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    Site decision clouds Sand Key fire station

    The city wants the new facility at the north end of the island; the county prefers a location farther south.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Sand Key residents already have their Christmas wish list for next year: They want Clearwater to build a $1.8-million fire station for their island of condo towers.

    But Clearwater and Pinellas County disagree on where it should be.

    City administrators said Monday they prefer a half-acre sliver at the edge of Sand Key Park on the north end of the key. But Pinellas County officials want it farther south on Sand Key, saying that would improve emergency response times to residents in Belleair Shores and Belleair Beach, as well as Clearwater.

    "We must look at the way in which a rescue unit or facility affects the entire system, not just one neighborhood," interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster wrote to the city last week in a letter, suggesting the city reconsider the park location.

    The county weighs in on such decisions, because Pinellas provides some funding for local fire departments, operates the countywide emergency dispatch system and coordinates joint responses to emergency calls among all the county's departments, county officials said.

    The county proposed an alternative site for the city's new Sand Key station: Bay Park, a city-owned park at 1551 Gulf Blvd.

    Interim City Manager Bill Horne on Monday termed the dispute a "professional disagreement" with the county and said the city knows best where to put its station.

    Putting it at Sand Key Park would allow the city to serve Clearwater Beach, south of the beach roundabout, in addition to north Sand Key, said deputy fire Chief Charlie Flowers.

    "When we run our analysis, we run it for the city of Clearwater," Flowers said. "The county looks at it from a different perspective."

    The county has a bit of leverage: to access its proposed site, the city may need a small bit of land the county owns. City engineers are trying to determine whether the station could be built without the county land.

    "There is no desire on our part to make this a contentious issue with the county," Horne said. "And if we can do it all ourselves, then there won't be any reason to ask the county for help on it."

    The county is concerned how the proposed Sand Key station will affect scenic Sand Key Park, Lancaster said. "We are loath to put anything inside a park when there is other property available," she said.

    If the city proceeds with the station at Sand Key Park, the county will ask that it be built as low-key and attractively as possible, Lancaster said.

    Earlier this year, the county questioned the necessity of a new station, noting there was just one actual fire inside a condominium on north Sand Key in all of 1999. County officials then suggested moving the north Clearwater Beach station somewhat to the south so it could better serve both Clearwater Beach and Sand Key.

    "We saw that as a way of being conservative with money, as well as serving the public equal to or better than it is served now," said Dwaine Booth, the county's assistant director of emergency medical services and fire administration.

    But city officials, concerned about traffic congestion that makes it difficult for fire engines to respond to calls during peak tourist season, said they needed two stations, one for each of the city's islands.

    Flowers says the new station will be busy. Because the city stationed a fire engine on Sand Key at a Coast Guard station last year on a trial basis, the unit has responded to about 1,199 calls, most of them for medical services, Flowers said.

    The city budgeted funds for the new station this year, shifting money once meant to build Clearwater Beach civic center for the station. This fall, the city investigated four possible sites, including the county park.

    Once the new station is built, it will cost about $841,550 annually to operate, Flowers said. It also will serve as the headquarters for Sand Key's volunteer police patrol.

    County and city officials will continue discussing the station location early next year.

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