Morning Press: Police activities, apartment fire, potash, playgrounds

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The weekend's top stories, and some news you may have missed

Long-understaffed Vancouver police are recruiting

photoNew VPD Officer Katie Endresen works with her field training officer Tom Topaum during the graveyard shift Wednesday.

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The Vancouver Police Department is among law enforcement agencies around the country that are starting to experience an exodus of baby boomers. Right now, 19 Vancouver officers are eligible to retire without financial penalty through the state's retirement plan for law enforcement officers. In five years, nearly half of the current force will be ready to retire.

Since police Chief James McElvain was sworn in in mid-December, more people have left the agency than have been hired.

Replacing officers, either with young recruits or those with years of experience, is a constant game of catch-up; the Vancouver Police Department hasn't been fully-staffed since 2002. While the agency is budgeted to have 190 officers, there are currently 183.

In an attempt to get ahead of the curve, Sgt. Dave Henderson aims to hire 10 officers by the end of the summer — a deadline that the police chief says isn't soon enough.

"We really need to get those 10 now," McElvain said. The number of budgeted officers is based on need, he said, meaning Vancouver has been operating below its needs for more than a decade. McElvain is looking to fill specialized positions in the traffic unit and add property crime detectives.

Read the full story here.

Drug task force raids Felida house

photoUndercover detectives with the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force execute a search warrant at a suspected drug house in Felida on Wednesday.

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An undercover detective spit sunflower seed shells onto the pavement in the Salmon Creek Fred Meyer parking lot. Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and a baseball hat, he looked ready for a barbecue, not a suburban drug bust.

He and his fellow undercover officers leaned over the hood of an old green Mercedes on Wednesday while flipping through booking sheets. That morning, they intercepted a purported drug deal involving the car and sent three people to jail. Detectives with the Clark-Vancouver Regional Drug Task Force found 3 ounces of heroin and ½ ounce of methamphetamine inside the car, according to Cmdr. Mike Cooke. One man, Mario Barasa Jr., fled from police in a Jaguar during the sting, later ditching the car and running into a backyard, where police took him into custody at gunpoint.

But the task force's work was only partially done.

The detectives were waiting at Fred Meyer on Wednesday for permission to search Basara's Felida home at 13313 N.W. 39th Ave. As they waited, a couple of officers were staked out near the house to keep an eye on anyone coming and going.

For weeks, the Clark County Sheriff's Office drug tip line was hounded with complaints about potential drug activity at the house. "When we can take a house like this down, we try as hard as we can to do that," Cooke said.

A detective spent about an hour at the Fred Meyer Starbucks typing up an affidavit for a search warrant — a document that was six weeks in the making. It was past business hours, so the detective had to find a judge who was at home and could sign off on the search. Eventually, he headed to Judge Kelli Osler's house, down the street in Salmon Creek.

Read the full story here.

Yearslong talks on potash export lease fall through

photoA lucrative deal to export potash, a crop nutrient, on roughly 45 acres of Terminal 5, pictured above, at the Port of Vancouver is off after more than three years of negotiations, including a preliminary agreement, failed to secure a final lease accord.

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A lucrative lease deal at the Port of Vancouver that would have triggered thousands of temporary construction jobs and garnered at least $250 million in private capital investment is off, at least for now.

The port said Friday that it and BHP Billiton, the Australian mining giant, have ended nearly four years of exclusive negotiations to export potash, a crop fertilizer, at the port. The two parties allowed an agreement that gave BHP exclusive rights to nearly 100 acres of property at Terminal 5 to expire as of June 16, the port said.

The break in the two parties’ relationship undercuts the port’s push to land a major revenue-producing tenant at its rail-looped Terminal 5. When it publicly announced a preliminary agreement with BHP in 2010, the port welcomed a visit and supportive remarks about the project from Washington’s then-Gov. Chris Gregoire. Now the dimmed prospect for a final, cash-generating potash deal raises questions about the port’s ability to further invest in its niche attraction for industrial tenants: rail transportation.

Port officials expressed a mixture of optimism and frustration about the end of exclusive talks with BHP. “It was just the plodding that BHP Billiton seemed to be taking to get the mine done,” port Commission President Brian Wolfe said, expressing irritation over the company’s ongoing work to produce potash from its Jansen mine in Canada’s Saskatchewan province. “We can’t just be sitting here waiting.”

Yet, Wolfe and port administrators said the port still enjoys a good relationship with the company and remains open to landing its planned potash export venture at a different port site in the future. And with the nearly 100-acre parcel back on the market, they said, the port will be able to show it off to other prospective tenants.

“We’re confident that we can find a new tenant for Terminal 5 in the near future,” Todd Coleman, the port’s executive director, said in a news release. “It’s an extremely attractive property due to its size and access to river, road and rail transportation.”

Read the full story here.

Incomplete apartment complex burns

Under construction apartment fire

A two-alarm fire leveled a four-story apartment complex under construction in east Vancouver early Friday morning.

A member of 24-Hour Fitness, 800 S.E. Tech Center Drive, saw the flames coming from the four-story complex at about 3:20 a.m. and called 911, said Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli.

About 40 firefighters from the Vancouver and Camas-Washougal fire departments responded but were unable to save the building, which had been framed but lacked any fire protection features.

“It was completely involved,” Scarpelli said. “Firefighters took a defensive attack on this fire to protect any exposure.”

There were no reported injuries.

Scarpelli said the Columbia Tech Center Lofts, planned as a 90-unit complex just south of Mill Plain Boulevard near Southeast 177th Avenue, was about 50 percent complete. The construction project has a price tag of more than $4 million, according to building permits. Scarpelli said because it hadn’t been outfitted with all its amenities, she estimated the financial loss somewhere between $3 and $3.5 million.

Natural gas helped to fuel the flames until a utility crew shut off the line, but Scarpelli said the blaze burned the complex “to the ground.”

Scarpelli said the circumstances of the fire are unusual, and the agency’s arson investigation team is looking into the fire. She said investigators looking for the cause of the fire will likely bring in a dog trained to detect accelerants.

“It’s highly unusual when you have a building this large, this fully involved,” she said.

Read the full story here.

Playground designers seek to balance fun, safety

photoSpinners bring movement back to the playground after years of static play structures. Sam Ralphs, 5, and Olive Linstrom, 4, both of Vancouver, try one out at Fairgrounds Community Park.

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Anyone who thinks playground equipment is all fun and games should peruse the Consumer Products Safety Commission's 57-page handbook on playground safety.

It's an exhaustive rundown, complete with diagrams: Openings in guardrails and between ladder rungs shouldn't measure less than three-and-a-half inches or more than 9 inches. Surfaces around playground equipment should be covered by at least 12 inches of wood chips or other soft material. No bolts should protrude from the structure.

That's a big change from when today's parents were kids.

"Our childhood memories are of a jungle gym on asphalt," said Terry Snyder, who designs parks for the city of Vancouver. He began his parks career in the early 1980s, just as attitudes toward playgrounds were shifting. "A lot of the changes that have occurred have dealt with safety issues," Snyder said.

Playground architects are attempting to return some of the elements of challenge and movement — and just plain fun — that were lost as equipment became safer. Good thing, given that experts say activities such as climbing, swinging and spinning are key to child development.

Read the full story here.