District may keep property it bought earlier

By Ann McCreary

An advisory committee has recommended that Okanogan Fire District 6 consider purchasing property on White Avenue, next to Little Star Montessori School, as the location for a new fire station in Winthrop.

Fire District commissioners are reviewing recommendations of the citizens advisory committee appointed last January to research possible locations for a fire station. The 3.25-acre White Avenue site was unanimously regarded by the eight-member advisory committee as a good site, according to a report provided to district commissioners.

Two members of the advisory group also offered personal recommendations at a commission meeting last Friday (Nov. 17). They advised commissioners to consider retaining the property owned by the district on Horizon Flats for use as a training facility, rather than selling it.

The district purchased the 5-acre Horizon Flats site in 2009, but encountered public opposition to plans to build a 12,000-square-foot fire hall there. Public disapproval focused on the size and expense of the building, and on the suitability of the Horizon Flats location due to access via a steep, curved road.

The recommended property on White Avenue is centrally located with easy access to main roads that would provide fast response time to fire calls, said Ralph Carlberg, a member of the advisory committee.

However, he said, the Winthrop Westernization requirements at that location “might make building a good training facility awkward and expensive.” The Horizon Flats site would provide a good site for firefighter training, he said.

“The last few years have demonstrated how great the fire risk is in this area and in the West in general. It appears that we will be dealing with a longer fire season in the foreseeable future,” Carlberg said in a letter to district commissioners. “This is not a time for penny-pinching by fire districts.” The district, he noted, is hoping to develop facilities that will meet its needs for the next 50 years.

Paul Sisson also advocated for keeping Horizon Flats as a training facility, saying it would help with recruitment and retention of good paid and volunteer staff, and would be a good investment.

“The long-term projections are for an increasing population, more structures, and an increased fire risk. And while the amount of land that is suitable for firefighting facilities is very limited now, the availability of such land is only going to get worse in the future,” Sisson said.

50-year station

Carlberg acknowledged that the district will have to convince community members that holding on to the Horizon Flats property and purchasing another parcel is a wise idea. “After the last few fires seasons and the Santa Rosa, California experience, I think the voters are more likely to support a levy for a new fire station. We need to sell the idea of a 50-year fire station and training facility with expansion possibilities built in.”

Commissioner Les Stokes said he was interested in that concept. “I tend to lean toward this as something to definitely look at – the two-site option.” Commission Chairman Jerry Palm said commissioners would review the committee’s report and consider it at the next regular meeting, although he said the commission is not in any hurry to take action.

“We don’t really have a timeline. We won’t make a decision until probably next spring,” Palm said.

Based on site selection criteria established by commissioners, the advisory committee came up 16 possible sites. Committee members researched the sites and narrowed the options to three locations, with the White Avenue property the preferred site.

Fire district officials have been considering plans for several years to build a new station to replace the facility it rents on Englar Street in Winthrop, which district officials say is too small and poses safety hazards to firefighters.

Under Fire Chief Don Waller, the district hired an architect to design a new station, and held an unsuccessful tax levy election in 2014 to fund the project, estimated to cost $3.5 million. The district also sought voter approval for a bond levy in 2008 to build a station on property across from the Winthrop post office, but that measure was also turned down.

After the failure of the 2014 levy, district residents urged commissioners to provide more public involvement in future discussions about the proposed fire hall. As a result, commissioners established the community advisory committee.

In other business last week, commissioners reviewed a preliminary 2018 budget of approximately $1.3 million. Included in next year’s expenses is a $40,000 payout to Waller, in accordance with an agreement signed two years ago providing him a paid two-year leave. All remaining accrued benefits, including vacation and sick leave, was to be paid out at the end of the leave, according to the agreement. Waller has retained the title of chief during the leave. Interim Chief Cody Acord will become chief starting Jan. 1, 2018.