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Fire Chief: Enumclaw Fire District Land Purchase a Forward-Looking Investment

King County Fire District No. 28/Enumclaw Fire Chief Joe Clow responds to speculation about the purchase of about five acres of land some say was a frivolous use of taxpayer money.

King County Fire District No. 28 did its due diligence last year when it purchased about five acres of land on Roosevelt Avenue just west of Semanski, primarily as an investment for future development, according to Fire Chief Joe Clow.

Editor's Note: The fire commissioners declined to comment directly to Patch and instead referred all questions to Chief Clow.

Since last December when the district ran a newsletter in The Courier-Herald outlining the year's highlights, including this land purchase, and goals moving forward, several citizens have been critical in their perception that district leaders were either being financially irresponsible or possibly even operating in collusion while using taxpayer money.

Of prime concern at the time was that the district was proposing to put a levy lid left measure on this April's ballot asking voters for a tax increase in order to fund additional staff, vehicles and equipment. The lid lift proposal has since been shelved in deference to the economic challenges that taxpayers are facing (read ).

However, questions about the district's land purchase remain -- particularly about the $495,000 it paid for land assessed for tax purposes this year at $55,000 and the fact that on the King County Assessor's website, that parcel is described under its environmental description as being 75 percent wetland. (see the site information)

A wetlands designation means costly mitigation -- with taxpayer money -- if the district decided to build on it. Citizens Mike Qualls wrote to The Courier-Herald and about this, questioning the wisdom of the purchase and whether the district was being transparent and did its homework.

They did, according to Clow. Navigate the Assessor's site a little further -- to its District report -- and it says there are no wetlands mapped on this parcel. Clow said the fire district did verify with both the county Assessor and the city of Enumclaw Planning and Development department that the parcel, in fact, was not designated as wetlands.

The district learned from Sheila Frawley at the Assessor's office that the aberrant information stemmed from a note attached to the file of an observation made by an assessor in 1997 based on vegetation growing on the parcel.

However, "The most current information available indicates that there is no wetland impact for this property," Clow said.

Now a City Parcel

In 2005, Kelly Kahne purchased this parcel for $265,000 when it was assessed at $73,000. Clow points out that the property was then located outside city limits and in unincorporated King County.

"At the time the property was designated as unbuildable by the county due to soil conditions; soils were designated non-percolating (preventing the installation of a septic system)," Clow said in an email statement.

The parcel was annexed into the city of Enumclaw in 2010 and that made a difference in its land value. "...The property became buildable and sub-dividable due to access to city sewer," Clow said.

John Wilson, chief deputy assessor at the county office, declined to comment on the $495,000 sales price but concurred with Clow that the annexation would make a difference in assessed value.

"It's hard to say what that [new value] is without actually being there to do the assessment," Wilson said, though the county is expecting to conduct a new assessment in the annexed area later this year.

No Better Option at the Time

The district's commissioners decided to pursue the search for new property last summer when prices were low, said Clow. Staff consulted a realtor to help search for suitable land based on the following criteria:

  • It needed to be within Enumclaw city limits per the transfer agreement with the city upon annexation;
  • It needed to be at least two acres in size.

They considered four locations at 1) Garrett street and Washington Avenue, 2) Griffin Avenue at Highpoint Street, 3) Warner Avenue at Watson Street and 4) the old U.S. Forest Service building location on State Route 410 across from McDonalds.

The Roosevelt Avenue location was chosen because the commissioners felt it was the best value by size and price at the time, Clow said. The $495,000 was the asking price from the seller, and the realtor indicated that it was a firm sale price, so there was no negotiation to bring the figure down.

"The commissioners did not negotiate directly, nor did they have contact with any property representative during this process," Clow said.

Other favorable factors for the property was that it was flat, was set up to connect to city water and gas, electricity and there was a sewer connection nearby. Also, as the annexation means the district covers not just the city of Enumclaw but all of Fire District No. 28, the location is more central to outer areas of the district that the current location downtown, he said.

Need for Headquarters Improvements

According to a Master Plan released in 2008, the district's headquarters at 1330 Wells Street was in poor condition. It reads: "Evidence of crowding exists in the bays as well as in the living quarters, but the administrative office is where the crowding is most evident. If not corrected, this crowding will decrease the building’s usefulness and will restrict future growth. ... There are major concerns related to maintenance, public access, staff facilities, safety, and efficiency."

(A PDF copy of the Master Plan can be viewed with this story, under the photo to the right.)

Construction of a new headquarters on this property is one way to improve on these conditions but Clow emphasizes it's not an imminent move. If there were "a substantial remodel" of the existing building in accordance with issues raised by the Master Plan, the commissioners could conceivably keep the new land as an investment for future development and stay put.

As former City Councilman Rich Elfers pointed out in this letter to the editor, the building last underwent a $528,000 remodel in 1999 and in 2010 got a new roof for $165,000.

The building is still owned by the city of Enumclaw, said Clow. If the district were to relocate, the building would be available for the city to move its services or to sell the property.

If it were to renovate, it would still need permission from the city. And as a city-run department, fire was hampered in its past efforts to purchase adjoining property for possible expansion, said Clow.

What's Next

Without the levy lid lift this year, the district can still manage its short term operations and meet service needs, said Clow.

If the decision was made to move forward with construction of a new headquarters, the first step would be to put a capital bonds measure to voters, said Clow.

As it falls in line with an overall district plan, the earliest such a measure would come forth would be in 2015, with construction beginning in 2016.

"If, and when, the decision to build on, or develop that property, is made by the board, taxpayers will be included in determining what will happen," said Clow. "In the short-term the property will remain vacant."

Karen Burns March 06, 2012 at 02:34 AM
It's real easy to spend 'other' people's money. If Mr. Kahne didn't want to negotiate on a property that was NOT worth 495,000 since property values had dropped drastically since he purchased it for 265,000.........the commissioners should have walked away and said fine, we won't buy. I found out recently they Fire District did not pay cash for this land. They took out a $300,000 loan....... so 'we' the tax payers now have a land payment for a property that is worth ONLY $55,000. Thanks so much Fire Commissioners....... you should be fired.
Jean Hoiland March 07, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Hi Karen, How right you are about that. I was wondering why they needed a realtor. It seems to me municipalities should have attorneys to help with land acquisition.
Mike Qualls March 07, 2012 at 03:19 AM
Mr Kahne is laughing all the way to the Bank, District paid full asking price, didnt even make a offer. And the attorney idea, they have one, and it cost the tax payers $400 per month. Not sure what he does, If I was making this many mistakes with tax payers money I would have a full time attorney also.
April Chan March 07, 2012 at 05:33 AM
Thanks all for your comments. Jean, I couldn't speak to the other information Karen and Mike provided at this time, but the Chief did say the FD didn't pay the realtor for the search service.
Liz March 07, 2012 at 06:21 AM
Of course they did not pay the realtor, they work on commission. And of course the realtor representing the seller would state the price is "fixed", once again they work on commission. Realestate prices are always negotiable. In light of todays market and the utilization of tax payers money, it was ludicrous to not even bother to make an offer. The lack of sophistication and responsibility to the citizens these commissioners represent is disgraceful.

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