Law Enforcement training took place in the abandoned homes in Picard Circle last spring.

Council Considers Training in Abandoned Houses Near Airport

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Thursday September 19, 2013

Last spring, without notice, residents of the South Burlington neighborhood adjacent to the airport were startled to see first responders using the abandoned homes on Picard Circle as training grounds. Concerned residents contacted the City Manager and Council saying they saw a firearm resting on a car trunk unattended, and heard what sounded like live fire. In fact, training sessions took place several times over the course of the spring; sometimes there were signs posted, but unposted trainings with participants in full gear elicited the greatest concern as shots and flash bangs rang out.  After an investigation into these activities, it was discovered that the tactical units involved were highly trained law enforcement teams from throughout New England, not South Burlington police. Further investigation found that real firearms were used, but not live ammunition. “In hindsight, people didn’t think about how this would appear to residents of this neighborhood” Chief Whipple said. The reaction of the City at the time was to suspend use of those homes for training purposes until further notice and to date this decision has remained intact. 

At the Tuesday, September 3rd City Council meeting, consideration of a resolution to allow first responder training in these abandoned houses was on the agenda. After Councilor Rosanne Greco asked that the agenda item be removed until the public had an opportunity to express their opinion on the matter, the other councilors concurred, but still wanted to hear from Fire Chief Doug Brent and Police Chief Trevor Whipple who had come to the meeting prepared to present their perspectives on the issue. 

Chief Whipple said, to date, his police force has never used the properties being referenced in the resolution (homes around Picard Circle) for training, but should they become available, he might take advantage of the opportunity. He explained that conducting training in and around these vacant homes, in a neighborhood setting, provides a realistic environment to practice as a team. While the officers learn a lot about armed intruder training at the police academy, there is little opportunity to practice on location until the necessity arises to be “live.”

At the time of the trainings conducted last year, there was no rule in place requiring notification of neighbors, or even notification to the South Burlington Police Department; the proposed resolution could change that. Chief Whipple said that there would be several steps law enforcement agencies would need to take prior to being allowed to conduct training. 

Chief Whipple outlined the steps.  First, an application from any fire or police department requesting to use the abandoned homes would need to be submitted outlining what they plan on doing at the site, how many people would be there, and what equipment would be used. If the resolution is approved, neighbors would be notified no less than 72 hours prior to the training via social media, newspapers, signs, and fliers. At the conclusion of the training, buildings would need to be left as they were found and officials from the airport would follow up and inspect the homes to assure compliance. Chief Whipple said that while this environment provides a good opportunity for training, he understands why people are concerned. One idea he proposed was to simulate what they would be doing in the neighborhood and ask residents, “is this too intrusive or would this be ok?”

According to Fire Chief Doug Brent, his department has never had a complaint or problem when conducting training in the homes. He said, “Practicing situations that aren’t normal is invaluable.” Typically, the fire department gets contacted when homes are going to be demolished and they plan trainings on-site before demolition occurs. For example, two days of training recently occurred in the homes that were removed along Dorset Street to make way for Trader Joes. “We don’t have structures made just for fire training,” Brent said, “but if a community doesn’t want us to do it, we’d find someplace else to do it.” 

Comments from Councilors at the September 3rd meeting were largely of concern over the impact the trainings could have on the neighborhood. Pat Nowak, who lives near the airport, said that she could not support the resolution without a lot of questions being answered first. Such as, who gets to sign off on the activities and who conducts oversight. “There’s no way everyone will know about this before it happens,” Nowak said, “they’re not on social media, they didn’t get the flier, something will happen. There would have to be a lot more rationalization for me to sign off on this.” 

Chris Shaw was in agreement. After the presentations by the Chiefs, he said, “I get the general impression that fire department training is very different than police department training. I feel like (fire) is Norman Rockwell and (police) is like an R rated movie.” 

Chair Pam Mackenzie said that she is conflicted on this issue. While she would like to make sure that first responders have the training they need, she would like to see a situation that is working toward a controlled environment. By reaching out to partners outside of the community as well as engaging the airport and air guard in dialogue, Mackenzie believes the possibility exists to find a better fit. Mackenzie proposed physically moving some of the more stable homes to a location more suitable for training purposes, such as a firing range. 

“There wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t other homes around them, but the problem is there are other homes around them” Nowak said.

Rosanne Greco agreed with Nowak’s sentiments. “First of all, this is a neighborhood, first and foremost” Greco said, “I would defer to the people who live there. Let them decide if they want it there. I find it very distasteful for others to come into our community to conduct their training. They have a bad situation over there already (the airport neighborhood)…this is just rubbing their noses in it.”

Although the Council agreed not to consider the resolution at the moment and to warn a public comment period for the next meeting, they did hear from several individuals in attendance that had come to voice their concerns. Realtor Chris Hurd said it was nice to hear the Council in agreement and asked how we could make sure an incident like last year’s does not occur again. Pam Mackenzie said, at present, no one is allowed to conduct training on the site. Only the passage of a resolution would change that. Bernie Paquette  offered another answer to Hurd’s query and said the answer really lies in all of us. He stressed the importance of being accountable to one another and our neighborhoods and to being alert to activity that seems out of the ordinary. 

At the September 16 City Council meeting the floor was opened to residents to give voice to their concerns. South Burlington resident Megan Emery said that if the homes were to be used by any first responders for training, she felt it should be limited to South Burlington and possibly Burlington since these communities are more invested in the neighborhood and there could be more control over what happens. Ms. Emery said she is not in favor of Burlington making the decision. “It’s our City, this should be our decision” Emery said. Pat Nowak pointed out that there may ultimately have to be a compromise between South Burlington and Burlington since the homes are owned by Burlington. Interim City Manager Kevin Dorn reiterated this point, “Since the homes are owned by Burlington, we can’t do anything without their approval, period. We can see if they have any interest in doing anything with those properties though, at this late date.” Two residents who had spoken at the previous meeting reiterated their stances that they do not believe the training should be held in neighborhoods at all, but instead try to find a remote training location as Mackenzie had suggested as a possible solution. Police Chief  Whipple interjected and said that he sees the option of moving the homes cost prohibitive. The ability to raze and move them and find property would be challenging. “The draw to these homes is that they’re disposable,” Whipple said, “the trainings we do are one time events like what the fire department did at the homes recently demolished to make way for Trader Joes.”  

After much discussion over what the next steps should entail, it was decided that the Police and Fire Chiefs would form a group with residents from the Picard Circle neighborhood to try to come up with an ideal compromise and one that is amenable to Burlington as well. 

Pat Nowak said, “There was no controversy when the Fire Department was using these homes, only when outside police began using them. If there is a way to find a severe compromise that would still provide training for our police…I think that ought to be considered as long as the training was limited to Picard Circle.” Nowak also reminded everyone that whatever solution is met is finite, since the homes are going to eventually be demolished.