Doug Kelly Named CHFD Interim Fire Marshal

CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill Fire Department has named retired fire captain, Doug Kelly, as its interim fire marshal.

Public information officer, Lisa Edwards says Kelly served in the Chapel Hill Fire Department for more than 25 years and will serve as the interim fire marshal for the next 60-90 days. She says the department hopes to be able to fill the permanent position by then.

“We had an open recruitment, and we saw some pretty good candidates,” Edwards says. “We want to make sure we get the best fit for our department and our community, because that position interacts with the community so much.”

The fire marshal is responsible for the life safety division of the fire department—one which Chapel Hill has been working short on staff.

Matt Lawrence moved from the fire marshal position to Deputy Chief of Operations. Deputy Fire Marshal Dace Bergen has served as the interim fire marshal since January.

“The plan was he would just serve as interim until we found a permanent replacement,” Edwards says.

The Chapel Hill Fire Department operates from five fire stations around the town and staffs nearly 100 employees. Its budget is upwards of $7 million, and it’s responsible for protecting more than $7 billion worth of property—of which nearly $5 billion belongs to UNC.

Police Headquarters Property Review Finds Pollutants

CHAPEL HILL – Chapel Hill Police and Fire headquarters are in dire need of repair or replacement, but the Town’s effort to proceed in preparing the land for sale has hit a snag.

Town Manager Roger Stancil reported to the Council this week that a property assessment of the police headquarters building on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard found a coal ash disposal site 15 feet underground on the southern edge of the property.

“If you start developing on that site, you have the potential for disturbing that fly ash,” Stancil says. “We need to do that now consistent with whatever recommendations come to us from the state. It may mean that rather than disposing of it, we might be better to redevelop that property for ourselves.”

Fly ash is a product of combustion that is made up of fine particles that are an environmental pollutant. However, the substances that were deposited on this land should not pose a health issue, according to the assessment.

“If you have to do something to mitigate that or whether construction techniques because it’s there mean you have to build a building different somehow, that would all affect its development potential and the cost of redeveloping that property to the Town,” Stancil says. “I think that’s an important consideration as we try to decide what to do with it.”

Stancil says one concern with any work done there is the land’s proximity to Bolin Creek and keeping the pollutants out of it.

He says the property assessment came as part of the Chapel Hill 2020 plan in order to review town-owned buildings to make sure they are still functioning in line with the Town’s vision.

“That property was identified as one to examine and see if perhaps we could sell that property and use the proceeds to build a new department,” Stancil says.

The property assessment was conducted by Falcon Engineering—which has since been contracted by the Town as a site consultant—and the assessment has been sent to the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources (NC DENR).

All are in agreement that Chapel Hill needs new public safety headquarters.

“We need a new police department,” Stancil says.

“We’re just out of space here,” Police Chief Chris Blue says. “The building is just not designed to have 120 police officers and 25 non-sworn staff all working here. We were a lot smaller organization back in 1981 when the ribbon was cut on this building.”

“We’ve outgrown fire headquarters,” Fire Chief Dan Jones says. “We’ve got people using former closets as offices. We’re packed in here about as tight as you can get, and the building’s in pretty serious need of repair.”

Unfortunately, Chief Jones says that’s not all that the Fire Department needs.

“We’ve kind of reached a point in time, I think, where a lot of the public safety facilities need to be either renovated or replaced,” Chief Jones says. “We’ve got other fire stations that are (in) equal or even worse condition that we’re also working on trying to find ways to replace.”

A new facility may include fire and police management staff which would greatly reduce the costs compared to two buildings.

Chief Blue says having the staff within walking distance would greatly improve efficiency.

“I think there are great advantages for us to interact and communicate face-to-face regularly on a daily basis,” Chief Blue says. “Certainly there’s opportunity for us to share some emergency operations kind of space for when we have some kind of significant event.”

The discovery of the fly ash and coal material sets a long process in motion, as Stancil told the Town Council in an email Tuesday. However, he said the Town is prepared to follow the direction of the DENR and take any steps necessary.

OC Fire District Plan Sparks Annexation Debate

CHAPEL HILL -A plan to redraw the fire insurance districts south of Chapel Hill sparked a heated debate about annexation between town and county officials.As he kicked off Tuesday’s discussion on creating new fire districts, Assistant County Manager Mike Talbert reminded the Orange County Commissioners, “This has absolutely nothing to do with fire protection, and everything to do with fire insurance.”

But the ninety minute debate also touched on annexation, tax equity, and the future of the town and county’s joint planning areas, as Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt made clear in a speech to the board.

“Under this new annexation paradigm that we’ve been given by the North Carolina legislature, we can think about how we rationally plan our future together, because these tools that created this map are no longer usable,” said Kleinschmidt. “The concept of the [extra-territorial jurisdiction] and that urban or Orange County citizens who live in Chapel Hill should continue to pay for services into the unincorporated areas-that’s no longer workable. Because that area will no longer become part of the town of Chapel Hill. We know that.”

At issue are a handful of homeowners south of Chapel Hill who have seen their fire insurance rates skyrocket now that insurance companies are using GPS to pinpoint their exact distance from fire stations. Under the new rules, those more than six miles away are subject to higher rates, even if the actual fire protection agreements haven’t changed.

The county’s solution was to ask Chapel Hill to extend it’s fire district to include these homes and levy a tax of 15 cents per $100 to cover the cost, or failing that, to ask Carrboro.

The Chapel Hill Town Council first voted against the plan in favor of annexing the neighborhoods north of Mt Carmel Church Road.

But last week the council backtracked, approving a two year contract to cover the homes, after it became clear that recent changes to state law make it impractical to annex the neighborhoods.

On Tuesday however, commissioners argued they want a five year contract that gives the town the chance to opt out annually.

“What I do not want to see us do, is get in a situation where we come back in two years and do the same dance again, “said Commissioner Earl McKee. “I think that if we’re going to make another attempt to work with Chapel Hill on this, it has to be a five year contract, because there is the one-year out.”

Kleinschmidt responded that the town council only approved a two year contract, and would need to reconsider a longer commitment.

Further more, he said it’s time the towns and county revisit the question of what to do with land in the town’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.

Much of that land was slated for eventual annexation by Chapel Hill, but lingers in limbo since the general assembly changed the rules to preempt town-initiated annexation. Now, either 100 percent of residents in the affected area must petition the town, or a majority must approve the annexation in a referendum.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin said he’d welcome the chance to revisit the matter of the extra-territorial jurisdictions, or ETJs.

“I think these folks should be annexed, I think they live in Chapel Hill and they should be part of that,” said Dorosin. “But I don’t put all the blame on them, they’ve been in the ETJ for 20 years. Chapel Hill had a long time to annex them and didn’t. To the mayor’s point, about ETJs as a planning tool that allows growth, it has been abused by a lot of towns and they’ve kept areas in their ETJs for decades.”

The board voted unanimously to send a proposal to the town council for a five year contract to extend the Greater Chapel Hill Fire District, as well as an agreement to begin discussion on long-term land planning.