Town Proposing a Fire Station Adjoining my property!

wifesaysMarch 16, 2009

Hi there everyone--i'm not sure if this was the correct forum to post in, but it's the closest I could find to appropriate. Two years ago we bought our first house next door to a no longer used fire station. It was the original station for the town, just big enough to hold one small truck and no living quarters, the exterior of the building has been unchanged since 1952. In 2005, the town completed a very large station just a few miles away and the one next to our house was/is now only used to store an ambulance. This Saturday the fire chief came by and informed us that the fire department wants to HUGELY expand the station by our house; no only make it active again, but triple the size of it, including sleeping quarters for 6 firefighters, a community meeting room and a police annex (!!!). We are freaking out. Other details:

1. the land the old station is on is zoned residental, not commercial or public or whatever.

2. The old fire station sits literally 11 inches in from our property line; very much in violation of current residential zoning laws (obviously grandfathered in). Because it's so close to our property, i would image they would need full access to our yard in order to do any work on the building.

3. because of the zoning laws, the chief said they need our permission to move forward

If this happens, it's going to totally destroy our property value and we'll never be able to sell the house. Nevermind the fact that it would be awful to have that much heavy construction right next door for god knows how long, plus to added noise (hello, sirens?!?) and traffic associated with a bigger, active station.

We're trying to get a real estate lawyer lined up this week....we would like to either stop the project altogether or have the town buy our house so we can move. We are most afraid they will simply take part of our land under eminent domain, and we will be screwed. Does anyone have any advice (other than, we should never have bought this house? Trust me, we've already been over that). Has anyone gone through something like this before and know what our options are? This is not how we expected our first homeownership experience to be!

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Why doesn't the fire dept buy your house for the fireman's quarters? I, too, would be afraid of eminent domain since this is a true "government" project for the whole community - not just for private development - like mall construction or something. I'd do what you're doing - talk to an attorney.

Are there any other adjoining property owners you can team up with?

I'm sure someone on here will probably have much more to add - it's a great place for information. Best of luck & keep us posted.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 1:07PM
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if the town were to buy our house for the fireman's quarters, that would be long as we don't lose money. just like everywhere else our house has lost value since we bought it a few years ago, and if they purchased it now at "fair market value"...well that's probably a lot less than we bought it for :(

Is it common for the town to buy adjoining/interfering properties to allow construction of a fire station?

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 1:39PM
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If the town has decided that come h@ll or high water that's the site where they're going to build a new station...there's probably not much you can do. After all the shouting & yelling at your Zoning & Building department's meetings they'll resort to condemnation via eniment domain, just as you suspect. (Note: this is a different type of condemnation from when a building is deemed uninhabitable)

My concern would be the establishment of FMV in today's real estate climate. You'll definitely need to hire your own appraiser & possible more than one. Hiring counsel was a smart decision, IMO. Local counsel would be a very wise choice because they'll already know the department heads down at City Hall.

Are you located in a declining market? You mentioned you were first-time home buyers just two years ago. If you purchased with a minimal down payment (less than 20%) you may be in a real pickle on FMV. Another reason to hire qualified counsel. Let them negotiate to, at minimum, get your mortgage cleared...hopefully, recover your down also.

Ultimately, in an eminent domain situation, homeowners usually recover less than if they sold on the open market. The deck is stacked in their favor.

Bummer of a situation...good luck!


    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 1:44PM
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Exactly what kind of permission was the Chief asking you to grant? A zoning waiver? That isn't at all clear in your post and may make a huge difference.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 2:11PM
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What's FMV?

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 2:32PM
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Fair Market Value

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 2:33PM
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"Ultimately, in an eminent domain situation, homeowners usually recover less than if they sold on the open market."

Dealing with this as we speak, around here you will get above FMV as an administrative settlement.
The taker (F.Dept.) will have an appraisal and the owner has the right to an appraisal and the higher one normally counts (except here, ie. owners appraisal $400k, ours $430k, owner refuses to settle, SOLD and settled for $500k).
Just remember, the squeeky wheel gets more money.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 2:37PM
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if the town were to buy our house for the fireman's quarters, that would be long as we don't lose money. just like everywhere else our house has lost value since we bought it a few years ago, and if they purchased it now at "fair market value"...well that's probably a lot less than we bought it for :(

Is it common for the town to buy adjoining/interfering properties to allow construction of a fire station?

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 3:15PM
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as far as i could tell (he was being intentionally vague, i suspect), they wanted us to sign a zoning waver. honestly i was a little overwhelmed. he didn't ask us to sign anything on the spot but did mention when the fire dept. would be going before the zoning board to request the waiver. i called the town office today and apparently the fire dept. already tried to get a waiver WITHOUT notifying us first, the zoning committee said no not without their (our) permission. the fire dept. already had the property surveyed, drawn up blueprints and have done a perk test.

i live in southern MA (bristol county) and yes, the market in our area has declined since we bought.

i don't know why my other response posted twice, sorry about that

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 3:31PM
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Any other neighbors adjoining the property?

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 4:01PM
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there are also neighbors behind and on the other side, though no other neighbors that need to sign anything i guess. they building is far away from other property borders and literally 11 inches from mine.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 4:07PM
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Well, maybe you should contact them & see if you can provide a more united front at the zoning meeting. Actually, I'd probably pass out a little flyer to everybody within a few blocks about the change. There might be several people that don't want this much activity in the immediate area.

Do they have to post a "zoning change request" notice or anything? Here. it's a large red lettered sign notifying the area that a change has been requested & it also posts all meeting information. That might stir some people up.

Otherwise, if they are not planning on actually using / taking any of your land, you might really be screwed. Attorney up & with a prominent local if you can per triciae above. Nothing beats a smart, well liked local attorney!

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 4:23PM
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I'm in coastal SE Connecticut. Eminent domain here is a real racket. A couple years ago my village condemned 6-8 18th century colonials across the street from a early 19th century brick mill building. The village wanted to allow a developer to put ultra-luxury warehouse-style condos in the old mill. So, what's the problem, you say? Well, those 6-8 houses had direct water views to Stonington Harbor plus water access rights. The mill planned conversion added on to the existing structure & totally wiped out the views for these houses. The developer also wanted exclusive water access for the new project so the village stripped those houses of a 300 year old right-of-way. Why? All of that so the village could increase its tax rolls. There was a huge 'to-do' & the village ended up buying out the houses but for peanuts compared to their worth before the mill conversion. The new FMV appraisal considered the loss of view & access in determining value. What a rip-off!

As a lender, I had one eminent domain problem in New Hampshire. My borrower owned a large piece of land on the Merrimack River in a notoriously snutty NH town. He had just put it under contract to Home Depot. During the due diligence period of the contract, Home Depot's survey crew discovered bald eagles nesting on the site. Halt everything! The State became involved & refused to allow the sale to proceed without protecting the eagles' nesting site. They required a 8' fence encircling the tree 100' out from the center. That's a large piece of land & it was darn near in the center of the site. Then, the State further demanded that an access path for 'nature lovers' to view the nesting site be constructed. Well, needles to say, Home Depot backed out of the contract. This property was worth about $1.5M. My loan was a measly $47K. The owner/borrower had financial problems & was seriously behind on his real estate taxes. I decided to foreclose the mortgage on a technical default to keep the town from taking the property at tax sale & wiping out my lien. Then...then...THEN...the Court wouldn't allow me to foreclose saying my small mortgage against the $1.5M value wasn't "commercially reasonable". Geesh. The town ended up taking the property by eminent domain (to save the eagles!). There's a park there now complete with a trail to the nesting site. The whole process chewed up almost 3 years. I gave up & charged-off the loan.

I wish you much success & luck. I 'think', in MA, they only have to get one appraisal. That stinks. And, since they're paying the appraiser it's not an arm's length transaction. Hire your own appraiser!


    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 5:22PM
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"If this happens, it's going to totally destroy our property value and we'll never be able to sell the house."

No, it won't totally destroy the property value.

The value will drop but it isn't as catastrophic as you make it sound.

My parent's house is 100 yards from the fire station - similar in size to the one you are talking about. I never considered it a nuisance.

Instead of seeing only the negatives, look at the positives. Can you get a lower insurance rate? Shop around.
It'll be in a really safe area, considering that police is next doors.

The town sounds like a small town, correct. I bet that the fire station won't be as busy as you now envision it to become.

    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 7:34PM
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"I wish you much success & luck. I 'think', in MA, they only have to get one appraisal. That stinks. And, since they're paying the appraiser it's not an arm's length transaction. Hire your own appraiser!"

Most state and local governments follow these guidelines. If they don't, your attorney should look into why they don't.


    Bookmark   March 16, 2009 at 8:52PM
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A lawyer should be able to tell you whether or not the fire dept. must get a special exception or a variance or an abutter's waiver to build. Each of these are different, with a different standard for the person wanting to change land use. A lawyer could also tell you if the rules are different for town/public safety projects than for others.

The biggest problem here is that the property is still a firehouse, it is just an unused firehouse. They may not need any special permission to reactivate it as is unless there is a time limit to grandfathering. For example, a fellow up the road from us has an autobody repair shop. It has been there 30 years or more. If a year goes by when it is not used for that purpose, then he or any subsequent property owner loses the grandfathering. If such allowances are in your zoning, they will be specific to your town.

I'd guess the barrier to their plans is that they want to change what's there.

In any case, any time somebody wants to build something that is an exception, variance, or waiver to zoning, all abutters should be notified and have a chance to be heard on the matter. That's pretty universal. The town has been negligent in that regard, I think; again, a quick check of your zoning ordinances and/or state laws should tell you.

I am curious, though, surely this expansion was on your town warrant for this year and the year past? The money has to be coming from somewhere...I am surprised that you and the neighbors did not go to the town to object to the plan sooner? The same thing happened in our town and the neighbors were able to get it squashed when it was published on the selectmens' agenda for discusion--before it even hit deliberative sessions, let alone the warrant and a vote.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2009 at 9:10AM
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hi hadley, and everyone thanks so much for your responses. the fire chief that came to our house said "i'd love to get my hands on some of that stimulus money".....he must mean the 210 million in the obama stimulus package reserved for fire station construction/upgrade/expansion. so i guess that's where the money is coming from.

if the value of the property were to drop say 50K due to the station becoming active...that means my mortgage is worth at least 25K more than my house is worth. we put 10% down and will have lost all that plus more. to me, that IS catastrophic :( i 'm sure the insurance would be little lower, but i'd rather have my house be worth what i paid for it than save $75 a year on insurance premiums. it's a mid-sized town and already a safe area.

yes, the issue is that they want to drastically change the existing structure. i've contacted a few local attorneys and am waiting to hear back from them....

    Bookmark   March 17, 2009 at 9:29AM
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I came "this close" to renting a house at the end of a cul-de-sac right next to a 12' solid wood fence - until I noticed the big siren horn speaker thing on a big tall post next to the house and realized that it was for the fire station on the other side of the fence. It was the only firehouse that served a very densely populated area with a high elderly population and took a lot of calls. Later, this house sold for a ridiculous amount of money on par with the neighborhood at the time; proximity to the fire house must not have been a factor.

So my only ideas for you, if you stay put, are to:
(1) make sure they put up a nice, solid fence between your properties and maybe some barrier-type landscaping,
(2) have them put the siren on the far side of their property, facing away from your house,
(3) don't approve variances to the standard building setbacks, which should be several feet (not 11") - they should not be able to grandfather "old" setbacks if they're essentially building new or making >50% renovations to the existing structure.

Maybe I'm just being optimistic (which is unlike me), but I don't think this will make your house unmarketable. There are people out there who like the "safety" of a nearby fire station, even if it is next door (okay, so maybe this just applies to volunteer fire departments). For the most part, except in dense, urban areas, they're pretty quiet, they try to blend in the community, and hopefully this station will be sharing duties with the other one you mentioned.

Please remember that you did buy a house next to a fire station, a public utility, and it's probably in the best interest of the local government to use their property rather than let it go vacant. I know it stinks, but I was a Navy pilot and am not overly sympathetic with people who buy houses next to military airfields and then later complain about the noise or safety or whatever. Those airfields were there before the houses were built and yes, the military does upgrade aircraft once in a while and the new ones might be louder and faster and yes, we do need to practice flying at night, sometimes really, really late depending on the phase of the moon, and none of us have death wishes so we're not going to do anything to get us killed on purpose, etc. etc. etc. Off my soapbox now.

Best of luck to you, though. Really.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2009 at 1:55PM
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why the crap is the FD even having to worry about zoning ordinances? around here gov agencies are 100% exempt from not only zoning ordinances but buidling code requirements as well. yes, they are specifically exempt by letter of the law!

sorry to say it, but you may as well be prepared to fight a long fight and not have things turn out as you expect. think about this, if they offer you 25k less than your loan, you cna argue and probably get teh loan paid for. but if you try to say they should pay you 25k more than the loan you may likely end up paying as much in legal fees and still just get the loan paid. so watch the fees, don't lose a dollar trying to gain a dime!

    Bookmark   March 17, 2009 at 10:00PM
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Call an appraiser today for a FMV. Don't wait until they start making obvious changes. Because right now, the rumor is just that and shouldn't be taken into account by the appraiser. Once the expansion is underway, it will affect your values.
Once you have your appraisal, call for a meeting with whomever you can get in one office; the mayor, fire chief, zoning guy... Explain the benefits of buying your house for quarters vs. the cost of construction, etc. Your solution is a very "green" one and one that makes sense in today's economic difficulties.
Good luck. This stinks.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2009 at 9:19AM
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Getting a lawyer with eminent domain experience is a good first step, glad to hear that you're doing that.

There's got to be a way to fight this or at least make sure you get compensated fairly for the loss in value.

Near where I live, a township tried to use eminent domain to kick an 80 year old guy out of his house, to expand the municipal garage. There was an enormous hue and cry... articles in the paper, litigation, etc. They ultimately decided not to take his property.

So take a deep breath, find a good lawyer, talk to the neighbors, and try not to get too upset. Who knows, this could actually have a positive outcome for you. They could compensate you fairly, and you could end up living happily somewhere else.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2009 at 4:21PM
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I'm not sure what this has to do with eminent domain (I know the homeowner is concerned but is there any sign that the town is interested in the adjoining property)?

Lawyering up is always immediately recommended - usually by people who don't have to pay the (super ultra expensive) attorney fees.

Chances are you'll pay tens of thousands of $$$ in lawyers fees and then you still live next to a firestation and with (marginally) lower home value.

You make it sound that a firestation is killing your home value as if it were a strip club or a brothel. I lived in my parent's home essentially next to a firestation and was annoyed by the sirens maybe twice in 10 years so I have first hand experience. Chill. It's just a FIRESTATION.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2009 at 10:41PM
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And there are worse neighbors to have than typically clean-cut grown-ups!

    Bookmark   March 19, 2009 at 5:34PM
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Could you imagine trying to put a baby down for a nap with a siren next door? I live approx 1 1/2 miles from the local fire department and can hear the siren from here. My dogs would go nuts each time it went off.

If it were me, I'd fight to get every penny I could on the house and move.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2009 at 11:18PM
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I don't know, jane, I think you may be underestimating the average person's ability to filter out familiar noises.

Out last house was next to a train track. There was a major intersection nearby, so the trains would generally blow the horn as they approached. It didn't bother any of our babies (or our dog), but it did bother anyone who slept over at our house.

I find it interesting that my husband (a firefighter) never misses a night alarm at the firehouse, yet never stirs if our dog barks or the kids wake in the middle of the night. I never fail to wake for the kids, but sometimes sleep right through a ringing phone.

I think you are wise to check into how this will affect your property value, but you might find that the noise doesn't bother you as much as you'd think.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2009 at 10:56AM
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My Dad used to wake every time I coughed at night, since I had asthma as a child.

But the whole family slept right through a major four-alarm fire that had fire trucks parked in our driveway!

    Bookmark   March 24, 2009 at 3:00PM
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Lawyers aren't really "ultra expensive". Paying a lawyer $1000 to try to prevent your house from losing $25,000 in value seems reasonable.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2009 at 8:09PM
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You are right about noise, I grew up right next to JFK Airport, our house was in the flight path of the runway. As a kid, I would wave to the people in the windows of the plane as it was coming in for a landing. We would automatically stop talking as a jet flew over our heads and resume as soon as it passed. Never thought twice about it until I moved away.

You can get used to noise, but most people would not choose to live with it. I think her property values would plummet with a fire-house next door. I agree with pipersville - get a lawyer!


    Bookmark   March 25, 2009 at 11:08PM
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