Vista City Council Votes to Take Title to Firehouse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Vista City Council voted Tuesday night to take full ownership of a surplus fire station, all but blocking plans by a community group to buy it to use as an employment center for homeless people.

In accordance with state law and city policy, the city will now offer to sell the firehouse to other public agencies and, if there are no takers, advertise the site for public sale.

Mayor Gloria McClellan said nothing would preclude Faith and Love Ministries, the community group that wanted to buy the firehouse for use as an outreach center for the homeless, to bid again for the station.

But Janet Sucro, executive director and founder of Faith and Love, said she doubts that the nonprofit group would ultimately buy the site, and she echoed previous comments by Faith and Love's directors that the group will not go to court to stop the city's actions.

"If we were to take legal action, it would just cause a lot of hard feelings in the community that would take years to settle," Sucro said Tuesday night. "It was never our intention to cause the community any kinds of problems. We were just trying to help solve the homeless problem. If our help isn't wanted, they can do it themselves."

The council voted, 3 to 1, with Councilwoman Nancy Wade opposed, to invoke a condition of the joint powers agreement between the city and the Vista Fire Protection District that allows the city to take title of the firehouse upon demand.

Tuesday night's meeting was requested by the fire district, which thought it had successfully opened escrow to sell the firehouse to Faith and Love for $242,500. But the controversial sale generated a local brouhaha, with critics arguing that the fire district failed to follow proper sale procedures. Others said they were opposed to their South Santa Fe Avenue neighborhood becoming a magnet for the homeless.

Although the fire district advertised the sale of the firehouse over a 28-day period, Vista city officials said the sale should have been advertised for 60 days in accordance with city policy and state law, and then be first offered to public agencies for use either as low-income housing, a park or a school before being offered for public sale.

But the fire district refused to back down from the sale, and the city last week voted to stop the sale escrow, citing its 79% ownership of the firehouse.

At Tuesday night's joint meeting, the fire board voted, also 3 to 1, not to stand in the city's way. Only fire director Ronald Wootton was opposed, saying he had second thoughts about selling the firehouse at all because it might still be needed.

Both the council and the fire district took a conciliatory tone, saying the sale was mired in confusion over legal advice on how to dispose of the firehouse.

Councilman Gene Asmus said: "The city has been more at fault than the fire board. We gave you conflicting, confusing information."

After the meeting, Duane Fellows, president of the fire board, said of the aborted sales attempt, "It's not our problem now."

Karen Kunze, a local real estate agent who had opposed the sale, said she is satisfied by the city's action. "I'm glad to see that what we've been saying all along, about procedures having to be properly followed, was right."

McClellan said the city's action wasn't directed at stopping Faith and Love's plans. "They were never the issue. The law is the issue," she said.

"We're not doing this to be vindictive. I'm sure they know that and realize that common sense has prevailed."

But Sucro said she is still bitter that her ministry will probably not end up with the firehouse, which it wanted to convert as an outreach center to offer employment counseling, job leads and other services for the homeless.

"We still think we made a fair offer that was legal and binding, but we're not going to pursue it. If they want to sell it to a public agency and lose $100,000 in the deal, so be it."

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