Deborah Eppstein, Craig Harrison & Marylee Guinon, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE
Amid another extreme fire season, concerned Sonoma County residents wonder why their Board of Supervisors is fervently working to exempt new development on unsafe roads from Cal Fire safety standards.
Residents as well as the following advocacy groups submitted opposition letters: Bennett Valley Residents for Safe Development, Forests Unlimited, General Plan Update Environmental Coalition, Greenbelt Alliance, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Council and Wine and Water Watch.
For the fourth time this year, the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF) has refused to certify Sonoma County’s Fire Safe Ordinance, as it does not meet safety standards. Subsequently, on November 4, the BOF unanimously adopted a moratorium on considering county certifications, having wasted untold hours and public dollars during 2020 evaluating Sonoma County’s flawed ordinances.
Cal Fire standards require new development to provide concurrent emergency vehicle access and egress of residents during a wildfire. We question why our Supervisors refuse to protect firefighters and the public in the wildland urban interface.
• What motives could justify knowingly sacrificing lives and property? Is it to promote unfettered housing and commercial development in high fire hazard locations?
• Does the County strive to eliminate all constraints to new development thereby preserving its micro-management of the approval process? Given the Supervisors have put off the General Plan indefinitely, perhaps the County lacks the strategic framework and fortitude to lead with policy?
• Or were the Supervisors woefully misinformed by County Counsel concerning the Ordinance’s lack of standards, which failed to meet Cal Fire standards?
An October 23 BOF letter (p. 2) stated BOF staff “have significant concerns” that Sonoma County’s standards do not “allow concurrent civilian evacuation.” It emphasized (p. 8) the County’s failure to cooperate, refusing even to respond to direct questions: “Sonoma County has had repeated opportunities to identify and provide citations for these standards. Sonoma County repeatedly declines to do so.”
Sonoma County finally acknowledged this fiasco and removed its request for certification from the November BOF agenda.
As directed by the legislature, the BOF first issued regulations in 1991 to require fire-safe roads for new development in the State Responsibility Area (SRA, essentially the wildland urban interface) where Cal Fire is responsible for fighting fires.
The current minimum state requirements for new development include:
• 20-foot wide roads (Cal Fire Type 3 engines are 9-10 feet wide, plus mirrors; most civilian vehicles are over 6 feet wide);
• No dead-end roads longer than 1 mile; and turnarounds on dead-end roads so firefighters won’t get trapped in a conflagration.
• Further, state law now requires the BOF to identify existing developments in very high fire hazard zones without secondary egress routes and to develop recommendations to improve fire safety there.
While counties may adopt their own fire safe ordinances if the ordinance “meets or exceeds” the SRA regulations or if it has “the same practical effect,” Sonoma County is the only county this year to request certification of an ordinance. When the BOF refuses to certify an ordinance, the SRA regulations are the rule of law.
Does Sonoma County refuse to obey the law?
Despite not having a certified ordinance, Sonoma County has continued to approve commercial developments this year that violate the SRA regulations.
On August 4, Sonoma County Supervisors adopted an ordinance that substitutes a 12 foot “path of travel” (one lane) for a 20-foot-wide road (two lanes), and removed requirements for turnarounds or grade as well as any limits on dead-end roads.
A Supervisor’s letter to the BOF asserted that the county’s “strenuous” and “exceptional” standards “far exceed State law.” Fire Marshal James Williams, who should know better, wrote essentially the same thing. The BOF rejected their contention that 12 feet “meets or exceeds” 20 feet. The BOF also rejected their claim that a one-lane road where a fire engine and vehicles fleeing from a fire create a bottleneck has “the same practical effect” as a two-lane road where the vehicles can feasibly pass one another.
During the September BOF meetings, BOF Chair Dr. Keith Gilless praised the detailed analyses prepared by stakeholder groups, and acknowledged the benefits of having “many eyes analyzing” the discrepancies between the state’s regulations and Sonoma County’s ordinance.
Sonoma County’s Flawed Arguments:
1. The County claims that the California Code and the regulations do not apply to existing roads. The BOF responded (p. 6) that this “fundamental and intractable disagreement … is a legitimate basis for determining that the ordinance does not equal or exceed the Fire Safe Regulations.” The BOF emphasized that this claim (p. 6), “is incompatible with the plain language of PRC § 4290, the Fire Safe Regulations, and opinions and letters issued by the Attorney General of California.”
2. Sonoma County claims that requiring safety standards on existing roads constitutes a “regulatory taking,” and would subject the county to liability by landowners. The BOF responded (p. 4) that its regulations “have not been legally challenged, let alone invalidated, as being unconstitutional in any sense.”
The county fails to grasp the simple reality that the state would have any speculative liability, not a county government enforcing state law. The county bears no liability, for example, for enforcing federal restrictions on development in critical habitat for endangered species. The county should be wondering if it has massive liability for approving development on unsafe roads in violation of state law, especially when such homes are subsequently destroyed in wildfires.
3. During the August hearings, supervisors said the Cal Fire regulations require the county to upgrade all of its existing roads to state standards. This is patently wrong. Only new development on substandard roads could require upgrading of these existing roads to provide safe access and egress.
4. County officials claim the objections to its flawed ordinance only concern commercial cannabis cultivation on narrow residential roads where this activity is incompatible. This false narrative reflects a failure to understand the extent to which fire safety has become paramount to county residents.
During the past three years, more than 20% of Sonoma County has burned in wildland fires and over 6,000 structures were destroyed. Most county residents have evacuated at least once, and virtually all have prepared to evacuate.
While model counties are implementing advanced fire safety policies and standards, Sonoma County is pursuing pernicious strategies that endanger its citizens. Will these policies undermine the ability of homeowners to insure their homes and secure mortgages, thus negatively impact the housing market and Sonoma County’s financial future?