still need to find another site as soon as possible.”
But the fire department’s unique situation makes moving fast a daunting proposition. Any new site must offer it plenty of space to house its fire fighting equipment, easy access to the community’s main roads and must be situated within 1/4-mile of the current location.
“That 1/4-mile restriction limits us unless we want to get into changing all the district lines,” Surber said.
And fair compensation for the current firehouse location remains an open question.
Surber told the Jefferson Post in March the department had rejected an NCDOT offer that he said failed to meet the property’s tax value – valued by county tax officials in 2015 as some $238,000 – and referred further questions this week about the ongoing condemnation process to the department’s lawyer, Josh Hansen, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
“The bottom line is that we’re years into this thing and we still don’t have all the answers,” Surber said. “But we’re moving forward. Yes, we’re going to move, but our guys are still going to be here, volunteering their time for this community.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.