White Avenue property in Winthrop is the most-favored

By Ann McCreary

As they evaluate possible locations for a new fire station in the Winthrop area, Okanogan County Fire District 6 commissioners are hoping for public input to help guide their considerations.

A report completed last year by a citizens advisory committee evaluated potential sites for a new station in or around Winthrop, and found three properties that the committee considered acceptable sites. One of the properties, located next to Little Star Montessori School on White Avenue, was unanimously regarded as a good site by the committee.

The report by the advisory committee is posted on the Okanogan County Fire District 6 website, and commissioners said Monday (Jan. 8) that they hope residents of the district will read the report and provide feedback. The report is under a link on the website called “New District Station.” Commissioners said they will continue discussion of the property question at their next meeting on Feb. 12.

The citizens committee, appointed by commissioners in January last year, researched and evaluated property based on criteria that included size, location, zoning and cost. After more than nine months of work, the committee reported that out of 16 properties evaluated, three sites were considered acceptable, but only the property on White Avenue was unanimously regarded as a good site.

The district owns a 5-acre parcel on Horizon Flats, which was purchased in 2010 for a new station. However, plans developed under former Fire Chief Don Waller to construct a new fire station became mired in controversy, and a levy to fund construction was turned down by voters in 2014.

Commissioners decided to put construction plans on hold and appointed the citizens committee to research other possible sites. The district currently rents a station in Winthrop on Englar Street, but that facility is too small and poses safety risks for firefighters, according to district officials.

The Horizon Flats property was considered a good location by a majority, but not all, of the advisory committee members. At their meeting this week, commissioners discussed the merits of the Horizon Flats property and the White Avenue property.

The White Avenue location posed concerns because, unlike the Horizon Flats site, it would be subject to the Town of Winthrop’s Westernization ordinance, which would restrict the design of the fire hall and other structures on the property. The ordinance stipulates the kind of construction materials, such as wood siding, that must be used for buildings in that part of town. “That eliminates a steel structure,” said Commissioner Darold Brandenburg.

“Like it or not, it’s going to be adding costs to the building,” said District Chief Cody Acord. Paul Sisson, a member of the advisory committee, said he has spoken with members of Winthrop’s Westernization Design Review Board, who told him the board would consider an amendment to the ordinance that would allow brick or stone exterior walls, which could be less expensive than wood.

Commissioners also discussed costs of purchasing a new property, and what they could hope to receive if they sold the Horizon Flats property. Acord said the town planner indicated that the Horizon Flats property would need to be rezoned from public use to a single family residential. A local Realtor said it would be priced at about $135,000, Acord said. The district paid $380,000 for the property in 2010.

Acord said he’s been given an estimated price of $345,000 for the White Avenue property. Commissioners asked Acord to research whether the owner would sell the land, and what the price would be.

Sisson said Winthrop ordinances restrict to 70 percent the area that could be covered by buildings or asphalt on the White Avenue property, which could be a limiting factor in developing the property. Development of the Horizon Flats site could be limited by critical areas considerations, he said.

Acord said proximity of the White Avenue site to Little Star school and other neighbors might limit the training activities that could be conducted there, such as wildland firefighting and practicing with fire hoses at full force. Sisson and another advisory committee member have previously urged commissioners to consider keeping the Horizon Flats property as a firefighter training site and purchasing the White Avenue property for a new station. Their recommendations were made as individuals, not as committee representatives, Sisson said.

Commissioners, however, seemed doubtful that the district could afford to own both properties. “I would like to … but I just don’t think we can,” said Brandenburg.

Commissioners will continue discussion of the property issue at their Feb. 12 meeting, and said they hoped that interested residents of the district would read the advisory committee’s report on the district website and offer their ideas before then or at the meeting.

The district has been working to involve the community after district residents criticized the former fire chief, Waller, and commissioners, led by former board president Roy Reiber, for not seeking enough public input during past considerations of a new fire station.

Plans to build a 12,500-square-foot station at a cost of about $2.4 million were criticized as too expensive, and some people questioned whether the Horizon Flats property, located on hill with a curving road, was the best location. A levy increase to fund the project was turned down by voters in 2014.

Reiber was subsequently defeated by Les Stokes in the 2015 election, and commissioners decided in 2016 to create a citizens advisory committee to provide information to the district on possible locations for a new station.

“It’s important to give people a chance to read the report and have a voice,” Jerry Palm, commission chairman, said Monday.