AN UGLY STORY OF A POLITICAL FIRETRAP
Residents of Port Chester and Rye Brook with even limited political memories know that battle royal politics between fire departments that are paid, volunteer, or a combination thereof can put property and lives at risk seemingly with no legal or political retribution. To mention the phrase “Rural Metro” can inspire the equivalent emotions here that “Remember the Alamo” does in Texas.
You can now add “Remember the Sprainbrook Nursery Fire Fiasco” and the “Greenville Fire Department” to that lexicon. And since both the Nursery and the Greenville F.D. are in Westchester County, just minutes away from Rye Brook/Port Chester in the Edgemont Section of the Town of Greenburgh, is reason enough to tell an ugly tale.
It starts on Sept. 27, 2015 when the Nursery, owned by the Krautter family for nearly 75 years, experienced a catastrophic fire, the second still unexplained fire in the course of nine months.
Tor Krautter and his sister Tonja, children of the current owner Al Krautter, have published an internet explanation of their parents’ tribulations.
To quote that part of their document that pertains to the fires:
“…there were two suspicious fires on the property within the last few years, which destroyed their ability to stay open as a full service nursery…The first fire was in a large storage building in the back end of the property. When the fire department arrived they found no water pressure in the fire hydrants and the building was lost. The second fire occurred 9 months later. This time it was our beloved red barn that burnt to the ground. The barn housed our garden center and offices. It contained years of business records, family heirlooms, and all the office supplies needed to run a business. We also lost a tremendous amount of garden center inventory as well as some heavy equipment stored in the basement.”
“To the credit of the Greenville Fire Department, they responded very quickly and arrived within minutes (apparently having no trouble navigating Underhill Road) to the nursery. However, when they attached their hoses to the same fire hydrants, there was still no water pressure. No one had fixed the problem since the previous fire 9 months earlier. According to reports from our neighbors, the firemen stood around for 45 minutes before they were able to put any water on the building. What started out as a very manageable fire, ended in total destruction. The building burnt to the ground.”
“Even more frustrating,” the Krautters write, “was the fact that right across the bridge, just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the (Sprain Brook) parkway is the Village of Ardsley. Ardsley had hydrants with enough water to put out the fire. However we were told their volunteer fire department was not allowed to participate because they are not union affiliated. Several of their volunteers worked for our father at the nursery in their youth. They desperately wanted to respond and save the building. Despite the fact that they had plenty of water pressure in their hydrants just across the bridge, they were told not to come.”
Our own independent reporting from sources inside the Ardsley Fire Department confirms that they not only were not allowed to come, Greenville didn’t want to see them because they were an all-volunteer department, anathema to Greenville, which is paid and volunteer. In fact, Greenville put out a call for mutual aid for fire departments as far afield as Pelham! The only thing they had in common was that they had union firefighters in their ranks, unlike Ardsley.
What we discovered in our investigations was that the Nursery has THREE fire departments theoretically responsible for their protection, as all three border its property. They are the Greenville, Hartsdale, and Ardsley Fire Departments. We can confirm that alone of those departments, Ardsley was adamantly not on the list of “mutual aid” responders, even though it was the closest to the Nursery with both adequate water pressure and men and equipment willing to fight the fire.
We say “adamantly” because from his anger and tone of voice, that is the only conclusion to be drawn after our interview with Walter Groden, a 67-year (YES, 67!!) member of the Greenville Department, a current Commissioner, and the man selected to be their spokesperson when this reporter called looking for both confirmation of the circumstances and comment. Groden confirmed that Ardsley is not only NOT on the list, but also that the composition of the list is a “prerogative” of his department. Groden confirmed that all the fire departments with which they have mutual aid agreements are, like his own, either paid or paid/volunteer – they have no relationships with any all-volunteer department (which means the Port Chester FD will never be called by Greenville for help even if the entire Greenville Fire District is burning down).
If you think this is nuts, well, this is what you get with local fire politics in a county (and state) where every local fire district is accountable to itself – and where the voters usually have no clue what the Fire Department does with their money, or how it behaves, just as long as they show up when needed.
The Krautter Family, according to their own account now nearly destitute except for the nursery land they own, find themselves being prevented from selling their land to an Assisted Living Facility (which has offered to buy it) by a lawsuit filed by the very same Greenville Fire Department, a lawsuit being ushered through the system by Keane and Beane, Rye Brook’s official attorneys. Greenville claims that the property is too far from its firehouse, and the road it is on too difficult to navigate, to be properly serviced for both ambulance and fire services.
Of course, the instant solution to Greenville’s problem would be to cede responsibility for fire and ambulance services to the Krautter property to the one adjoining fire service willing to protect and defend it, Ardsley’s Fire Department.
You’re laughing now. Because you know there’s a fat chance of that ever happening. But by laughing, you know how sick, how ugly, how inbred, and how demanding of massive reform the fire service is in Westchester County.
Dick Hubert, a retired television news producer-writer-reporter living in Rye Brook, has been honored with the Peabody Award, the DuPont Columbia Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award.