By Tom Loach
As Captain Will Schmertzler turned his head toward me I could see in his eyes what was coming even before I heard his muffled voice coming through the air mask asking, “Ready to go?” I gave a quick nod and we kicked in the door and moved into the flames. Keeping below the smoke, we could see that both the living room and kitchen were fully involved. Will opened the nozzle and hit the ceiling in the living room with a blast of water, killing the flames that were licking over our heads. Having darkened down the living room, we needed to cut off the fire before it spread down the hall to the bedrooms. Moving forward, the next stream of water hit the flaming kitchen full force. At the same time other firefighters were breaking windows to ventilate the building of heat and smoke. The combination of the two actions worked and the fire was stopped in its tracks.
A short time later, standing in the rubble and looking at the damage the fire had done, we saw that the house that was a fire waiting to happen. The cause of the fire was not unfamiliar. The owner of the home, an elderly woman whose husband had died some time ago, didn’t have the ability or funds to maintain the home and over time neglect to the dangerous situation. Fortunately, in this case the occupant made it out of the house, but now she was homeless. Thankfully, she had family who took her in and, even more important, she still maintained her homeowner’s insurance, allowing her to make repairs to her home.
The focus of this article is not the fire, but the condition of the house that started the fire and if you’ll permit me, I’d like to take off my fire helmet and put on my other hat, that of Planning Commissioner for Crozet.
As many of you know the Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA) has purchased land on Blue Ridge Avenue, which is off Jarmans Gap Road. Under the current zoning, PHA can build up to 90 homes by right, that is to say, they can build that many homes without the need to ask the county for a rezoning. PHA’s mission is to provide affordable housing in and around Albemarle County and they have been quite successful in that mission. In the past, just the mention of affordable housing would have been cause for alarm on the part of the community. Certainly those who have lived here long enough you can remember the consternation that arose as the result of building the Crozet Crossing development.
The good news is since that time both the community and organizations like PHA have learned a thing or two. The new development, while it will certainly contain housing that could be considered affordable by the current standards in Crozet, will also contain market value homes. This range of price has been one of the reasons PHA has been so successful in working with communities and neighborhoods both in the city and county. If I heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times around town: “I’m glad I live in Crozet because I couldn’t afford to move here now.”
There’s a need for additional affordable housing in Crozet and I’m not just referring to those in the low income category who need homes. I’m thinking of the woman whose home had almost burned down and wonder how much better it would have been for her if she had the opportunity to move to a smaller and more affordable home than the one she lived in but couldn’t maintain. I know for a fact that Crozet is losing the children of firefighters to other communities because they can’t afford to buy a home in Crozet. I was in one local shop talking with a young man who has two children and a wife who works. Right now they rent a home, but given the chance they would like to own a home in the community he grew up in. PHA defines a type of housing called “work force housing,” which is aimed at providing homes for police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers and those who work in the local shops and businesses that serve our community. They are committed to working with the residents of Crozet to build a development that will primarily serve the needs of those who live in Crozet or who work to serve Crozet.
To that end, PHA will develop a survey to help define the needs of the community and design the new development built around the survey responses and other community input. Additionally they will be doing outreach to County employees—including police, fire and the school division—to get the word out about this new development. I hope those of you who might be interested in using the services of PHA to own your own home as well as those in the community who want to help in the design of this new development will take the time to fill out the survey.* For PHA and Crozet it’s a win-win situation.
Moving into that burning house, I had complete faith in the decisions Captain Schmertzler would make in order to put the fire out. I knew that with firefighter Dick Martin in charge of water supply, I wouldn’t find myself with a hose without water. And in the back of my mind I knew if something did go wrong, the one thing I could depend on is the tradition in the fire service of taking care of our own and it’s this confidence that allows firefighters to do what we do.
As a resident of Crozet, I think knowing our young people can afford that first starter home or that retirees who have spent most of their lives making Crozet such a great community have safe, affordable homes is a good thing. And should Crozet end up having a disproportionate number of firefighters, police officers and teachers living here, I don’t see that as a problem. In fact one could say that working with PHA is just one way of taking care of our own.
On a side note, I noticed on the RealCrozetVA.com web site that during the snow storm someone had left a Twitter message asking if the fire department and rescue squad needed anything. As you can imagine the storm meant a busy time for both agencies and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the concern shown by the residents of Crozet. As a matter of fact, during the storm when we weren’t out on a call, we were chowing down on a platter of fried chicken and salads sent over from MusicToday. Again, thanks for thinking of us!
*Look for the survey form in next month’s Gazette