Finding housing on Orcas Island is difficult.
That dilemma landed the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and Orcas Fire and Rescue in hot water over what was thought to be a simple, temporary solution for a new deputy to the island: free accommodations at a little-used fire station.
“We thought everything was fine,” said Sergeant Herb Crowe. “We weren’t going to let him sleep in his patrol car and be another homeless person.”
This past February, when the island’s newest deputy Bryce Peterson could not immediately find a place to rent, Crowe and OIFR Chief Scott Williams devised a plan to house Peterson in the Deer Harbor Fire Station 24 dormitory until a more permanent solution could be found.
There is no specific Revised Code of Washington against doing this, according to Crowe. However, Washington state Constitution Article XI, Section 14 states that private use of public funds is prohibited. Since a fire station is paid for by public funds, it is possible the use in this manner could be considered prohibited as well.
When a concerned citizen brought it to the attention of an OIFR commissioner, the arrangement was terminated.
“They felt that the sheriff was using his authority and being corrupt because he was using the fire department facilities to the benefit of the office,” Crowe said.
Peterson had been living in the station’s vacant dormitory for approximately five weeks while he participated in field training on the island. According to Crowe, the island was shy two deputies, so a quick transition into the position was desired, and that allowed for less time to find housing.
Peterson’s family had yet to move to the island so he was using the facility alone. Crowe explained that state regulations don’t allow for such housing agreements.
“There does need to be some sort of leasing arrangement,” Williams said.
Crowe added that it’s not usual for the two departments to have mutual training and use the same facilities so it didn’t dawn on either party that the use of the dormitory for temporary housing wouldn’t be allowed. After moving out in early March, Peterson was offered the use of a small privately owned cabin in which to reside until permanent housing is found for him and his family.
“We’ve got to do the right thing,” Crowe said. “If for some reason we stepped out of bounds for a little bit, our intentions were good.”