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Fire district Wins Ruling on Growth

Development plans in the Birch Bay area may face a new legal hurdle as the result of a Monday ruling in a lawsuit that pitted Whatcom County Fire District No. 21 against developers and Whatcom County.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder ruled in favor of the fire district, ordering the Whatcom County hearing examiner to take another look at the question of whether fire suppression and emergency medical services would be adequate to serve four proposed new developments in the Birch Bay area.

The issue flared in fall 2006 when Whatcom County Council approved a 200-home development in the Birch Bay urban growth area, Horizons Village at Semiahmoo, over the fire district's objections.

Fire district commissioners wanted county officials to allow them to collect "voluntary" impact fees of $2,500 per dwelling unit to cover the district's costs to provide the added fire and emergency medical services they say the new development would need. While fire districts have no legal authority to demand impact fees, they do have the power to grant or deny "concurrency letters" stating that they can provide adequate levels of service to a proposed new development.

The county's concurrency ordinance states that such a letter is required before a new subdivision can be approved, but developers and county officials contended that the levels of emergency services were deemed adequate when land use plans for the Birch Bay area were updated effective in 2005, and Horizons Village and other developments could be approved on that basis.

Attorney Jon Sitkin, representing the fire district, said Snyder's ruling means that new subdivision plats can't be approved for the area without a full consideration of fire and emergency medical service levels. He hopes that will force the community to take a hard look at what levels of services are needed and how those services can be paid for.

The district is in the process of getting a consultant's report on the capital investments it needs to make to cope with population growth, and the results of that report will aid the district in calculating its costs, Sitkin said.

The district isn't trying to block development through the courts, he added.

"I think it means an opportunity for us to find solutions," Sitkin said.

Philip Buri, the attorney representing developers, said Snyder's ruling poses potential new snags for developers. He said the ruling could be appealed, but no decision on that has been made, and the development plans would be on hold while an appeal was pending.

The case could mean that fire districts have potentially powerful authority over proposed developments, but the full implications of Snyder's ruling are not yet clear, Buri said.

Reach John Stark at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com

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