By Trevor Busch
A group of home builders in the area continue to pressure the Town of Taber to consider relocating the town’s fire hall to a more central location in an effort to reduce fire response times.
Improving the response times of the town’s volunteer fire service, which could have a corresponding effect on the development community with regard to decreased input costs, has been a bone of contention for developers with properties currently outside the radius of a 10-minute response time.
“The heart of the whole matter — especially when you’re dealing with smaller houses, the big $600,000 houses are not what’s involved here — it’s the smaller housing that are on smaller lots that need to be four feet away from the property line, they’re forced to be eight feet away from the property line or build houses with no side windows,” said Sid Tams, heading a home builders delegation to council’s Nov. 14 regular meeting. “So if we want to do any of these 38 to 44 foot frontage lots, those houses are required to have sprinklers. So our market is really restricted to higher end housing.”
The Alberta Building Code in 2006 addressed high density residential fires, identifying a need for fire departments to respond in under 10 minutes more than 90 per cent of the time. Due to this decision, towns with fire departments unable to achieve this threshold within their response areas would require new buildings to have sprinkler systems installed, increased setbacks or changes to windows and non-vented soffits.
“In talking to the home builders, they’re quite interested in $72,000 – $75,000, 40 foot lots, as opposed to $95,000 to $100,000, 50 foot lots, but they competitively can’t buy them because they can go down the street in Coaldale and build a house there for $10,000 cheaper. That’s the core of what our struggle is,” said Tams.
Recently following in camera discussion on Sept. 12, town council voted unanimously (6-0) to decline an offer it had received to convert the old courthouse, library and police station into a new fire hall.
“I’ve been up here before and took a poke at this by making a proposal to put a fire hall in the downtown core, and it was rejected,” said Tams. “I understand some of the reasons why it was rejected, and it’s all good. So I got to thinking collectively if we get together on this, can we approach this with a can-do attitude of can we find a way to do this.”
According to administration, during the contractor’s meeting on Sept. 27, a discussion was had about the HIRF (high-intensity residential fires) requirements within the town. Administration noted the delegation of home builders attended council on Nov. 14 to provide information on the industry from a local perspective “with the hopes of creating a policy favourable to their interests”.
“Basically, the majority of problems that we had highlighted during that meeting was that the HIRF laws that apply to all of Alberta and most of Canada, don’t work that well for Taber,” said Tams. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons for it, and it’s been talked about a lot, but what that means is we have competition in the surrounding communities where the HIRF laws work just fine for them because they’re able to respond in an under 10 minute time zone. That allows them to build on their building envelopes any kind of building, they’re free to do that. In Taber, we can’t do that. There was quite a lot of discussion about that, and one thing we know for sure is that nobody has the right answer, or a quick solution, we can’t just snap our fingers and make this go away.”
A total of eight contractors submitted letters to town council in support of relocating the town’s fire hall from the eastern industrial area to a central location, including Willi Thiessen of Terramesa Inc., Sid Tams of South Alta Trading Co. Ltd., Pete Konynenbelt of Journeyman Enterprises, Travis Bareman of Bareman Construction, Abe Klassen of Venture Holdings, Paw Pedersen of Maple Leaf Construction, Isaac Thiessen of Genica Development, and Edwyn Ellingson of Willowcrest Construction.
Submitted as virtually identical form letters, all advocate for the town to consider supporting a proposal to relocate the present fire hall due to HIRF requirements.
“As a home builder in the Town of Taber, (we) would ask that council find a way to relocate the fire hall to a central location. This relocation will eliminate the need for HIRF regulation and enable Taber to compete directly with surrounding communities, such as Coaldale, as there is an added expense, approximately in the amount of $10,000, to the homeowner.”
In December 2009, Morrison Hershfield Limited conducted an Emergency Services Master Plan, which identified the Town of Taber’s fire department response times, concluding that the department was only able to meet the required response time 10 per cent of the time. In a new analysis compiled by FireWise Consulting and presented to town council earlier this year, according to historical data over the previous three years reviewed in the report, Taber’s fire service was able to respond to fires in the town in less than 10 minutes 67 per cent of the time, however it’s still more than 20 per cent below the 90 per cent threshold established by the province.
“From my standpoint as a developer, it would be suicide to build 40 foot lots in Taber right now, and it’s the easiest property to sell,” said Tams. “I know for me, I build them, they sell instantly. Our market has changed, too, quite a lot. The economy of Alberta has been taking a pretty big hit, and it’s not going to stop in the near future.”
The FireWise report concluded that while a more centrally-located fire station (closer to Taber’s downtown area) could meet the 10 minute response time threshold, analysis suggested this option would be prohibitively expensive for only a marginally improved benefit. To replace the current fire station with all the amenities of the current hall, is estimated to cost in the range of $5-$6 million, and would also present potential traffic and noise issues.
Tams indicated that offsite levies can be used to support the construction and operation of fire halls, so all costs involved with a potential relocation would not have to be borne solely by the taxpayer.
“So it’s not like it’s just the taxpayers paying for it, it’s an industry that supports itself as well. Now I get that not all offsite levies should be earmarked for fire halls, but it is also something that’s self funding. I also believe we’re all Taberites, and we love the place, and we want to see it grow.”
Glen Sanders of FireWise Consulting, who delivered the new report at town council’s Feb. 22 meeting, suggested at the time that relocating the town’s fire hall would be able to improve response times in certain areas, but questioned whether the cost involved would be in the best interest of Taber taxpayers.
“The answer is, yes it would, but is the cost worth the benefit?” questioned Sanders on Feb. 22. “It would improve the timing, but just barely.” Similar arguments by Sanders were aligned against the construction of a satellite fire station, such as expense, size and scope, and cost versus benefit.
Coun. Jack Brewin was quick to throw his support behind the idea of striking a committee to investigate the matter.
“I honestly believe we should form a committee to get more in depth on this, because we don’t have the facts or all the information. In order for this town to be a progressive town, and attract new people to this town, we need to look into these issues.”
Brewin immediately put forward a motion to form a committee made up of members of town council, local contractors, the fire chief, and the business community, to study the issue more in depth and come back to council with recommendations.
However, Brewin’s motion was not met with universal support by all of council.
“I just think council needs to get together and talk about this, not just right now, but get together and formulate what kind of committee we want, not just lets throw out some names or whatever,” said Coun. Randy Sparks. “Let’s really sit down and decide on a committee if we’re going to take this seriously here.”
Coun. Joe Strojwas seemed impatient to proceed forward on the matter rather than having further discussion.
“I’d like to support Councillor Brewin’s motion. I think we’ve heard enough of this in the last couple of years. We’ve been dealing with HIRF for a number of years. We’ve had presentations, different things on it, I think we’re well enough versed and we know that we need to proceed ahead. I think just delaying it another time — we need to support the business people in this community and proceed ahead with it, because we’ve struggled with this issue for a number of years.”
Sparks suggested previous council discussion on the matter has been “somewhat biased” and expressed a desire to hear the thoughts of citizens on the proposal rather than just a small interest group from the development community.
“I agree there needs to be a committee, and yes, we have had lots of discussion on this, but at times the discussion has been somewhat biased. And so we need to have a committee so the facts can be brought out, and we have all the facts before a decision like this is made. We need to support the business community, but we need to support the citizens of the town of Taber also, and know what they feel about this. Because to move a fire hall isn’t cheap, and initially that’s going to fall on the backs of the citizens of the town of Taber.”
Sparks went on to note that in his observation, not everyone is totally on board with the idea.
“So this is not something that we just jump at. I understand these individuals’ concerns, but it’s not a Town of Taber issue — HIRF is a statute from the province, and run by insurance companies. So this isn’t just a Town of Taber issue, this is an all over issue. But it is very, very expensive to move a fire hall, and I understand that our chief feels that at this point it’s adequate for what we need. But we do need to take a serious look at it, and see what we can do.”
Coun. Rick Popadynetz also expressed concern with the estimated price tag of relocating the fire hall, and if it would be in the best interests of taxpayers in Taber.
“I’m speaking in favour of the motion, but I also agree with Randy (Coun. Sparks) that there are budget implications that we’re missing here that are going to be involved with this obviously. Do we increase our offsite levies to make up for moving our fire hall? We need to have these questions answered prior to setting up a committee.”
Following discussion, Brewin’s initial motion was defeated in a tie 3-3 vote. Coun.(s) Sparks, Popadynetz and Laura Ross-Giroux opposed the motion, while Mayor Henk DeVlieger did not participate in the discussion or vote after declaring a pecuniary interest regarding the matter earlier in the meeting. In a follow up motion by Coun. Sparks, council voted unanimously (6-0) to form a committee to look into the concerns of home builders within the town, and to examine HIRF and the probability of mitigating issues surrounding a 10-minute response time threshold.