Property owners in unincorporated Pima County in Northwest Tucson who aren’t currently part of an organized fire district have a few options open to them, according to the state fire marshal. But unless those property owners choose annexation, they face the prospect of losing fire protection for their homes and property within weeks.
Options for those residents include being annexed into an adjacent fire district, convincing a subscription fire provider to cover them, going uncovered for fire protection, and forming their own fire district.
These are just some of the issues being faced by Northwest residents this and next month.
Robert Barger, state fire marshal, said Arizona is unique in the sense it doesn’t have county fire departments, like neighboring California, but uses a district system, as well as private fire service providers.
Late in April, Rural/Metro Corp. extended for 60 days its fire protection subscription services, paid by individual property
owners who are not part of an organized fire district, to three areas of Northwest Pima County and Marana – Camino de Mañana, Teal Blue Trail and Thornydale-Moore. Those three areas are the subjects of annexation attempts by the Northwest Fire/Rescue District, which is adjacent to the areas affected. The annexations have not been concluded yet.
Barger pointed out that fire districts are able to levy taxes on the area they cover in order to generate the income necessary to pay for fire protection services for that district, while areas outside fire districts must either rely on private fire services or go without fire protection.
No mandate for districts
“In Arizona, there is no mandate for a fire district to respond outside of its geographic boundaries,” Barger said. “And while some people could work out a subscription arrangement with an adjacent fire district, the district has no obligation to do so because the primary concern of a fire district is the protection of those who agreed to be in the district and pay the taxes to protect them.”
Barger noted that while it is unfortunate there isn’t a fire protection system available everywhere in the state, he said “it’s up to people to do something about getting into a fire district if subscription service is not available to them. There’s even the possibility of starting a neighborhood fire district, but that would mean dealing with liability issues, OSHA-mandated regulations and meeting training and equipment requirements.”
Such a fire district exists in Arizona – Sherwood Forest Estates Fire District in Williams. The district covers 320 acres of residential development surrounded by national forest and grazing lands. Its fire department is composed of volunteers who protect both Sherwood Forest Estates and nearby Mountain Rose Ranch, and it is supported by tax dollars of $1.50 per $100 assessed valuation, as well as grants and donations.
Sherwood Forest Estates Fire District has mutual aid agreements with nearby communities, the U.S. Forest Service and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Anne Marie Braswell, public information officer for Rural/Metro, said her company stopped offering subscriptions in the three areas in lieu of annexation by Northwest Fire.
“Northwest has fire response units significantly closer to that area and even though Rural/Metro has been the default provider, with Northwest having stations and equipment so much closer, it makes sense to have the (fire) response come from them.”
She noted that the closest resources Rural/Metro has to cover the areas in question come from its station 80 at Pima Canyon Road and Skyline Drive.
Braswell said Rural/Metro’s station 75 on Thornydale Road had been responding to the three annexation areas, even after the station was leased by the Mountain Vista Fire District. She noted that the taxpayers of Mountain Vista are paying for those resources, causing a concern about using fire district resources in responding into the three annexation areas.
Scott Butler, Mountain Vista’s administrative chief, said, “We told them (Rural/Metro) they couldn’t respond to those areas with our equipment because they were using those resources to provide service outside our district by selling subscriptions and making money.”
Butler acknowledged the district allowed Rural/Metro to continue responses from the Thornydale station for the 60-day extension period. However, he noted, Rural/Metro owns station 75 on Thornydale Road and could easily put an engine from its own organization in the second stall to respond to the annexation areas.
As to why Mountain Vista didn’t annex the affected areas, Butler said there were very few properties contiguous with his district.
“The state statute says anything a district annexes must be contiguous, but there were only a handful of properties adjacent to our district where we would not have to go through Northwest Fire’s district or the town of Marana (also protected by Northwest Fire),” Butler said. “Also, that’s outside of our response time area – 6 minutes-plus.”
He continued, “From a service issue, we weren’t the closest provider, so it wouldn’t be practical for us to respond to them.”
Northwest Fire annexations
Of the three annexations being offered by Northwest Fire, none have concluded thus far. Jeff Piechura, Northwest Fire district chief, said the district needs 295 property owners in Camino de Mañana to agree to the annexation, but that the petitions only have 117 signatures thus far. The annexation must be filed by January of 2012.
The Camino de Mañana annexation area is about five square miles with more then 600 parcels, about 400 of which are improved parcels.
For the Teal Blue Trail annexation, Piechura said 30 signatures are needed, but the district only has 13. The annexation must be filed by October 2011.
Piechura said Northwest also is trying to annex the Tangerine-Moore area in the town of Marana in order to provide seamless fire district coverage to pockets of the town that currently are not within the Northwest district. Twenty-nine signatures are needed and the district currently has 11. The annexation must be filed by February 2012.
Northwest has an agreement with Marana to protect properties within the fire district inside the town, but there are some properties in the town that are not in the fire district, including the Tangerine-Moore area.
Rillito annexation fails
An attempt by residents in Rillito to be annexed by Northwest Fire failed last month because of insufficient signatures. The area had previously been covered by Rural/Metro on a subscription service basis, but Braswell confirmed that Rural/Metro had not had any fire subscriptions in that area for more than two years.
Piechura said he expects Northwest Fire will do a number of parcel annexations in the Rillito area, bringing in properties adjacent to existing Northwest Fire district boundaries.
Over to the east, close to Oro Valley, Golder Ranch Fire District is concluding annexation of the La Cholla, which runs from Shannon Road in the west through the La Cholla Airpark section in Oro Valley.
John Sullivan, Golder Ranch's community services chief, said the La Cholla annexation petitions must be submitted to the Pima County Clerk by May 13. If certified by the County Clerk, he said, they would go before the Pima County Board of Supervisors on May 17, who will review the certification of the clerk’s audit.
The annexation needs 50 percent plus one of the property owners and the aggregate assessed valuation in order to succeed. Sullivan said Golder Ranch needed 257 property owners to agree to the annexation.
If the supervisors approve of the annexation, it would be sent back to the Golder Ranch board of directors, Sullivan said, who by statute would have to decide on accepting the area for annexation into the fire district. If the Golder Ranch board approves the annexation, it would take effect 30 days thereafter.
The La Cholla annexation into Golder Ranch is part of transitioning of services in Oro Valley, Sullivan pointed out.
“This is the one area in Oro Valley that doesn’t have a fire district covering it,” he said. “Rural/Metro’s fire chief approached us in early 2010 saying we were a lot closer to the area. They met with us and Northwest Fire several times, both singly and in roundtable meetings, to identify boundaries that would not impose undue strain on either fire district.said, was that it wanted all of Oro Valley to have equitable service,