A home-grown fire protection system in north Franklin County has become a too-hot-to-handle issue for owners of upscale homes who rely on it for emergency use.
Sanderson Estates, north of Kohler Road just east of the Columbia River, is an exclusive residential area in the county, but within Pasco's Urban Growth Area.
Although the 38,776-gallon underground storage reservoir, supplied with water pumped from wells, provides a full fire flow for fire service lines and hydrants throughout the area to help protect 67 homes, residents say the system shouldn't be their sole responsibility.
Bill Pennell, president of the board for Sanderson Estates Fire Protection System and president of Dream View Estates Property Owners Association, said Franklin County officials should be involved, too, because the county required the system to be built as a condition for development.
"We think the operation of this should not be the responsibility of the homeowners when the county required it," Pennell said.
The system was installed more than 15 years ago when the developer started building homes. He was responsible for it until he died, forcing residents in the five neighborhoods to decide what to do with what is now the Sanderson Estates Fire Protection System.
The decision was to take it over, Pennell said, adding that in retrospect it was naive thinking on their part.
Pennell said most residents agreed to pay their fair share for annual maintenance and costs, but some held back.
"It became apparent we are not getting the money to operate this," he said.
Ryan Verhulp, county civil attorney, said he has found nothing in state law requiring counties to operate a fire protection system.
Verhulp said state law allows local fire districts to operate and maintain fire protection systems, if needed.
But Les Litzenberger, chief of Franklin Fire District 3, which includes the Sanderson Estates subdivisions, told the Herald he knew about the troubled fire protection service system at Sanderson Estates, but his board had not discussed it.
"I doubt they would accept responsibility for it," Litzenberger said in a telephone interview while he was on a deep-sea fishing vacation last week.
County Commissioner Bob Koch said Sanderson Estates residents are asking the wrong people for help. "There's a perception out there that (we) provide fire service. But this is not the county's responsibility."
Pennell and officers from three other homeowners associations in Sanderson Estates have asked commissioners by letter to help residents "find a remedy for this untenable situation."
The letter states the county contributed to the problem at the start by not providing a way to pay for continued operation and maintenance of the first protection system.
In addition to needing help in forcing all residents to support the system financially, the letter also states the directors of the Sanderson Estates Fire Protection System face personal risk of liability if the system fails to perform in an emergency.
Pennell said some residents have been told by attorneys to sever all connections with the fire system to protect themselves from liability.
"It is serious stuff. Heaven forbid somebody gets killed," he said.
Without the help of the county or fire district, Pennell said some residents are talking about abandoning the fire protection system.
"We are currently broke," Pennell said, noting that hiring a contractor in an attempt to get the orphaned system functioning depleted all the remaining money.
"And it still isn't working," he said.
Commission Chairman Brad Peck said county attorneys who are reviewing the law will advise the board what can be done.
"Basically, we are asking the county to help us set up a financial system and relieve us of the personal responsibility. If the county turns us down, I don't know what we'll do," Pennell said.