Free Land: Is It Right for My New Station?

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” It’s the age-old saying we’ve all heard, and when we meet with a fire station that has received “free land,” we always err on the side of caution.


It’s not always the case, but many times land that is given to fire departments possesses many issues. The question is – how can you evaluate a piece of land to know if you are making the right choice building on that site?

A Typical “Free Land” Scenario

An example of this could be when a real estate developer who is attempting to get approval for a new subdivision is required by the local government to set aside land for a future fire station. The developer will either give the fire department the least desirable piece of land in the development, or they will search in the surrounding area for the cheapest land to buy.

In this instance, the developer purchased the inexpensive piece of land and donated it to the local fire department, which prepared to build a new station. After further evaluation from the design-builder, the fire department learns that the site will require road widening, there are no available utilities, and the site needs three feet of undercut from bad dirt.

Suddenly, that “free land” has now cost the department hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the site prepared. For the amount of money spent on site preparation alone, they could have bought the perfect site in an excellent location for the same cost. They key is knowing how to evaluate a site and the costs associated with getting it ready for construction.

Weigh Your Options Up Front

Several aspects need to be evaluated when deciding if a site is right for your new station. When speaking with departments, we always encourage them to spend a little bit of money upfront to make sure the site will provide them with everything they need while staying within the allocated budget.

The question we are often asked is, “how much is this site going to cost to develop?” Creating a site budget can be one of the most challenging parts of a construction project. A design-builder can give fairly accurate budgets for a building if the scope is accurately defined, but site costs are always the wild card. The many unknown variables must be evaluated before moving forward with developing that site.

Site Evaluation –
Know the Potential Pitfalls

The first order of business is to determine if there are existing zoning and use requirements that are detrimental to the station locating on a particular parcel of land. In most cases, emergency services are allowed in any zoning district; however, a few municipalities restrict locations or require additional building setbacks and increased landscape buffers. If zoning issues are present, rezoning the property or approving variances to the ordinance can create a solution, but this path takes valuable time. Also, the ideal outcome is not guaranteed.

If the zoning does not present any obstacles, the next step is to investigate the soil and natural features of the site. Hire a geotechnical engineering company to determine if the site is suitable for building construction. A specialist will drill test bores in strategic locations searching for rock, buried organic material and soil types. A significant financial burden can occur if one or more of these issues is present. If the discovery happens later in the design or construction process, costs can increase exponentially.

The geotechnical engineer should also provide insight on two other important factors: the estimated bearing capacity of the soil and a pavement design. If the soil has poor bearing capacity, the price tag on foundations, building designs, and thicker pavement sections will increase. These components alone could be the deciding factor between moving forward with this site or finding another one.

A topographic survey, along with a determination of any wetlands and stream features on the site, is essential to verify the property’s usability. The features of many streams are protected by state and local laws, limiting the square footage that can be developed on site. Undisturbed buffers may be required as well, meaning both sides of a stream cannot be developed or graded. This regulates the quality of the water leaving the site and limits the amount of stormwater runoff. These buffers often create a need for extra land to provide the necessary area for development. In some instances, the location of the buffer and stream make the area either undevelopable or too expensive to develop.

North Carolina and South Carolina have implemented phase two storm water requirements, which affect most towns and counties. These requirements regulate the allowable impervious area — building and paving — and the quantity and quality of the stormwater runoff. A construction area that disturbs more than one acre must design for on-site stormwater storage and removal of suspended soils. This could have a huge impact on the budget.

Surrounding Infrastructure –
Do Thorough Research

The last major subject to review is the infrastructure surrounding the site. Consider the roads, available water and wastewater solutions, the availability of public water and sewer service, and the feasibility of wells and septic systems. Normally, the logistics of the existing road system that provides the best response to the service area is considered when determining the general location for a new station. However with “free land,” you must take what you are given.

Access to the road system is crucial when reviewing an individual property. All state and local departments of transportation have criteria that affect everything from the location and spacing of driveways to requirements for sight distances that ensure safe access to the roadway. As part of the site review, be aware of the visibility in both directions so safe movement is possible.

Furthermore, know if the road on which you are fronting is slated for widening or if an additional right-of-way must be incorporated into the project. If population growth requires more emergency services, the road system, for which property owners are often asked to pay, may also need improvements.

Building design criteria adds another factor into the mix that will impact the site, specifically the need for sprinkler systems. Multiple bay buildings require any fire area over 5,000 square feet to have sprinklers. And many fire stations are being designed to include facilities for overnight stays, which mandate the inclusion of a sprinkler system in the bedrooms. If the public water system or private well does not provide adequate water volume or pressure, a storage tank or pump may be required. If no public sewer system is available, the soils should be tested to determine if it is suitable to support a septic system. This endeavor usually requires an environmental engineer, not a geotechnical engineer, to review the soil permeability. The absence of suitable soils for an adequately-sized septic system to support a fire facility can quickly increase the site budget.

Ask an Expert

Working with a design builder that can help you evaluate all these items is crucial to finding out if free land is the best option for your department. The design-build process specifically helps owners make vital decisions early in the process to alleviate any surprises in the future. Just because the land is free doesn’t automatically mean it’s the right choice for your new station.

Chris Goins is a project developer and John Kelley is a Business Developer at Bobbitt Design Build who specializes in fire station design and construction.

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