Until a Fire, Charlotte Fire Department Was Unwelcome

The owners of Berkeley Place fought Charlotte's attempts to annex the University City apartment complex, hiring former Mayor Richard Vinroot to plead their case before the City Council in 2002 and 2004.

Vinroot challenged the city's population projections -- and he won twice. That saved Berkeley Place more than $50,000 a year in city property taxes and delayed annexation until at least 2007.

But when a building at Berkeley Place caught fire July 28, who arrived first? City firefighters, riding a city firetruck, from a 4-year-old city fire station.

Charlotte firefighters stayed there for more than four hours, and over that time, 17 city vehicles reached the scene. The response cost the city more than $4,000.

Volunteer firefighters from the Mallard Creek and Newell stations came to Berkeley Place, too. They cover that part of unincorporated Mecklenburg County, and Mallard Creek officials commanded the scene.

"We have a true duty to assist our neighbors, particularly in life-threatening circumstances," said City Council member Nancy Carter, who voted to annex Berkeley Place in 2002. "It would have been responsible for people to accept the annexation, and I hope they remember this instance when it comes to annexation time again."

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory backs the city's policy, saying it makes sense to use public resources to save lives. But, McCrory added, during a past spat over how to split the proceeds of a food tax, he reminded his counterparts of the city's regular help.

"The outlying areas have to recognize that this is a use of very valuable tax resources," McCrory said.

The city of Charlotte has been steadily gobbling chunks of Mecklenburg County, using the state's liberal annexation laws to expand the city's borders and tax base. Some property owners resist, largely because of the price difference.Taxes in unincorporated Mecklenburg, including a special tax for police protection, are 19 percent lower than city taxes. Unlike in many N.C. counties, there is no separate fire tax.

By 2002, city planners started looking at Mallard Creek Church Road, east of Interstate 85. The area had two new apartment complexes, Berkeley Place and Thornberry, and was poised for more growth.

Using population projections, the city staff determined that the area met the requirements for annexation, including the minimum population density.

New York-based Sentinel Real Estate Corp., which owns both complexes, objected. It hired Vinroot, an attorney, who argued that the actual population was smaller, based on actual apartment leases. In 2002, the council voted 9-2 not to annex the area. In 2004, planners made that call before seeking a council vote. That annexation would have taken effect in July 2005.

Vinroot argues that "greedy" city planners were trying to use the population density in the apartments to annex a much larger area, instead of making a smaller change that would affect those complexes only.

"This is not a case of us avoiding being in the city," Vinroot said.

Charlotte does large annexations to comply with state laws and avoid making the city limits even more irregular than they already are, said Jonathan Wells, the city's annexation coordinator.

The city will study the area again next year, for possible annexation in 2007.

In a statement, Sentinel said it was grateful for Charlotte's efforts, which helped prevent serious injuries.

"Had the department not responded the way they did," said the statement, "that might not have been the case, and the damage to the property itself could have been much worse."

The events of July 28 started with a discarded cigarette on a third-floor balcony.

At 3:46 p.m., dispatchers sent the call to the Mallard Creek Volunteer Fire Department, which had a truck out the door by 3:48 and on the scene by 3:55. As calls poured into the 911 center at 3:49, dispatchers alerted the city, said Mike Petleski, assistant county fire marshal.

The first city truck arrived at 3:54, and by 4 p.m., four city firetrucks had reached the scene, according to city records. As the fire department rotated crews around the city, firefighters came from as far away as Derita, Beatties Ford Road and Independence Boulevard.

That's standard practice, said Charlotte Fire Capt. Rob Brisley, the department spokesman.

Often, he added, volunteer fire departments will assist the city, particularly in suburban areas. Some volunteer departments, including Newell, have rescue equipment that can help save people who are trapped.

The volunteer departments get less than $90,000 a year each from Mecklenburg County, but they must also rely on donations. As once-rural areas become home to commuters, they struggle to recruit volunteers who can respond quickly to daytime fires.

And when they call the city, the city comes -- 213 times during 2004-05.

"Since 1887," Brisley said, "there's never been a bill from the Charlotte Fire Department to take care of your emergency."

Distributed by the Associated Press