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MRFD chief exhorts council to act on affordable housing

Mills River Fire Chief Rick Livingston said a lack of affordable housing is causing the town to lose volunteer firefighters. Mills River Fire Chief Rick Livingston said a lack of affordable housing is causing the town to lose volunteer firefighters.

MILLS RIVER — Mills River Fire Chief Rick Livingston delivered a strong appeal to the Mills River Town Board on Thursday to allow higher density affordable housing, saying the fire department's response times and the community's fire rating are at risk if the squad continues to lose volunteers who can't afford to live in town.

Livingston addressed the Town Council several months after he had spoken to the town Planning Board and made the same appeal. The Planning Board last month delivered a recommendation that the town board update its land-use plan to allow higher density housing of up to 10 units an acre. Now the town allows no more than four units per acre and is limited by building restrictions in the Mills River watershed.
Livingston said 14 volunteer firefighters have quit over the past 28 months "and the reason they all give is they can't afford to live here. Both of my sons ironically are in this group and I want to point out all of them have college degrees and they have good jobs. They're not flunkies."
With fewer firefighters living in the district, the department's goal of a 5-minute response to fire and emergency calls is at risk, he said. If response time slips, the state could lower the district's fire rating, raising insurance premiums for homeowners. And if the fire department is forced to hire paid firefighters to ensure a full force, town residents could face a substantial tax increase.
"Needless to say, if I keep losing my volunteer base because they can't afford to live here, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see we have to do what a lot of other departments have done and that's to hire more paid firefighters," he said.
"I have never heard anyone in this community suggest that you allow for affordable and higher density housing all over the town," he said. "If you want 5-acre lots and $2 million homes in certain areas that's fine but please use some common sense and also have some areas where young people can afford to live."
The Mills River Fire and Rescue Department covers the 22-square-mile Mills River district plus the Pisgah National Forest on the town's border. It has five paid firefighters and 45 volunteers manning the main station and three substations and answers about 900 calls a year, about three quarters of them medical emergencies.
A member of the Henderson County Planning Board, Livingston noted that he had some experience dealing with zoning for higher density housing. He urged the council to set aside personal opposition to higher-density housing and do what's best not only for younger firefighters but farmworkers and young families.
"Please listen to your Planning Board and let them do their job," he said. "They're not idiots, they're smart people.
"There's a lot of talk in this community about personal interest of some council members driving the opposition to affordable housing," he added. "I want to remind each of you that you are elected to do what's best for the entire town and not for a select few. It's not about you, it's not about me, it's about what's best for the entire town."
Outside the meeting, he said would not name specific council members who opposed the higher density housing proposal the Planning Board recommended.
Livingston said after his remarks that he wanted to make the appeal because he and others have the sense that the council would not act on the proposal. When Chief Livingston finished his remarks, Mayor Larry Freeman assured him that the council would not sit on the Planning Board's recommendation.
"We'll address it," he said, "and we're not going to put it off forever."