The Jericho Fire Department was chronically short of firefighters -- so short, it had to elect a chief who lived in a different community, stretched its membership rules to take 17-year-olds and send its building custodians out on fire and rescue calls.

The solution? Build a new 33,200-square-foot headquarters with a gym, sun deck, sauna and library that commissioners hope will attract new volunteers and entice more of the members to hang around the firehouse for calls.

The $11 million, three-story building now is going up on Route 106/107, across the street from the current 24,000-square-foot headquarters, which, while it could use a new roof and fixtures, also has a spacious bar and recreation room, meeting hall large enough to host hundreds of guests, and four truck bays filled with state-of-the-art equipment.

"The board is hopeful that these improvements will translate into improved response times," according to a statement by Jericho's elected commissioners when the building was approved. The old one will serve as a maintenance building.

Many neighborhood residents say the new building is too tall and too big for the lot, and records show that if it were not a firehouse, it would violate town zoning laws. The residents say that the district made it difficult for them to gather details about the new building.

"I'm the first to say, 'Go for it,' if it is going to save lives," said Doreen Leibowitz, whose backyard abuts the site. "But why does it have to be this humongous thing?"

Building boom

For more than 15 years -- in Jericho, Hicksville, Coram, Miller Place and dozens of communities in between -- a building boom has swept Long Island fire agencies. Whether in good economic times or bad, the supersizing of Long Island firehouses has continued unabated.

Since 1995, new headquarters have been built in at least 10 Long Island communities. Fire headquarters have undergone dramatic expansions in at least 40 other places, frequently doubling the size of the buildings.

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Medford replaced its 8,000-square-foot headquarters with one that has more than 30,000 square feet; North Patchogue traded up from 9,000 to more than 26,000; and Garden City Park is now replacing its 6,500-square-foot main firehouse with one that measures 24,500.

At least a dozen new substations and 15 buildings for administration, training, dispatch and other functions have been built. Another 18 substation expansions are under way or recently completed, and dozens of other building projects are in the planning stages.

There are now 386 fire stations and 104 other fire-related buildings on Long Island.

And the cost of projects is rising quickly.

The $3.8 million borrowed by the Greenlawn Fire District in 1994 to rebuild its headquarters was then the largest bond floated by any fire district in the state. Thursday, Setauket fire officials are asking voters to support a $17.5 million bond issue to replace their 14,436-square-foot headquarters with a new one that will be more than twice as big at 38,000 square feet.

"The general rule of anything in the fire service is that things tend to get bigger over time," said Charles Jennings, a former volunteer firefighter who teaches fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "There is some uniqueness to Long Island in terms of the sheer scope and magnitude and size of the facilities. Everything is a little bigger on Long Island."

Newer firehouses often come with hotel-sized kitchens with walk-in refrigerators, gyms, locker rooms and oak-paneled lounges with open-tap bars, big-screen televisions, pool tables, pinball machines and video games.

Some fire officials acknowledge they are using the one resource they have plenty of -- money -- to keep their members happy at the firehouse and to bring in new volunteers.

"If you want to take a horse and carriage, you've got to feed the horse a little something," said Hicksville Commissioner Robert Dwyer, explaining to residents in 2003 why his district wants to expand one substation's bar area, gym and meeting rooms at a cost now estimated at $5.2 million. He said it didn't measure up to the district's other substations.

"Actually, I'm embarrassed," he said. "We think the Ronald Avenue station should look as nice as the others."

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Supersizing skepticism

Jennings is skeptical of the value of buildings in recruiting and retaining members.

"Has anybody done any study to show that if we build a Trump Tower and call it a fire station headquarters, that it's going to suddenly attract 25 reliable members?" Jennings asked. " ... I think the answer is no."

Since the late 1980s, fire officials have also generally cited tougher occupational and safety standards, fire-truck safety mandates, physical fitness requirements and even the Americans with Disabilities Act as justifications for new building projects.

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By last fall, Dwyer's explanation of the need for the substation project had shifted after angry residents ousted an incumbent commissioner.

"It has to be renovated. Federal law states you have to have a safe environment to work in," Dwyer told a civic association meeting last year. "Fortunately, we have not been cited by OSHA. No one has dropped a dime to say, 'Come down here and look.' Because anybody knows if you work in an industry and OSHA comes in, you're mandated to correct those problems."

But a closer look at such mandates makes clear that none require building projects on the scale Long Island agencies have chosen. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no rules for the space between trucks, and the disabilities act only requires that handicapped-access improvements are necessary when buildings are already being renovated for other reasons, according to federal officials.

When Dwyer was contacted after the public meeting, he wasn't able to point to any violations.

Fire officials most often point to a 1987 national safety standard requiring firefighters to ride in enclosed cabs, which they say has forced them to buy a new generation of trucks too big to fit in the old firehouses.

"Now, most trucks have to be able to carry 10 men in a cab," Frank Relf, a leading Long Island firehouse architect, told West Islip residents at one public meeting. "A ladder truck by the time it's done will fit out at 12 feet, 6 inches high unless it's custom-designed."

Most Long Island fire trucks, though, are already custom-designed.

Babylon's new aerial platform ladder, the biggest type of fire truck, is just 10 feet high because the village issued bidding specifications requiring that it be able to back into the 79-year-old firehouse bay at village hall "without any modifications to the building's structure."

"There are many different models you can pick from," one national sales representative said. "The long and short of it is, we build custom fire apparatus to fit in your garage and to fit your needs."

And the 10-person cabs Relf mentioned are not mandated.

"The only time I see 10 guys in a cab is at a parade or if the alarm rings during a department meeting," said Robert Galione, a New York City firefighter and former Lakeland commissioner.

'Awful lot of fluff'

When buildings are expanded to accommodate larger trucks, fire districts also often add meeting and recreational space on floors above the bays. And in at least 38 communities, members may use those facilities for private parties, but residents may not.

West Islip's failed attempt at a $6 million expansion in 2003 was spurred by complaints from firefighters about overcrowding and exhaust fumes around the trucks. By the time plans were finalized, an entire second floor, complete with offices, training rooms and a new gym, was on the drawing board.

"There's an awful lot of fluff in this proposal," said Ronald Bova, former chairman of the West Islip school board and an anti-tax activist.

Fire commission Chairman Kevin Shaughnessy conceded that the district hadn't pressed for cheaper alternatives, but said the amount of money the building would cost taxpayers was insignificant compared with recent local school and library bonds.

"Most volunteer firemen aren't the best business people, and we're not usually the smartest people on the planet," he said. "But we do it for free."

Residents who oppose building projects face a daunting task.

Fire commissioners have considerable legal powers -- they can raise taxes and take property through condemnation. Laws and local zoning practices give residents little voice in construction decisions. And the obscurity of the fire districts themselves, as well as the arcane rules that govern them, keep opponents in the dark about building plans and what they can do to fight them.

Benefit of the doubt

Since 1988, state courts ruled that local governments should balance a fire district's right to immunity from zoning laws with a project's impact on residents. But towns routinely give fire agencies the benefit of the doubt.

For instance, Jericho's $11 million headquarters proposal was approved without debate by Oyster Bay Town in October 2002. The town didn't notify residents of the meeting, either, even though opponents had asked to be able to comment because they said the building would exceed town height and lot coverage restrictions, duplicate the basic facilities at the present firehouse across the street and lack adequate parking.

A town spokeswoman said there was no need to notify neighbors because the approval was automatic. Despite the 1988 decision, Oyster Bay's town code exempts fire district projects from zoning rules and public hearing requirements. No one has yet challenged the code in court.

After watching the town approve the Jericho project, Hicksville commissioners facing better organized and persistent opposition to their substation expansion plans were reassured.

"The town can delay the process," according to minutes from a 2003 commission meeting, "but it cannot stop us from doing what we want." The commission approved the project and is awaiting a building permit from the town.

When it comes to paying for building projects, fire districts have two options: They can salt away tax dollars, or they can ask for the public's permission to borrow the needed millions in a bond issue.

By piling up multimillion-dollar building accounts over several years, fire districts can avoid votes on borrowing entirely. State law does not limit the amount fire districts can set aside in these reserve accounts, and their annual reports to the state comptroller indicate they prefer this route. By the end of 2003, Nassau and Suffolk fire districts had amassed $182 million in reserve accounts, compared with only $77 million in bond debt.

Tough to contest plans

When districts want to spend the building reserve money, they vote at open meetings that are poorly publicized and poorly attended. It is then announced in the legal notices that appear in small type in the back of the local newspaper. The process is called "permissive referendum."

The only way taxpayers can actually vote, though, is if they file a petition signed by residents who own 25 percent of the assessed valuation of taxable property in the district within 30 days of the publication of the legal notice.

"If you look at the level of proof that you would have to submit ... somebody's got to research deeds and get information on assessed values," said Joe Frank, an attorney who represents both the Hicksville and Jericho fire districts. "It's a very complicated process."

Lawyers for fire districts said they knew of no case where a petition drive had succeeded in forcing a vote.

"You put it once in your legals, and who the hell is watching?" said an attorney for one Suffolk town who declined to be identified because he did not want to antagonize the volunteers. "By the time ... realize it, the building goes up, and they say, 'How did that get there?'"

During all the debate over the Jericho Fire District's new headquarters, Leibowitz and her civic group weren't aware that they could try to force a vote. When residents asked at a public meeting how they could stop the project, a commissioner never answered the question.

"It's a lost cause ... they're getting what they want," Leibowitz said after the town had approved the project. "If you need this thing, then be up front and tell us what's going on. The secrecy involved was unbearable. Why is it so difficult to get information from them?"

District Secretary Marge Blais said the district had always been forthright and open in dealing with residents and their requests for information. She said the only time the district had balked at turning over records was when residents had asked for costly duplication of architectural drawings and weren't willing to pay the full cost of copying.

Hidden surpluses

When districts are planning projects, it can be hard for residents to determine just how much commissioners are setting aside for construction. While the building reserve accounts and the money earmarked for them are clear in budgets each year, some districts may actually be putting more money away than their budgets indicate.

The way state law works, affluent districts can raise much more money in a year than they will actually need for expenses, leaving large operating surpluses that can then be diverted to building projects without public notice.

In one five-year period, Jericho ran surpluses of 42 percent, 31 percent, 11 percent, 14 percent and 16 percent, documents show. That extra $2.4 million was added to the $4.5 million they had already budgeted for the building reserve fund over that same time period. By 2002, Jericho had banked $12.7 million in this manner.

Fire officials defend the practice as prudent budgeting that saves on interest costs.

Others are sharply critical.

"I feel this way about surplus revenues: It is wrong," said State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a strong supporter in the Legislature of Long Island fire districts. "That money should be returned to the taxpayers."

When districts don't have construction money in hand, they must borrow in the bond market. But the obscure elections that authorize the debt must only be publicized with a legal notice in a local newspaper and are dominated by firefighters and their families, records show. The elections may get scant coverage even in community newspapers.

On the afternoon of April 27, 2000, Coram held a bond election to finance the biggest, most expensive firehouse on Long Island.

With just 242 people voting, less than 2 percent of those registered in the district, the referendum passed easily, 136 to 98. A comparison of the voter roll and the department roster shows that at least 138 of those ballots were cast by department members or their relatives.

Bond defeats

Taxpayers have sometimes complained that fire officials seem to go out of their way to dampen voter turnout. In two communities in the last two years, that frustration led to the defeat of firehouse bonds.

West Islip commissioners scheduled their $6.5 million bond vote for 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend 2003 and refused to issue absentee ballots. After residents barraged local lawmakers with calls, the vote was rescheduled, and the bond has been soundly defeated twice since.

In Seaford in January, residents defeated a $5 million bond issue. Although the district says it had gone beyond the law, holding public meetings and sending out a mailing, residents complained they didn't have enough notice. The uproar prompted Nassau's assessor and comptroller to call for closer scrutiny of special districts.

Some of the angriest fights between fire agencies and residents occur on those rare occasions when property is condemned to accommodate bigger firehouses.

Over the last decade, downtown businesses have been demolished amid controversy in Central Islip, Northport and New Hyde Park to make way for expanded firehouses. In Central Islip, the Salvation Army thrift shop was torn down, and in Northport, a coffee bar; both were for parking spaces.

Warren Unger remembered his shock in 1996 when he learned that the building his security systems business had leased for six years was being taken by the New Hyde Park Fire District for a gym.

"I said, 'Listen, you've got to be kidding me,'" Unger recalled telling commissioners at the condemnation hearing. "'You're going to displace four businesses that are in there and operating ... for a gym? Why not take your racing car out of the racing bay and put a couple of machines in there?'"

Fire Commissioner John Melinski said the gym helps the department maintain superior response times.

"We try to keep our firemen on our property there in headquarters in case we have a call," said Melinski, 75, who spends much of his day at the firehouse and answers calls. " ... I use it myself, and I would say on a daily basis 20 to 30 other people do."

Unger estimated that moving his business cost $27,000. A new 10,000-square-foot firehouse expansion, including a gym, was completed two years ago, but Unger still wonders if there wasn't an easier way for firefighters to stay fit.

"Whatever happened to Jack LaLanne?" he asked.

Stacey Altherr contributed to this story.