Supreme court rules in favor of fire district

Published on Wed, May 11, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The Washington State Supreme Court has handed down a 6-3 ruling in favor of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, ending a five-year dispute between the fire district and Whatcom County over fire emergency coverage for proposed housing developments in Semiahmoo and Birch Bay.

The state supreme court ruled the fire district was the correct entity to decide whether their existing resources could support Horizons Village at Semiahmoo and two other developments on Harborview Road and at Birch Bay Center. The county had approved the developments despite the fact the fire district did not issue letters to the developers confirming the district could provide emergency service to them, state supreme court judge Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion.

The supreme court’s action has reversed the county’s approval of the developers’ land use applications, effectively halting the project. When the county approved the applications in 2006, the fire district challenged them in Whatcom County Superior Court because officials believed they could not provide adequate service to the new developments without additional financial help.

The superior court granted the district’s appeal, but the state court of appeals reversed the decision in July 2009. The fire district then appealed to the state supreme court. The state supreme court is the final court of appeals in a decision such as this, so there will be no more further appeals, the fire district’s attorney Jon Sitkin said.

The case centered around concurrency, the idea that an adequate level of fire or emergency service should be available concurrently with an increase in new development. Whatcom County Code makes the service provider, in this case the fire district, responsible for determining whether its current resources are able to supply sufficient fire and emergency services for the development.

The fire district said its current resources were insufficient to service new developments and wanted developers to pay for necessary upgrades. The county made its own determination about the fire district’s capabilities and decided the tax revenue generated by the developments would be enough to support additional fire service.

However, Owens wrote in the majority decision that the county had no business making its own determination about the fire district’s ability to provide service.

“When the county proceeded to independently determine that adequate capacity existed to serve the developments, it committed [a] clear error,” Owens wrote.

To read the entire state supreme court majority decision, click here.