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Maybe Later
Fire station levy postponed

Fire District 6 officials have decided not to put a multi-million dollar levy for a new Winthrop fire station on the ballot in November, according to Fire Chief Don Waller.

Waller previously told Grist that a $3 million levy would be on the November 2012 ballot. But results of a public opinion survey commissioned by the district showed that the measure was unlikely to pass, he said this week. Responses to the survey showed that “we need to get our word out better,” he said.

Roy Reiber, chairman of the three-member fire commission, said that the poor economy seemed to be a factor in lack of public support for the measure. The levy may be put on the ballot in 2013, said Reiber, but he added that it’s not certain it will happen that soon. The district must hire an architect certified to design fire stations before it can say how much it will cost to build. “That’s really a bummer because you have to spend a whole lot of money before we put it out to the voters,” Reiber added.

Voters in 2008 turned down a $5 million levy for a new station that also was to have included funds to purchase land plus improvements to existing stations. Reiber said he expects the new levy will probably be close to $3.5 million, and he said the difference in projected cost is largely due to the depressed economy. “We know we can get building materials substantially cheaper now. There are lots of hungry contractors out there,” he said.

Another key factor in the lower levy price tag is that the district already has paid $380,000 to Don White of Winthrop for a five-acre parcel of land halfway up Horizon Flats Road. That 2010 purchase was funded by a council-issued bond held by Cashmere Valley Bank, and Rieber said roughly 40 percent of it already has been paid off.

The announcement of the levy delay is the latest in a string of setbacks for the fire district, which has been seeking a site for a new Winthrop station for several years and has examined eight possible locations. Reiber, who is serving his fourth six-year term as fire commissioner, said the commissioners originally had wanted to locate the new fire station at the south end of town as they believed this would avoid 70 percent of the fire engine traffic through downtown. It also would eliminate coming down a steep hill, as is the case now with thovercrowded station at 223 Englar St.

An abortive attempt to buy an eight-acre parcel across from the Winthrop Post Office failed in 2010 and cost the district $15,000 in lost earnest money. District officials say they knew the land would have to be rezoned from its residential/tourist accommodation zoning to permit the fire station to be built there. But both Waller and Reiber said they went ahead because they believed from comments made in response to their inquiries by town planner Rocklynn Culp that the town would look favorably on the rezone. “We went on the advice of the planner,” Waller said.

Culp told Grist that “according to a letter on file from Don Waller, they had purchased the property well before they applied for the rezone, knowing the property would have to be rezoned. I believe they acted before they even approached me about it.”

Culp said district officials were well aware she has no authority to decide whether land should be rezoned. But she added, “I had a different opinion” on what might be permitted in residential areas than some members of the town’s planning commission and council. She did tell the fire district officials that their request was “a reasonable one,” she said, in the sense that if fire stations are allowed in some residential areas, why shouldn’t they be allowed in all residential areas? The present station is located in a residential area in central Winthrop. But town officials, citing concerns about loss of valuable taxable property, denied the rezone.

At that point, according to Waller and Reiber, Don White, who owns property his family homesteaded and which has remained outside city limits, approached the fire district and offered to sell five acres for a fire station. “Is it perfect? No. It’s not bad,” said Waller when asked about the suitability of the new location. It meets the requirement that the station be within a mile of the town’s commercial district, and the hill is not nearly as steep as coming down Pool Hall Hill from the present station, which, said Waller, “is not a good location because we have to go down hill in wintertime.”

“We’ve got to be a pain in the neck to all those residents up there,” added Reiber.

The Horizon Flats Road deal involved a boundary adjustment with White’s neighbor, local contractor Jerry Palm, who is a fire commissioner. Waller and Reiber said no money changed hands and equal amounts of land, 1.26 acres, exchanged hands. Palm received a narrow strip of land along Horizon Flats Road that’s on the same level as some of his other commercial property. The fire district received land from Palm that is level with the rest of its property but which was unusable for Palm’s business. Palm did not vote on the matter, according to Reiber, who said no assessment was done to establish values of the properties traded.

Asked who suggested the land trade, Waller replied: “I may have brought it up.”

The fire district needs access to town water and utilities at the new site, which was on county land. When district officials approached town officials to inquire if the town would be willing to supply water, they asked the district to apply for annexation into the town. Culp said this was because the town did not want to provide water for properties outside its boundaries. A recent water supply study found that Winthrop does not have sufficient water for full build-out, but she said that there’s ample water for current needs and that supplying the fire district does not pose a problem. “We’re a long way from denying anybody the right to develop,” she said.

The town council approved the annexation, although some critics charged that it was done without due public notification. Annexations for a municipal purpose can be done by majority vote of the town council, and Culp, after reviewing the legal record, said: “It appears to me that the council approved the annexation in accord with all relevant statues.”


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One minor correction regarding the land swap...
The FD exchanged a portion of the land (purchased from White) behind Palm's business with no road access for a piece of Palm's property along the road. This gives the FD more road front property along the curve going up the hill, and gives Palm more depth behind his business.

Brian Drye