By Ann McCreary

Commissioners of Okanogan County Fire District 6 have decided to appoint a citizens advisory committee to provide feedback on the best location for a new fire hall.

At their monthly meeting Monday (Aug. 8), commissioners agreed to establish the advisory group to specifically address the question of where a new hall should be built.

The district purchased 5 acres in the Horizon Flats neighborhood in Winthrop about six years ago, and proposed building a 12,000-square-foot station there at an estimated cost of about $2.4 million.

The station was intended to replace a leased fire hall in Winthrop that district officials say is too small and inadequate to safely accommodate equipment and firefighters.

A property tax levy increase to fund the new station was rejected by voters in 2014. Plans for the new station were shelved last year after months of debate and criticism from some residents of the district, and after construction bids were more than the district could afford.

Critics said the proposed station was too large, elaborate and expensive, and some people said Horizon Flats was not a good site because it is adjacent to a residential neighborhood and is on a hill with a curving road that could be difficult to navigate in winter.           

Many people urged commissioners to give community members a greater voice in planning for a new fire hall.

Commissioners were evidently ready to act on that suggestion this week by taking the first step toward establishing an advisory committee.

“I think we should get a committee going. We’ve waited long enough,” said Commissioner Jerry Palm. 

Cody Acord, interim chief, suggested that commissioners think about their goals for an advisory committee, and bring their ideas to the next meeting.

“There needs to be a clear intent for what you want them (committee members) to do,” Acord said.

Commissioners decided to review the guidelines of a previous citizens advisory committee that was established in 2012 with the goal of “communicating with the public the district’s priorities and challenges,” according to the mission statement.

That committee was subsequently criticized by some of its members as having an underlying goal of promoting the property tax levy to build the proposed fire station. The committee stopped meeting in 2014, Acord said.

Les Stokes, who joined the fire district board of commissioners this year after defeating longtime commissioner Roy Reiber, had questions about whether the Horizon Flats location was suitable.

“You’re going to lose about four minutes [of response time] getting up there and back,” Stokes said.

Palm and Commissioner Darold Brandenburg said the Horizon Flats property owned by the district may still be the best location available, with appropriate zoning, for the district to build a station.

“Everybody realizes that no matter where the fire station is built, somebody’s going to be unhappy,” Brandenburg said.

Commissioners proposed an eight-member advisory board with representatives from throughout the fire district, which extends from Gold Creek to Mazama.

In other business, commissioners said that discussions about annexation have been initiated with both Winthrop and Twisp. Both towns currently receive fire protection through contracts with District 6.

Brandenburg, who is working with Winthrop, said town officials are interested in annexation, and are working with the district to answer questions regarding transfer or sale of fire equipment and property, and the financial impact of annexation on taxpayers.

Acord said the discussions are aimed at developing a pre-annexation agreement with Winthrop.

Stokes said he has had a conversation with Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who said she would bring the annexation question before the town’s public safety committee for discussion.

Winthrop’s contract for fire protection expires at the end of this year, and Twisp’s expires in 2017. Annexation proposals would have to be placed on a ballot for voters in the towns and in the district to decide.