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Fire Districts Could Flex Land-Use Power

BELLINGHAM-- Whatcom County fire districts may soon be exercising broad review powers over proposed developments, in the wake of Monday's ruling by Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder.

"It could be huge, but I don't know all the impacts," said Sam Ryan, acting Whatcom County Planning Director. "We're still investigating how far it's going to go. ... We're still investigating what the full ramifications are going to be."

Whatcom County Fire District No. 21 Chief Tom Fields predicted that the ramifications are going to be big, beyond Whatcom County.

"I think this decision is going to have some far-reaching impacts in the state of Washington," Fields said.

Snyder's ruling came in a case that pitted Fire District No. 21, also known as North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, against Whatcom County and developers proposing new projects in the Birch Bay urban growth area that the fire district serves.

Chief Fields and his commissioners contended that they could not provide adequate levels of fire and emergency medical service in the proposed new developments.

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 service they say the new developments would need. While fire districts have no legal authority to demand impact fees, they do appear to have the power to grant or deny "concurrency letters" stating that they can provide adequate levels of service to a proposed new development.

District officials had offered to grant the concurrency letters to developers in exchange for the fees.

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 new developments consistent with the county's land use plans could be approved on that basis, without a concurrency letter from the district.

Attorney Jon Sitkin, representing the fire district, said Snyder ruled that the land-use plans did not override the language in the concurrency ordinance, meaning that the fire districts likely have the authority to block approval of new developments if they can present evidence that they cannot provide adequate levels of service to them.

Chief Fields said a reorganization of countywide emergency medical services took effect after the Birch Bay land use plan was approved. The reorganization gave the fire district more responsibility for taking some patients to St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham -- a round trip that can keep two firefighters busy for up to two hours. Adding thousands of new residents to the Birch Bay area will mean adding new strains on a department that already struggles to meet demand.

"If the demand for services exceeds the supply, then we either have to increase the supply or decrease the demand," Fields said.

Developer Lisa Schenk's Harborview Road project is one of those that is now on hold as a result of the court ruling. It would contain 41 single-family homes and 44 condos.

She said she and other developers understand the need for fire services and are willing to pay for them, but Fire District 21 could not substantiate the need for a $2,500 per unit fee.

"This is an extremely high number," Schenk said. "We could pass it along. ... Lots are getting so high-priced because of all the stuff that builders have to pass along and this is one of those things."

Sitkin said a capital facilities plan for the district is nearing completion, and the plan will document the cost of providing additional services.

Fields said the district may have made a mistake in putting a price tag on the concurrency letters more than a year ago, in attempting to find a way to pay for added service. That rankled developers and became a key arguing point as the dispute moved into the courtroom.

Now that a judge has upheld the fire district's legal leverage in development issues, officials and developers may have to come to grips with the challenges of providing urban levels of fire and emergency medical services as once-rural areas become densely populated.

"We now have the impetus to move forward and partner with the county and the developers and the district, Fields said, adding, "I don't know that I have a solution now."

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

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