File photo.

With the Gateway Area Plan nearing final approval, the Arcata Fire District is worried there won’t be time or money for fire services to expand before shovels hit the ground. 

On Tuesday, the Arcata Planning Commission approved a final draft of the Gateway Area Plan, which will rezone a swath of west Arcata to allow high-density housing and mixed-use development.  On July 17, the Arcata City Council will hold a second public hearing — the first will be on May 29 — and it might, at that point, finalize work and adopt the plan, which has been in the works for several years. 

The plan, paving the way for 3,500 residential units in buildings four to seven stories high, is moving uncomfortably fast for the Arcata Fire District (AFD), which is currently understaffed with just six firefighters and three fire engines.

 “The District is asking for a limit on building size until we can play catch up with our staffing and equipment needs that would meet the industry standard,” AFD Deputy Chief Chris Emmons told the Outpost.

“I don’t think anybody’s doing anything wrong, per se. I just think it’s a process where everybody’s following the rules – it’s just the rules are moving faster than we like,” said Emmons, who will step into the fire chief position next month. “It’s kind of the hand we’re dealt, and we have to play within that hand that we’re dealt.” 

Alarmed by the speed of the Gateway Area Plan, AFD Board President Eric Loudenslager said he wants to see a policy ensuring that the AFD will get the resources it needs for upcoming development. 

“The Fire District does not have the staffing, equipment or training to suppress fires or deal with a major emergency in those taller buildings,” Loudenslager told the Outpost.

“What we’re asking the City to do is actually get out their typewriter and type in, either in policy or in the codes, that they won’t implement the four through seven story floors in the Gateway Area until such time that the City and the District come to consensus,” Loudenslager told the Outpost. On April 9th, Loudenslager sent a letter to Arcata Mayor Meredith Matthews outlining the board’s concerns. You can read it here

The City, AFD, and Cal Poly Humboldt are working toward a consensus via a standards of coverage analysis, currently underway by an independent contractor. That process, meant to determine what AFD staffing, equipment, training and financial needs will be in the future, is expected to wrap up by the end of the year. 

Noting that she isn’t personally involved in the analysis, Arcata Vice Mayor Alexandra Stillman said she believes it will address AFD’s concerns. “As far as I know, there are several solutions available,” Stillman told the Outpost. Iterating that she doesn’t know specifically what those solutions will be, Stillman proposed that collecting developer fees or combining AFD with another fire department like Humboldt Bay Fire could help the situation. 

Expansion needs identified in the analysis – which may include renovating and/or expanding stations, hiring and training firefighters, and purchasing ladder trucks – will likely take years to actually secure, Loudenslager said. The unspecific timeline of the Gateway Area Plan makes him uneasy. 

“I have no idea when developers will come in, and the City hasn’t really said what they expect,” Loudenslager said. “We need to make sure that the funding track for all the equipment and all the staffing that the Fire District needs is in place.” 

Meanwhile, Stillman pointed out that the plan will also take several years to implement, given its scale and the bureaucratic processes involved in development. “We have to relax,” Stillman said. “See what comes forward and don’t get averse – fear averse or risk averse – until we find out what we can do about some of the risks.”

On top of timeline concerns, Loudenslager predicts that the costs of expansion will be immense. “Where that money would come from, I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does.” 

Funding for the fire department is always tight, Deputy Emmons explained to the Outpost. He noted that the analysis might identify some sources of funding for expansion, including turning to voters.  

Meanwhile, Arcata representatives and staff say that the City has worked closely with AFD from the beginning, and plans to continue.

“We’ve been in pretty regular contact with the District staff since the very beginning of the process,” Arcata Community Development Director David Loya told the Outpost. Loya said the City and AFD have worked to confirm fire safety standards in the new buildings and referenced the current Standards of Coverage analysis. “Those are key components to what I view as collaboration with the district.”

Emmons said that the City has been punctual in notifying AFD about deadlines for input. “In my experience, staff-to-staff, when I reach out, they are responsive to us,” he said.

“As long as we’re addressing this ahead of time and not waiting till the last minute, I think everything’s gonna work out well for the community and all the agencies and entities involved,” Emmons said. “I think we’re working that way.” 

Board President Loudenslager said he feels disappointed with the City’s response to AFD’s concerns. 

“I don’t think the City Planning Commission and the City Council have actually heard us. We’ve spoken, but I don’t think we’ve been heard,” Loudenslager said. “I don’t think they’ve come to grips with the scale of what they’re proposing and how that will affect the District, how it will be funded and how that will be put in place.”

In an email to the Outpost, Mayor Matthews indicated there is still time to find a solution, noting that the City Council has not met to discuss the Gateway Area Plan since the Planning Commission approved it on Tuesday.

“I am meeting with Mr. Loudenslager next week so that I can better understand his concerns in person,” Matthews said. “I have the utmost respect for the AFD and am looking forward to a productive conversation.”