District officials, builders squabble over fees
Like stubborn friends at a restaurant bargaining over a check that’s bigger than expected, Whatcom County Fire District 13 and a three-man development partnership known as Birch Point Village LLC remain far apart in deciding how to pay for expected increases in fire protection costs driven by the area’s continuing growth.
issue is currently before Whatcom County hearing examiner
Michael Bobbink. The ultimate resolution, according to
attorneys for both sides, will likely set legal precedent
for years to come not only in Whatcom County but also
in Washington state over how much of the costs of growth
should be borne by the developers who profit from it.
The specific issue began last year when Birch Point Village submitted applications for building permits necessary to begin two projects in Birch Bay called Horizons Village and Horizons at Semiahmoo.
Plans call for a total of 646 houses and living units plus extensive commercial space on slightly less than 200 acres between Birch Point Road, Shintaffer Road and Semiahmoo Parkway. For approval, developers needed a written verification of service from district 13, something that appeared to have been satisfied by both remarks in the Birch Bay Community Plan and an August 19 letter from the district that said it “does provide fire protection services, and will serve the property site...”
Point Village’s lead partner Fred Bovenkamp,
who had already offered to pay $5 million for a new arterial
connecting Birch Point Road and Lincoln Way in response
to concerns over traffic congestion, informally agreed
to a voluntary “mitigation fee” to help with
increased costs his development would impose on district
Fire districts, unlike other entities such as school districts, city fire departments and so on, are prohibited by state law from imposing such fees but may ask for them on a voluntary basis.
But district 13 is trying to do just that. In November of last year, shortly before Bovenkamp’s development was initially approved, district 13 directors passed resolutions asking Whatcom County Council to impose mandatory mitigation fees on the district’s behalf for both projects, contending that in order to provide adequate service they would need $2,500 per living unit, or a total of $1.615 million prior to the county approving the building permits.
Bovenkamp said he was both caught off-guard by this and felt the amount was exorbitant, even though it adds less than roughly one-half of one percent to the cost of each house.
Tom Fields is chief of the North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) which includes fire district 13. “When I began doing work here on these issues in 2001 there was already a thick folder of material,” Fields said, “indicating a need for a capital facilities planning process, which we’re now in the process of developing. Until we get that done we’ll agree to a $2,500 per living unit mitigation fee, based on an accurate appraisal of current operations and what it costs to do business.”
“These expenses don’t seem like much when the price of the house may be several hundred thousand dollars,” said area realtor Mike Kent, “but even at one-quarter of one percent [of the total price] they do pile up when you add in fees required by other agencies, the money to pay them has to come from somewhere.”
Martin Blackman, a Whatcom County Planning and Development Services State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) official, initially approved Bovenkamp’s application with what’s known as a mitigated determination of non-significance (MDNS) which implies that with certain mitigations, the project would not create significant environmental disruption to deny the approval. However, when district 13’s financial concerns and the demographics they’re based on were considered, MDNS approval was at first rescinded but later was re-instated. District 13 appealed to the hearing examiner.
Bobbink convened a hearing on Wednesday of last week but postponed it for a month to allow each side adequate time to respond to each other’s claims.District 13 is required to meet fire protection standards set by the Washington State Survey and Rating Bureau. This must be done as soon as structures are occupied and insurance becomes necessary, although according to NWFRS chief Tom Fields, it can take two years or more for new service areas to generate the kind of tax revenues it takes to pay for these services.
“Without charging developers a mitigation fee, the burden of paying for increased services falls on current residents who may find themselves forced to vote for more taxes just to prevent their service from deteriorating,” said Fields. “We have aging equipment to replace,” he continued, “and beyond dealing with the Horizons projects, county officials say as many as 5,000 new homes will be built in the next few years north of Bay Road in the Birch Bay area, and that translates into 10,000 or more new people and 1,000 new calls on an annual basis.”
Without requiring mitigation fees, Fields concluded, “we simply can’t provide that level of service.” For example, he said it takes about $765,000 per year to staff a fire engine 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We have engines needing to be replaced at $400,000 each, stations to remodel for increased staff and so on. Taxes from these new developments won’t pay for these capital needs, so we need the developers to help out.”
Birch Point Village attorney, Doug Robertson, however, said the district’s figures are not warranted by the raw data, “We don’t just pull these numbers out of thin air,”
“Our process is an open public record, and we’ve agreed to refund part of the fees if they turn out to be too high, and otherwise to freeze them at this point even if they’re too low for us.” Fields said, adding that he’s heard developers say they don’t want to finance a “gold-plated” fire department. “This is anything but that,” he said. “We’re just talking about meeting basic requirements. A developer is not going to dictate to us how we’ll spend our money. We trust the department leadership to do that since that’s what they’re elected to do.”
Robertson pointed out that the district has in excess of $1.5 million in the bank, but Fields provided figures showing that all but $92,000 of it is committed, the bulk to run the department for six months while it waits for April property tax revenues to arrive.
Bobbink has set the next hearing for Friday, June 9, at 9 a.m. in the Whatcom County Council chambers. Bovenkamp will also be the featured speaker at the Birch Bay steering committee at 7 p.m. on May 24 at the Birch Bay Bible Community Church at 7039 Jackson Road.