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Richmond will cancel a planned burn tower in Southside

A fire truck is parked out front of a low-rise brick building with an American flag out front
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
City Council had already voted to approve the original plan in May, after the city’s Planning Commission and Urban Design Committee voted against it.

Amid protests and a lawsuit, the city backed off of using a greenspace next to Hickory Hill Community Center. 

A Richmond Fire Department training facility that was planned to overtake a Southside greenspace will instead be located in Henrico County, per an informal agreement Mayor Levar Stoney announced Tuesday.

City Council had already voted to approve the original plan in May, after the city’s Planning Commission and Urban Design Committee voted against it.

“I am proud to say that we have found compromise, working alongside Councilwoman Reva Trammell, which includes a new burn tower in Sandston, Virginia AND maintaining RFD trainings at Hickory Hill,” Stoney wrote in a statement.

Stoney’s decision comes after a group of local residents and conservationists opposed the training facility being built at Hickory Hill Community Center. They objected to the construction of a burn tower — a structure made of shipping containers used to simulate high-risk firefighting environments with real blazes.

That tower would have also required a sizable concrete pad to be built next to it, stoking concerns over the impacts of runoff on a nearby tributary and wildlife sanctuary.

Mechelle Esparza-Harris operates Serene Wildlife Sanctuary. She says it’s in its natural state: A 2022 state Department of Forestry report found it to be a likely habitat of endangered avian and aquatic species.

“What we are going to be doing eventually — this is part of our project plan — is having groups coming in and have sightings,” Esparza-Harris said. She hopes to offer classes in association with the community center.

She was one of many people who spoke out against the fire department’s project, objecting to impacts on the surrounding area and use of the community center. Serene Wildlife Sanctuary even filed suit against the city in May, an action Esparza-Harris said would be officially withdrawn this week.

Esparza-Harris and others weren’t satisfied with plans drawn up by contractors that the Richmond Fire Department said would reduce the impacts of runoff and noise pollution. Those measures included a retention pond to store water and a barrier of native trees.

Rosalyn Gibson lives in Cullenwood, a neighborhood adjacent to Hickory Hill. She and her husband Kenneth, president of the Cullenwood Civic Association, also opposed the plan.

Gibson says she's always loved greenspaces. She became excited about plans to create more of them in Southside during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she turned to taking walks across the Potterfield Bridge to Brown’s Island to fill time.

“Why can’t I walk out my front door and have access to greenspace — beautiful greenspace here in Richmond? That’s what I want to experience where I live,” Gibson said.

Southside has less vegetation in residential areas and fewer park spaces due to industrial development and historic disinvestment. The city has acknowledged the need for more greenspaces in planning documents and commitments to green development.

According to the city’s RVAGreen 2050 climate equity index, the census tract including the community center has relatively high rates of chronic health problems like adult asthma — 10.9% compared to a statewide rate of 8.6% in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gibson is glad to hear the burn tower won’t be built, but questioned the decision to continue hosting RFD classroom trainings at Hickory Hill, arguing that both the general public and the fire department deserve dedicated spaces.

“It’s a community center, and the city needs more community centers,” Gibson said.

Stoney’s administration sees the location as a boon, as detailed in an Aug. 1 email from Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders to members of City Council.

“Having our fire recruits embedded in the community will allow community members of all ages to develop personal relationships leading to increased engagement and connectivity with those who may eventually save their lives,” Saunders wrote.

It’s not clear when the new Henrico facility plan will be finalized, but Saunders clarified in his email that the city has yet to determine if the project will require any changes to the city budget.

8th District Councilor Reva Trammell did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.