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[whitespace] Alternative sites for Alma station are being explored

Los Gatos--The future looks bleak for the California Department of Forestry's Alma fire station and the mountain and valley residents it serves. Negotiations between the state and property owners have been extremely slow, and no one involved is predicting a successful resolution.

The station, which loses its lease in April 2001, houses the area's only helicopter fire fighting unit, which has played a role in nearly every mountain fire in the last decade. It also holds an engine unit, which uses the station's Old Santa Cruz Highway location, bypassing Highway 17 traffic on the way into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Oregon-based land owners, the McDougal Brothers, are in the process of selling off portions of the 14.5-acre property surrounding the station as building sites for luxury homes. Arlie Land and Cattle Company, which sold the property to the McDougal Brothers more than a year ago, still holds a partial interest in the land.

Hopes had risen slightly with Assemblyman Jim Cunneen's successful drive to include an extra $500,000 in this year's state budget for the fire station acquisition. Gov. Gray Davis signed the budget several weeks ago, approving the $500,000, in addition to the $900,000 already earmarked for the station's purchase.

But even with extra money, the state's offering price is still a long way from the price the McDougal Brothers are reportedly seeking for the four-acre property. Kurt Carlin, a CDF property acquisition manager, said the negotiations were in the state's hands, and all CDF could do was prepare for the worst.

"We are pursuing contingency plans," Carlin said. "We have pretty much studied the thing to death to see if there were any alternative sites for the operation within our response time and [the state department of general services] could not find a spot." He added that CDF had even considered splitting the station's operations and finding two smaller sites, one for the helicopter unit and one for the fire engine team.

Larry Gildea, attorney for the McDougal Brothers, would not discuss the negotiations, but he did say that the $3.2 million figure that has been bantered about is much higher than the asking price.

"We agreed to negotiate with the state and that's what we're doing," Gildea said. "The state is in the process of reviewing our appraisal and I haven't heard back from them."

If negotiations do fail, Gildea would not speculate on what the McDougal Brothers would do with the land; however he said zoning prohibits the station property from being subdivided. He was also unaware of whether the land owners would have to disclose the area's high fire risk and possible lack of fire protection for potential buyers.

The state is currently reviewing the McDougal Brothers' appraisal. If substantial evidence in it suggests the state's own appraisal was too low, the state can adjust its appraisal. If not, the original appraisal stands as a "take it or leave it" offer to the brothers.

Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) has also become involved in the efforts to save the station. General Manager Craig Britton has also expressed doubts about the chances of a deal being struck. MROSD is interested in a number of adjoining parcels that front Lexington Reservoir. Britton said the district is working with the state to purchase 14.5 acres held by Arlie and the McDougal Brothers, including the fire station, but he said his impression was that negotiations were "failing."

"From our standpoint, it's really all or nothing," Britton said. "We don't only want the other parcels; the fire station is very important, as well." The district was still negotiating with the McDougal Brothers through the first week of July.

Carlin said that even if a compromise can be reached, whether or not the money budgeted will truly be available remains to be seen. If the property's state-assessed value is below the settlement price--an extremely likely scenario--the state cannot release the funds.

CDF has spent four years trying to buy the property, Carlin said, and continues to run into this same problem. "We're always behind," he said. "Our 'fair market value' never seems to equate to what the asking price is."

Another option for the state would be to begin condemnation proceedings on the property to buy the land through eminent domain. This would throw the purchase into the state Attorney General's hands, and he would have the power to negotiate above the assessed value or simply buy the land at the assessed price. However, the state has shown no desire to go that route.

Irene Anderson, property acquisition manager for the state's department of general services, said eminent domain was a method the state would use only if no other site could be found.

"We always pay market value," Anderson said. "If the owner wants to sell at market value, he can."

Gildea said the McDougal Brothers were not overly concerned about the possibility the state would use eminent domain. "As far as we're concerned, if they opt to do it, so be it," he said. "We'd prefer it not to go that way, but it's not a big concern."

Carlin said that, assuming negotiations fail and the state does not exercise eminent domain, wherever the station would move would have an effect on response times. "I don't believe we'll have either the coverage or the response time," Carlin said.

Santa Clara Ranger Unit operations chief Dave Ault said that moving the station would have a larger effect on the ground response time than air response time. "[Relocating the engine unit] is a tougher decision than the helicopter," Ault said, "because [the helicopter] doesn't have to contend with traffic." Ten miles for a helicopter takes only a few minutes when flying at 160 to 170 miles per hour--10 miles on the valley's congested roadways can take a lot longer.

Ault said that while no alternative site had been located, a number of possibilities have been brought forward. Among them are county and city parks, as well as privately owned properties. Ault said one mountain resident had recently informed him of several hundred acres of vacant county-owned land off Bear Creek Road. That site, as well as the other possibilities, will be evaluated from a strategic response time and sustainability viewpoint. Wherever the station ends up, Ault said CDF would have to find a temporary base while a new station is constructed.

The helicopter's response range is vast, covering Interstate 5 down to Pacheco Pass, over to Santa Cruz, up to San Mateo county, and extending all the way into Contra Costa county.

Ault said he was still hoping an agreement could be reached while simultaneously preparing for the worst. "The pessimism is really coming from the fact that the state DGS and the current landowner can't come to an agreement," he said. "And we can't do anything about it."
Nathan R. Huff

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