Fire coverage in South Hillsboro heading to arbitration soon

Hillsboro and the Tualatin Valley Fire District are spending significant amounts of money fighting over the meaning of a decade old intergovernmental agreement that may not have any significance for years, if TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The empty field across the street from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Station 62 is a small part of the South Hillsboro area being planned for mixed-use development.

The disagreement concerns which government entity will provide fire and emergency medical services in South Hillsboro, an approximately 1,100-acre tract of underdeveloped land located just south of the Hillsboro city limits. The city is currently preparing a 20-year plan for the area that includes around 11,000 new homes for about 25,000 additional residents.

The fire district operates a Station 62 just south of the Tualatin Valley Highway on Southwest 209th Avenue, which is the eastern border of the South Hillsboro planning area. It currently responds to incidents in much of the South Hillsboro area. At some point, the station could be turned over to the Hillsboro Fire Department if the city’s plan for the area is enacted.

But when — or even if — that will happen is unclear. The plan may not be completed for years, and even then, Hillsboro will have to annex the property for it to be enacted. Metro expanded the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) to allow the annexation of the area in December 2011, but that move is currently being challenged by environmentalists and others before the Oregon Court of Appeals. Once that court rules, a further appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court remains a possibility.

In the meantime, the fire district is pushing to clarify details of potential future service in the area, including staffing levels and financing at Station 62 until it is taken over by the city — if that ever happens.

Hillsboro officials say it is too early to make that decision now because so much about the plan is still unresolved.

“We still don’t know if the UGB expansion will stand,” said Assistant City Manager Steve Greagor.

But fire district officials believe the annexation and earliest phases of development could happen quickly if the appeals court rules in the city’s favor, noting that the city adopted a detailed South Hillsboro Community Plan last July.

“A lot of on-the-ground planning has already been completed,” said TVFR Planning Chief Walter Peck.

Because of the stalemate, the fire district initiated a state-mandated arbitration process to resolve the disagreement in March. It could go to arbitration in late spring or early summer. Both parties are paying outside lawyers to prepare their cases.

Although the city has not yet estimated the cost of preparing its case, Greagor says it will likely be “substantial.” Peck said the fire district does not have a cost estimate, either, but noted the issue is substantial and could be resolved short of arbitration.

Among other things, the dispute illustrates the complexities of one of the oldest and most vexing issues in Washington County — who provides urban-level services to the residents in unincorporated areas, and what happens when those areas are annexed into cities. Although other counties face similar problems, by the early 1990s Washington County was already growing so fast that the issue was becoming a serious one.

The situation was so complicated that the Oregon Legislature got involved in 1993; passing a law requiring all of the governments in every county to get together and sort things out. The goal was to ensure that government services were provided as efficiently as possible.

The 1993 legislation was Senate Bill 122.

It required governments, special districts and service providers to enter into Urban Service Agreements defining who is to provide what services and where. SB 122 was intended to end turf wars over jurisdictions and eliminate inefficient duplication of services among various public bodies.

It also assumed that at least some orderly annexations would follow.

The bill passed with little opposition and was signed into law by then-Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts.

After the law took effect, representatives of public bodies in Washington County negotiated a series of agreements that are generally still in effect today.

They include agreements between the county, the cities within the county, and service districts such as TriMet, Washington County Fire District No. 2, the Tualatin Valley Fire District and Clean Water Services, which provides sewer and stormwater management services.

The representatives also identified two unincorporated areas of special concern in the Hillsboro area because so many people were already living in them. One is the adjoining communities of Aloha and Reedville, which are in between Hillsboro and Beaverton. The other is the Rock Creek area north of Hillsboro.

South Hillsboro a question

Significantly, the South Hillsboro area was not specifically identified as a special area of concern in the initial planning process. That is largely because none of the governments had focused on its potential as such a large planned community in the future. Once Hillsboro began its planning process, the fire district realized it might need to substantially increase its service in that area from Station 62 until the city took it over.

The agreement struck in 2003 said the city would assume responsibility for providing fire and emergency medical services in the Aloha and Reedville areas after it annexed more than 50 percent of the assessed property there. But whether the agreement covers South Hillsboro is the point of contention.

“We believe the agreement covers the South Hillsboro area and that the same conditions apply.

But we want that clarified now before the annexation happens and development begins,” said Peck.

Hillsboro officials don’t understand the rush, however. They say many details have yet to be worked out for the South Hillsboro area, including the complete transportation plan that was the subject of an open house on Wednesday, April 3.

“Who will provide fire service in the future is just one of many questions we’re still working out,” said Greagor.

Because of the stalemate, in March the fire district initiated the dispute resolution process identified in their agreement with the City. It could go to arbitration in late spring or early summer.

Peck said arbitration will proceed unless real progress can be achieved in talks before the arbitration process is scheduled to begin.

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