STONINGTON – The Planning and Zoning Commission struggled to decide Tuesday whether to allow the Old Mystic Fire Department permission to conduct burn trainings in a residential neighborhood.
The fire department, at 21 N. Stonington Road, has conducted firefighter training on a 1.6-acre lot across the street from its building since 1961.
Now the department is seeking a special use permit for two on-site raised trailers, one used for “live burns” that Chief Kenneth Richards said comprise less than 3 percent of the department’s annual training schedule.
These trainings typically take place in the late fall, winter and early spring, he said, adding that the burn trailer was on the site from 2007 to 2012 with “no significant complaints from the neighbors.”
At the public hearing, which began June 6 and was continued to Tuesday, Richards said the Old Mystic Fire District is well-known for its firefighter training programs. He said departments from Stonington, North Stonington and Groton train at Old Mystic for fires involving cars, grills and propane tanks, among others.
“Training is an essential foundation for the Old Mystic Fire Department. The ability to effectively execute a rescue in a burning building or any other kinds of rescue is dependent on the skills honed by our members,” he said.
Following a town paperwork error, the department conducted several live burns on March 20 without a special permit, one resulting in significant smoke in the neighborhood because of a ventilation issue. Richards said he applied for the special permit prior to the burns, but claimed he was never told he couldn’t use the trailers until the department received the permit.
“I just figured, we got to go get a special use permit, but we can still use [the trailers]. So we had that one live burn and now I get accused at a public meeting of doing an illegal burn,” Richards said.
Richards admitted mistakes were made during the March live burn.
“We readily admit that the first time we opened it up sooner than we should have and we got some smoke down low, but the other seven we didn’t have any significant issues,” Richards said.
But neighbors expressed concerns about the effects smoke from live burns could have on their health, the environment, children and home values.
Resident Geoffrey Wood noted the trailers can be seen from the street and do not fit the historic character of the community. Security features like a chain link fence and lighting could further detract from the aesthetics of the neighborhood, he said, adding he’s also concerned with stormwater runoff and air quality.
Neighbor Krisztina Foldi worried there would be no limit to the number of trainings on the site once a special permit was granted.
Marcel Dufresne, a resident who said he can see the training site from his deck, said he supported the fire department but that the trailers were “unsightly.”
“What I’m urging here is a creative solution. It doesn’t look like a good situation. Your options right now are not pleasant. … I think maybe some more brainstorming could come up with a better solution that would be more acceptable to all parties.”
Neighbor Leonard Peta said the training property looked like an industrial zone in the middle of a residential area.
“A special permit is a lifetime commitment,” he said. “It’s unsightly. Would you want to live in that area?”
Old Mystic firefighter Andrew Bellinghieri supported the special permit request and said the department’s priorities were safety, human life and property.
“In order to do our job, we have to train with equipment in situations that mirror the real situation. So we have to train with live fire and understand its behavior,” he said. “You can’t get that experience doing it outside. You have to be inside in a confined space. Training is very important because it keeps us safe. It also helps us keep you safe.”
He explained that the fires are set using pallets, wood and hay, without toxic materials, and extinguished using water from hydrants.
Stonington resident John Morris, who spoke in favor of the special permit, argued fewer volunteers would join the department if trainings were moved elsewhere, leading to higher taxes.
In 2012, the department leased land from the state and moved the trailers to the Mystic Oral School, less than a mile from the Groton station. A special permit was not required at this location, according to Richards. But the state evicted Old Mystic’s trailers earlier this year, costing the department $20,000 to relocate once again, he explained.
The school was “a perfect site for us,” Richards said.
“The big game plan for the Oral School was we were leasing 8 acres of land and we were going to turn that into a regional fire training academy,” he said. “I was working with the state to get grants and everything to build permanent structures – like permanent burn buildings, brick and mortar buildings. That fell through when they decided to sell the Oral School for development.”
The department looked at three alternate sites for the training trailers, but none were acceptable, he added.
Richards also stressed the importance of obtaining a special permit to maintain “one of the largest volunteer forces and one of the best-trained volunteer forces” in firefighting.
“I can’t underscore how important that training is for us to maintain that level when we have,” he said, explaining that New London County is the only county in Connecticut without a fire school.
However, commission alternate Andy Meek argued firefighter training was a state issue that reached beyond the purview of the commission.
“I think it’s kind of bizarre that it’s come down to us at Stonington’s Planning and Zoning meeting to work out why it’s so hard to train firefighters. We shouldn’t be here,” he said.
Commissioner Chuck Sheehan suggested the Old Mystic department look at state surplus properties and talk with the Office of Policy and Management “to do a more exhaustive search” for a new site.
Commission Chair Ben Philbrick asked if live burns could be eliminated since it was such a small percentage of firefighter training, but Richards explained the training was required.
More information needed
The hearing closed Tuesday with the consensus among commissioners being that more information was needed before making a decision on the special permit.
Sheehan said he understood the training is mandatory and that “everyone wants a fully trained fire department when they need one.”
“We’ve got to think through this. And I just haven’t thought it through fully – I can’t, based on everything I’ve heard tonight, make a sound decision,” he said.
Sheehan said the application could be denied without prejudice, which would allow the department to reapply and restart the process with a new public hearing.
Commission Vice Chair Ryan Deasy said by not deciding, the commission was leaving the community and fire department in “a bit of a limbo,” but added that the group needed more information.
“I also don’t think this is an application that the commission should be trying to negotiate on the fly,” Commissioner Lynn Conway said.
Town Planner Clifton Iler explained that the department will be able to do “everything except to use those trailers.” Car extrication training, for example, would be permitted because it’s a temporary use.
“The fact that the trailers are down flat on the ground, that’s what triggers a special use permit. And so anything related to those trailers cannot be done until this is resolved,” Iler said.