SodaCanyonRoad | Board of Forestry Fire Safe Regulations
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Board of Forestry Fire Safe Regulations
Bill Hocker | Dec 2, 2022 on: Fire Issues


Napa County State Responsibility Area in which Regs apply

Update12/2/22 State response to inquiries
The County has received notification that the State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations have not yet been approved and may be under additional review. So the "final" MSFR may not be so final after all.

There is a clear difference in code between State Board of Forestry Minimum Fire Safe Regulations (MFSR) as presently proposed and Napa County's Road and Street standards as proposed. Though the State regulations and County standards are for the most part identical, the NCRSS definitively exempt existing roads from having to comply with other provisions of the standards. while the MFSR explicitly make no difference between existing and new roads. The BOF specifically rejected, in their "final" redline, language that would have limited their regulations to new roads only.

So what happens when local regulations, like the NCRSS, conflict with the MSFR? The difference in implementation of the two codes would result in a huge difference in the amount of new development occurring in wildfire areas of the state going forward. Limiting that development was one of the principal reasons for the review of the MSFR in 2020-22 and the retention of language that did not differentiate between new and existing roads in the regulations.

Several concerned citizens asked Edith Hannigan, Executive Officer at the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, what happens when local standards and state regulations differ. This is one such email exchange:

    From Bill Hocker to Edith Hannigan 11/14/22:
    I would be very happy to know how the BOF feels about local jurisdictions exempting existing roads from having to comply with the MSFR.

    From EH 11/15/22:
    The Board cannot offer interpretations on other governments' codes and ordinances.
    Thank you for your understanding.

    From BH 11/15/22:
    So what is the recourse if local codes contradict the BOF Fire Safe Regulations? Doesn't that render the BOF regulations meaningless?

    From EH 11/15/22:
    I would consult a lawyer to explore your options for legal relief.

In looking at this response, it would seem that the State will treat MSFR as they do CEQA standards. That is, it is not up to the State to enforce the code, but rather it is up to individuals or organizations to challenge non-compliance with State code in court on a project-specific basis. In fact, discontinuing BOF certifications of local codes, as the BOF has now done, eliminates one barrier to lawsuits against local jurisdictions over their codes. It is perhaps one more example of how, in such a litigious society, governance can now only occur through the courts.

Update11/17/22 Community Outreach Meeting
On 11/17/22 Napa County Staff held a community outreach meeting to present the the County's revised Road and Street Standards in response to the State's newly approved Minimum Fire Safe Regulations.

Notice of the meeting
2023 Draft NCRSS redline version
2023 Draft NCRSS FAQ letter
Approved 2021 State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations (MFSR)
BOF Statement of Reasons behind Approved 2021 MSFR
2019 "certified" Napa County Road and Street Standards (NCRSS)
Video of the 11/17/22 hearing
Barbara Eppstein Letter to planner Patrick Ryan and County

Deborah Eppstein, representing the Sonoma group SAFRR concerned with local interpretation of the MFSR, has sent this list of issues that she wishes to bring up at the Outreach Meeting:

    "1) Napa’s prior certification is no longer valid as any time an ordinance is amended to update it as is required anytime the state regs are updated, the prior certification is no longer valid. That is spelled out black and white in the current regs (see § 1270.04(d) of current 2020 regs). All local ordinances must be amended to comply with the new regs. Furthermore, BOF is no longer doing certifications (moratorium started Nov 4, 2020) and they accordingly beefed up language in the new [2021] regs (§ 1270.05) spelling out that local ordinances must fully comply with the corresponding minimum standards in the state regs, and that no exemptions could be applied that were not in the state regs.

    2) The state regs apply to all public and private roads (see definition of Road), so the Napa regs cannot exclude the public access roads.

    3) Separately, the Napa 2019 certified regs actually did not exclude the public access roads as Patrick Ryan has stated
    [SCR notes they are exempted in Scope of Standards section ] - sections 12 and 13 of the Napa regs rather provide the requirements for road and driveway standards within a parcel, but they do not state that the road standards outside the parcel are no longer applicable.

    4) Exceptions can only be granted under the limited conditions listed in Section 3 (p3) and then only within the development parcel as specified. Exceptions must provide for the same practical effect as the state regs, which includes concurrent fire apparatus ingress and civilian evacuation, and unobstructed traffic circulation (see BOF regs, § 1273.00), consistent with the technical details specified in Article 2 of the state regs (20 ft wide roads, 16% grades, dead-end road length limits, etc). Exceptions are not for entire roads, but for specific obstacles- eg heritage oaks, recorded historical sites.

    5) The state AG has written that exceptions cannot be applied to change the dead-end road length limitation (2019 letter to Monterey County)

Deborah has also supplied this highlighted 2020 Letter from the BOF to the County of Sonoma during Sonoma's attempt to certify their road standards. Pease note the highlights on p. 6. The BOF makes clear that the exemption of existing roads from compliance with local ordinance " is a legitimate basis for determining that the ordinance does not equal or exceed the Fire Safe Regulations." The NCRSS exemption of existing roads in its Scope of Standards clearly violates the MSFR.

She also calls attention to the 8/17/22 BOF Statement of Reasons that accompanied the BOF approval of the 2021 MFSR. Beginning on page 5 they enumerate their "General Response to Comments Regarding Existing Roads:" That response makes crystal clear that their intent is that the regulations apply to existing as well as new roads. Any attempt by local jurisdictions to exempt existing roads from the application of local standards would clearly indicate that those standards do not "equal or exceed" the MSFR.

After the meeting she sent this letter to county officials to further clarify the issue.

Update10/21/22
NVR 10/21/22: Napa County grapples with controversial state fire safe standards
Video of BOS 10/18/22 meeting
Staff Agenda Letter
Approved 2021 State Fire Safe Regulations
Napa County 2019 Road and Street Standards

Following a year and a half haggling over the revision of the State Board of Forestry's Fire Safe Regulations for development in the fire-prone wildland areas, and the significant development restrictions that strict enforcement of the regulations would entail, county staff has decided to take the most minimalist interpretation with little change in their policies and practices, based on the County's own Road and Street Standards that had been certified by the BOF in 2016 before the county began burning down. The State will no longer certify local road standards, and that lack of certification means that localities are responsible for defending their standards when it comes to litigation.

Despite a slew of proposed markups over that year and a half, the final regulations remained mostly as they were, but there was a committment that the State would be more involved in vetting projects and applying their regulations more diligently.

The most significant of the proposed markups, desired by developers and jurisdictions, was the insertion of the word "new" when referring to roads in the regulations. The State's ultimate decision was to leave the Fire Safe Regulations as they are, making no distinction between existing and new roads when it came to the application of the regulations. Napa's own Road and Street Standards (RSS) explicitly state that "These Standards are not applicable retroactively to existing roads, streets and driveways or facilities." County staff has chosen to consider all of the Fire Safe Regulations, also closely mimicked in the RSS, as not applicable to any public road in the county! Firefighting "access" to new building projects would only become an issue from the nearest public road in their reviews. But they are now proposing that, in conformance with the BOF regs, driveways on private property would be considered roads when serving commercial and industrial uses and more than 4 residential units. Those roads would have to conform to the RSS but mitigating execptions would be allowed that provided the "same practical effect", defined at the discretion of local fire authority. The county has always found a mitigation that would allow substandard roads to be approved. (Anthem is the most egregious example.)

The most contentious of the BOF Regulations relates to the length of dead-end roads. The MFSR specifically do not allow new building projects on dead-ends longer than 1 mile (even less for dead-ends serving properties less than 20 acres). For those of us concerned about the urbanization of the rural areas of the county, this was an important revelation. Soda Canyon has some 200 properties beyond the 1 mile mark, with the potential for hundreds of housing units (3/property), dozens of wineries and 1 mega resort adding to the evacuation traffic on a road that has already proven inadequate in a major fire. But most of the speakers throughout this process have had the opposite concern: the enforcement of this regulation would limit their development rights on their properties, a financial taking. The county was no doubt concerned about their lawsuits as well.

The intent of the BOF review of their regulations, in the wake of the devastating wildfires that occur every year now, was to limit development on substandard roads in State [fire] Responsibility Areas which add to the likelihood and destructiveness of the fires. The county, in deciding that the access constraints of existing roads would have no bearing on their approval of new development has essentially thumbed its nose at that intent.

Update 10/11/22
Napa Vision 2050 has sent a letter to the BOS expressing concern that the County Staff may not be planning to enforce BOF Fire Safe Regulations on access roads beyond property boundries. Given the staff statement below, it almost seems that nothing has changed in the County's approach to approving projects in hazardous fire zones, despite the clear effort by the State over the last year and a half to impress upon jurisdictions the need to rein in development in such areas.

Update 10/6/22: Staff recommendations
The County Planning Commission Clerk has sent out the recommendations that County Planning Staff will be presenting to the Board of Supervisors on October 18, 2022 regarding its interpretation of the State Board of Forestry Fire Safe Regulations that will be enforced beginning on 1/1/23. The recommendations are here.

Regarding Access
    "Access Staff Recommendation: Access will be evaluated for each project on only the private driveway, from the nearest public right of way to the new building. This is consistent with the County’s certified 2016 Ordinance, the adopted 2022 Fire Safe Regulations, and the California Fire Code. These same standards would be applied to both ministerial and discretionary projects.

    However, discretionary projects, such as Use Permits, are also subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In those cases, County Fire and Public Works Departments would determine whether access to the site (including both public and private roads) provides sufficient emergency evacuation for the proposed use. Where existing emergency evacuation is inadequate, Fire and Public Works would make recommendations for improvements to be included as conditions of approval."

Beyond fire rebuilds, which the county says it will allow, the County has made no comment on the regulation that most concerns the future of Soda Canyon Road: whether or not they will permit development of new projects beyond 1 mile on dead-end roads. The language of the Regulations is quite clear: dead end roads serving parcels of 20 acres or larger cannot have new construction of residential, commercial or industrial buildings beyond one mile from their connection to a through road. My interpretation of the state Regs is that the county must approve an alternative that provides the same practical effect as the regulation. The proposed statement to the BOS seems to say that the County rather than the state will decide, as it did on Mountiain Peak, whether building on a dead end road beyond 1 mile is safe, and whether a mitigation provides the same-practical-effect as the regulation. It will be interesting to see what that mitigation is.

Update 9/8/22: County discussion of Final Regs
The County presented their interpretation of the Final BOF Minimum Fire Safe Regulations (8/19/22) that are anticipated to take effect on 1/1/23. Video of the Zoom meeting is here.

I've had to go through the zoom video a couple of times to understand how the county thus far interprets the new regulations. The year and a half drafting process (see previous updates below) despite the active additions and consternation of stakeholders throughout the state, are more restrictive than when the process began. The regs on their face will have such a significant impact on future development in the county (and the state) that there seemed a sense of disbelief on the part of Mr. Ryan and Dir. Morrison in their interpretations. But perhaps these are the unbelievable changes that we will have to make to confront a changing climate.

My Selective takeaways:
  • All projects that receive final approval, whether planning or building permit, after 1/1/23 must comply with the new Fire Safe Regulations.
  • the regulations apply equally to new and existing roads.
  • Driveways (10' wide with turnouts) can only serve a maximum of 4 residential units.
  • Anything over 4 residential units or any industrial or commmercial use must be accessed by a road (2-10' lanes and 2' shoulders).
  • no new construction on ridgelines (beyond some utility buildings).
  • no new construction (including fire rebuilds!) allowed on dead-end roads beyond 1 mile (less for parcels smaller then 20 acres).

The last is a really big deal. For those of us not interested in further development in our remote neighborhoods it is very good news. The built environment of most of Soda Canyon Road, like that of many of the dead end road throughout the state, is frozen in time - diminishing perhaps as buildings burn. The profound implications of this limitation seemed to generate that sense of disbelief in the presentation. It goes beyond just the homes or businesses that people can no longer build on their properties. The value of the properties (and the taxes they generate) have just taken an enormous hit, a regulatory taking, and there will be an eternity of lawsuits.

The county is surely anticipating a period of negotiation with the BOF to soften things up. But right now, many of the battles over rural land use fought over the last 8 years may be history.

There was one little issue that I still had a question about. Mr. Ryan indicated that in talking to the BOF "access" meant from the fire station to the property. His interpretation was that the 1 mile dead end would begin from a fire station. A commentor asked about the Soda Canyon Road fire station. Yes, construction could occur up to 1 mile from the station. Does that mean that the entire road below the station can have construction? If the fire station were located at the end of SCR would construction be allowed on the whole road? The Soda Canyon fire station is the size of a 2 car garage, has one engine and isn't manned all the time. If such a fire station eliminates the problem of long dead-end roads won't developers or communities simply provide such a structure and truck to enable their development plans to proceed? The issues of ingress and egress on a dead-end road are the same whether there is one additional fire truck on the road or not.

Update 9/1/22
The County is having a public meeting to discuss the implications of the State's renewed commitment to enforce its Minimum Fire Safe Regulations. There will be a webinar on Thurs, Sep. 8, 2022 from 8 to 10am. More information about participating may be found here.

Dir. Morrison has responded to a request for information from George Calyonnidis with the above link which contains further links to the text of the Regulations as well as the BOF reasons for the decision. Dir. Morrison also writes (music to my ears):

    "The rules have already been adopted by the State and are final. To be clear, the upcoming meeting is not an opportunity for the public to comment regarding any changes to the rules, as it would be for a draft ordinance before the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors. The meeting being held by the County is primarily to help people be aware of and explain how these new rules will affect future building permit applications. For many areas in the county, the changes will be significant for many property owners wishing to build homes or businesses."

Update 8/29/22
NV2050 Eyes on Napa Newsletter 8/25/22: Hard Won Victory For Fire Safety

After numerous revisions back and forth in proposed rules changes over the last year plus, the Board of Forestry has apparently voted to retain existing wording in the regulations that do not specifically designate that Fire Safe Regulations shall apply only to new access roads rather than existing roads. It was the most contentious and significant debate in the discussion because, under existing regulations, it is implied that access roads to new development whether existing or new, should comply with the minimum Fire Safe standards. For new projects at the end of sub-standard roads, the entire road must be brought up to standard to be approved, a cost that developer-dominated jurisdictions throughout the state argued would kill development in fire-prone, wild-land areas. That disincentive was, of course, the purpose in revisiting the regulations after so much fire damage in the last few years.

The cleanest version of the adopted Regulations (8/19/22) is here
BOF Final Statements of Reasons behind the BOF decisions (8/17/22)
County's map of State Responsibility Areas where the Fire Safe Regulations apply

For residents of Soda Canyon Road, one condition in the existing regulations has always stood out: the prohibition of new development on dead end roads greater than 1 mile. In that regard I was sent a 2019 determination by the State Attorney General in reviewing the FEIR for a development project at the end of a dead end road in Monterey County. The Attorney General's finding regarding road length was unequivocal: there are no exceptions for existing roads in the regulations nor is there any mitigation that would provide the same practical effect on a road exceeding the length specified in the regulations. The County has made the argument that because Soda Canyon Road has been defined (by the County) as a "collector road" that it is exempt from the dead-end requirements of the regulations. This was not the reading I got from the AG decision in Paradiso Springs.

Update 5/23/22
Patricia Damery sends this SAFRR 5/23/22 ananouncement: SAFRR Initial Victory Announcement

SAFRR is a Sonoma citizens group that has lobbied to continue to have fire-safe road regulations apply to all roads rather than just new roads. The push to add the word "new" to all of the minimum road prescriptions in the old text was promoted by the RCRC, a lobbying association promoting the interests of governments, who knew that road prescriptions without the "new" in front of them, would apply to existing as well as new roads. This would limit the ability of governments to continue to approve new development projects at the ends of substandard roads. Slowing down that development was exactly the reason given for the revision of the regs in the first place, but until the most recent proposed update, the previous revisions were modified under developer pressure to specify minimum regs would only apply to new roads. This latest revision reverts to the text that doesn't differentiate between existing and new roads.

Update 5/17/22
The latest draft of the State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations are out and a request for comments has been made. The written comment period ends on Monday, May 23, 2022. Comments may be sent by email to Edith Hannigan at PublicComments@bof.ca.gov

Latest draft of "State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations" (markup of text 5/10/22)
Latest "Statement of Reasons" (description of changes 5/10/22)
County comments on proposed revisions

As is obvious from the length of this post, this has been a tortuous process. Most of the verbiage that had been revised and revised again in previous drafts seems to have been scuttled in this draft and a new mini version of the regs has emerged. The markup was difficult to follow before but is impossible for all but forensic scholars to follow now.

One previous revision that was jettisoned was the word "new" that had been liberally added throughout the text. The concept that the regulations would only apply to new means of access has reverted to the more ambiguous prescriptions that might be interpreted as applying to existing roads as well. In terms of preventing development in fire zones, which is what I think the regs should do, this reversion to the original is an improvement.

Update 1/14/22
NVR 1/14/22: Proposed state wildfire rules worry Napa County

Update 1/2/22
The rule-making package entitled “State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations” is available on the Board's website for a 15-day public comment period following revisions to the draft rule text. The comment period begins on Tuesday, January 3 and ends at 5pm on Wednesday, January 19, 2022. Email comments, or comments as attachments to emails, are preferred. They can be sent to PublicComments@bof.ca.gov.

Napavision 2050 on the new Regulations
Comment letter from Wildfire Professionals opposed to the regulation changes

In a sad reprise of the APAC process in Napa County, the State decided to amend their fire safe regulations in response to an obvious public need for reform. And, as in APAC, the good intentions and proposals made at the beginning of the process were slowly pared back and then twisted by development interests resulting in a new codification of the status quo to their own benefit. In the case of the fire safe regulations, the previous regulations were phrased as applying to all roads, new and old. While the new regulations do in some cases make the regulations stricter for new roads, the most significant change in the regulations is that they now clearly differentiate between existing and new roads, and clarify that existing roads are now, in fact, subject to lesser regulation than they were before. Since most new development happens along or at the end of existing roads, the new regulations have the effect of making development in fire risk areas more likely to happen than before, in direct opposition to the initial intent of changing the regulations.

An article in The Guardian lays out exactly the development patterns, in this case Colorado, that caused the State of California to revisit their fire safe regulations. The solution to the problem is not in providing wider roads and shorter dead-ends in the developments themselves. The Colorado neighborhoods no doubt complied with similar fire-safe regulations and yet burned up in a matter of hours. The object of fire safe regulations should be to dis-incentivize the developments in the first place. Requiring existing roads serving those developments to be completely fire-safe compliant, thus adding significant expenditures to enable the developments, is one, rather inefficient, way to further that goal. A better way is to simply ban development in high fire risk areas, a sensible solution that is, unfortunately, anathema to American capitalism and the politicians and governments that are funded by development interests.

The Guardian 1/6/22: 'Urban fire storm’: suburban sprawl raising risk of destructive wildfires

Update 6/22/21
The Guardian 6/29/21: California developers want to build a city in the wild-lands. It could all go up in flames

Will the Fire Safe Regulations really make any difference? Centennial, the city proposed at Tejon Ranch, will no doubt comply with and probably exceed every proposed regulation. And the urban expansion into the state's wild-lands will proceed apace.

The issue from Cal Fire's standpoint should not be whether the roads are big enough to get to the fire, but how to stop expanding the urban perimeter they have to defend. By not imposing any meaningful changes to existing roads, which would substantially raise the cost of development in wild-land areas, the regulations will do nothing to slow that expansion.

Update 6/22/21 BOF Webinar
What had been originally planned as a Board of Forestry hearing to possibly ratify the Fire Safe Regulations they have been working on for over a year became just one more workshop in the process with more comments and letters from "stakeholders". The comments represented "diametrically opposed views" (in the BOF chair's summation) of the regulations. County governments, developers and some property owners felt that the new regs are so onerous that development would just stop. They bemoaned the lack of local control and flexibility. Environmental groups and some property owners felt that the new regs were a regression and would do nothing to improve safety or slow development in fire hazard areas. They bemoaned the lack of State oversight of the implementation and enforcement of the regs, old or new.

Napa had verbal input on both sides, though not by the County. Chuck Wagner wants more local control and development on the ridge-lines. Mr. Erickson wants more building hardening but less regulation of development location. Kellie Anderson wants all roads to be brought to new road standards. Patricia Damery felt the standards have been weakened and wants more state oversight of county exceptions (and called out the county approval of tourist attractions at the end of 6 mile dead-end roads).

There did seem to be a consensus on both sides over one issue (except for one person whose house was on hold in the building dept): more time was needed - 90 days often mentioned - and an EIR should be required (another year at least). Given the unknown impacts of such regulations on development throughout the state, an EIR, though they never seem to change anything, would seem warranted.

The BOF promised to carefully consider all letters and comments submitted before deciding a path forward, though I'm sure they are under enormous pressure to get this task finished before this year's fire season adds to the complaints about their slowness. Given that they were vigorously attacked from both sides, they may just feel that they have gotten it about right as is, and approve the regs as they are.

Update 6/15/21 BOF Hearing
The Board of Forestry will be meeting on June 22, 2021 to consider and possibly approve (tho unlikely) the current markup version of the Fire Safe regulations. The hearing notice is here.

Comment letters are requested to be submitted before the end of the meeting. Send letters to Edith Hanningan at edith.hannigan@bof.ca.gov

George Caloyannidis Comments
Deborah Eppstein LTE 6/17/21: Proposed regulations will promote fire safety?

Update 6/7/21 BOS Meeting
NVR:6/10/21: Napa County says proposed state wildfire safety regulations threaten fire rebuilding

Revised letter to be sent to the BOF by the BOS. One further modification will be added to the letter based on the 6/8/21 BOS meeting. The expression "Declared Disaster" will be replaced by something equivalent to (for want of a better phrase) "Act of God".

The red-line indicates that the new regulations apply to development that "results in an increase of 40 average daily trips (ADT) or less". [County staff indicated that the correction has been made to read "40 average daily trips (ADT) or more"]

Update 6/3/21 County Virtual Stakeholders Meeting
At the Stakeholders zoom meeting on the proposed FSR, County engineer Patrick Ryan made a presentation of the Regs to help clarify with discussion the meaning of the changes. He promised to make his PowerPoint available. It would be nice to have a copy of the zoom meeting if possible. Dir. Morrison had a couple of interesting comments. In one he indicted that the Board of Forestry seems to be ignoring the input of local planning departments in their effort to approve the new Regulations. (What he really means is that the BOF is ignoring the input of local development interests - "stakeholders" - that normally control land use policy.) County residents certainly know the feeling of being ignored by government bodies. I can't say it makes us sympathetic.

A similar presentation will be made to the Board of Supervisors on Jun 8, 2021.

Virtual Meeting Notice (Quite odd that it is at the same time as the Planning Commission meeting.)
County webpage about meeting

Update 6/1/21
Patricia Damery has sent a copy of a letter from lawyers representing State Alliance for Fire safe Road Regulations, a group that wants to compel an EIR to assess the impacts of changes to the BOF regulations. Their contention is that in exempting existing roads from compliance in the new Regulations, more development will be facilitated. They make the case that there was never an exemption for existing roads in the previous regulations. Since most new development occurs on old roads, changing wording of provisions to apply only to new roads allows development on old roads that would have been prohibited under the old regulations.

The word "new" appears 4 times in the old regulations (none relating to roads) and 21 times in the revised ones (most relating to roads) . Until reading the letter I had lost the forest for the trees in the tangled undergrowth of the strikeouts, underlines, paragraph movements and subsection references. The revisions are a big win for developers in codifying that minimum road dimensions, radii, grades, dead-end lengths, etc., apply to "new" roads rather than all roads.

Update 5/20/21
On June 22, 2021 The Board of Forestry will hold a Public Hearing to discuss and perhaps vote on proposed changes to the BOF Fire Safe Regulations. The notice for the hearing is here. Comments may be submitted up through the conclusion of the hearing. The BOF may vote to approve the proposed changes at the hearing or may propose revisions based on comments submitted with a future additional comment period and hearing to consider and vote on those revisions.

The official documents related to the hearing are linked on the this Board of Forestry webpage under the menu item "State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations".

Napa County Sup. Gregory mentioned in comments that the 5/18/20 BOS meeting that they will be discussing proposed changes to the State Board of Forestry Fire Safe Regulations on June 8th in preparation for the drafting of a second response letter to the Regulation changes.

Update 4/26/21
NVR 4/26/21: Napa County worries that proposed state fire rules could trigger costly road improvements

I'm not sure if the claim by the Supervisors that rebuilding fire damaged homes will trigger new road construction is more than just a scare tactic to get the public involved. There was an exemption for fire rebuilding in the existing road standards and that exemption has been widened to allow increased footprints.

The notion that adding a bedroom or a minor modification to a winery should be allowed discretionary thresholds of intensity or density increase, sounds reasonable until you extrapolate it to all properties using a road and realize that a "mitigation" will always be found to exceed any threshold. Nominally "less-than-significant" impacts on each and every project being built in the County, as we have contended since beginning this blog, add up to a very significant impact on county urbanization as a whole.

Dir. Morrison's concern that the regulations would have a "dramatic effect on development" is, of course, just the point of the regulation changes: to stop the spread of urban development into high fire areas that don't have the firefighting infrastructure to defend the new development.

I was surprised to find that the Fire Safe Regulations had severe restrictions on dead-end roads. The existing regulation prevents development on dead-end roads longer than 1 mile. The new regulation prevents development on "local" dead-ends longer than a half mile. Why was this not a consideration in approving the Mountain Peak project 6 miles up a dead-end road? Because the county defines Soda Canyon as a "collector" road, not subject to the Fire Safe Regulations. As a collector, however, Soda Canyon is substandard in width, radii and slope on the grade by the county's own road and street standards. And there are sections of the road narrower than the 20' minimum required by the Fire Safe Regs for collectors. (The County also designates Monticello Rd and Hwy 128 as a "Freeway (2 Lanes)" - there does seem to be a bit of road inflation going on.)

[added 5/23/22: The State does not consider SCR a collector. In their Functional Classifications of Roads widget Cal Trans considers it a "local" road. (Dry Creek Rd, e.g., is considered a "minor collector".)]

In any case, fires don't know the difference between "local" and "collector" roads particularly in constrained high fire risk canyons. As the Atlas fire showed, a dead-end collector is still a dead-end road, and the length along which a fire can wreck havoc to block access is a significant factor in its safety.

Numerous projects have been appealed to the board on the basis of their access constraints and the fire dangers that are a result. Anthem Winery was the most recently approved despite substantial fire hazard concerns.

The Board knows, as they acknowledge in their letter, that most of the roads in the county are substandard -- they are so even under the old BOF regulations. Yet they continue to approve tourism-reliant winery projects in remote areas of the county (including the creation of a new ordinance allowing private homes to be turned into tasting rooms.) Their concern is for the promotion of "growth" (and in Napa County that means tourism growth) at all costs.

The BOF is pursuing a rapid timeline on the new regulations precisely because counties have failed to heed their old regulations, and the BOF knows that if the process is drawn out, thousands of projects in the pipeline will be rushed to approval, adding to the firefighting burden in hazardous areas in the future. The import of the new regulations is not just that their conditions will impose greater restrictions than the old regulations, but that the state is now ready to enforce their regulations in a way that they haven't before.

Update 2/15/21
The Board of Forestry has sent out a new draft of the fire safe regulations. In this latest revision, existing sub-standard roads, for example those less than 20' wide or dead-ends greater than 1 mile in length, may be used for new development that doesn't exceed pre-defined numerical thresholds. Several options are proposed in the new draft as possibilities for creating those thresholds. This acknowledgement that the Board of Forestry is willing to accept sub-standard, and more dangerous roads in certain development circumstances is a divergence from the previous regulations which, in theory, would have made standards applicable all new development.

The revised (2/8/21) Draft is here.
PRN comments on the draft
Napa Vision 2050 letter to the BOF

2/3/21 Original Post
Following the California wildfires in 2017, which had major impacts on Napa and Sonoma counties (though worse was yet to come), Sen. Bill Dodd sponsored CA SB-901 in a wide ranging effort to address wildfire danger in the state. In one of its many provisions, "This bill would also require the state forestry board to adopt regulations implementing minimum fire safety standards that are applicable to lands classified and designated as very high fire hazard severity zones and would require the regulations to apply to the perimeters and access to all residential, commercial, and industrial building construction within lands classified and designated as very high fire hazard severity zones, as defined, after July 1, 2021"

Following the California Wildfires of 2020 which again devastated large areas of Northern California, State Sens. Stern and Allen introduced Ca SB-55 that would "prohibit the creation or approval of a new development, as defined, in a very high fire hazard severity zone or a state responsibility area." The bill is short with no exemptions, and seems unlikely to become law. The Board of Forestry seems to be proceeding on the basis of attempting to satisfy the requirements of SB-901 rather than the absolute prohibitions of SB-55. [Update: a subsequent revision completely emasculated the bill to the benefit of developers.]

In 1991 the State of California Board of Forestry (BOF) established Fire Safe Regulations defining road standards in state responsibility areas (SRA's are beige on this map). The regulations define minimum road widths, maximum gradients, required turnouts and turnarounds, road surfaces, dead-end road lengths, curve radii, water provision, and vegetation management. The standards are intended to insure that firefighters have adequate access for their equipment in the event of wildfires.

Following the requirements of SB 901, the Board of Forestry has begun to review its 1991 standards. In 2019 they produced a first draft of changes to the current regulations. And beginning in Nov 2020 the Board has convened a series of workshops on the draft regulations, and comments have been submitted. A new draft of the regulations will be published on Feb 8th with a request for further comments. The documents are here. A background of the issues and contacts for submission of comments, from the perspective of some concerned citizens of Sonoma, are here.

The draft regulations would expand the areas of regulation to another set of High Fire Hazard Severity Zones beyond the current SRA's into Local Responsibility Areas (LRA's). And they would strengthen certification to insure that local fire safety regulations comply with state regulations with a new emphasis on existing roadways serving new development.

The use of substandard existing roads to access new development has in the past been excused in new development approvals; since the preponderance of new development in the state has been to expand into rural and mountainous areas at the edges of its megalopolises, the impact on new development projects requiring all existing roads to be upgraded would be substantial. In the case of existing dead-end roads, or roads with non-compliant widths, curves and gradients previously mitigate-able development would become unfeasible.

State regulations allow for local governments to use their own standards in approving development projects as long as those standards are "equal or more stringent" and provide "the same practical effect as" the level of fire protection in the state standards. But seldom are the mitigations that local authorities accept as providing "the same practical effect" challenged, and counties have been free heretofore to approve developments based on local regulations often, in fact, more lenient than the state regulations.

But the recent wildfires have changed the state's willingness to allow local governments to overlook or mitigate-away state standards. In 2019 an exception for existing roads was argued by Monterey County on the behalf of a developer and the argument was firmly rejected by the State Attorney General. The Attorney General has also stepped in to join a lawsuit against the Guenoc Valley project in Lake County over fire issues.

Sonoma County has tried in the last year to certify their own Fire Safety Ordinance. An article in the Sonoma County Gazette gives an overview of the effort so far. The State has not been persuaded. The BOF responded to the Sonoma Ordinance in this letter. The Board has suspended certifying any local ordinances until the revision of the state regulations are finalized.

An association of county governments that lobbies the state, the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), is weighing in on the proposed BOF Fire Safe Regulation changes. The member counties, often in the grip of development interests that promise fees, taxes, jobs (and campaign contributions), are, of course, quite concerned about the regulations' impact on their construction projects. It remains to be seen how effective they will be in reducing the fire safe measures the state now seems intent on enforcing. Sup. Diane Dillon is Napa's member in the association. Napa County doesn't yet seemed to have weighed in on the draft.

What this means for Napa County

Wine and Water Watch take on NapaVision2050 article: PLAYING WITH FIRE Is Napa County Ignoring Forestry and State Road Standards for Fire Safety?

It was news to me that State regulations do not allow commercial development on dead end roads longer than 1 mile in high fire severity SRA's like Soda Canyon Road. In the new draft, that distance for new roads is shortened to one-half mile. It may be news to other residents of the county facing a winery in their backyard that roads leading to the project might be required to be raised to state fire safe standards if the projects are to be approved. Such a requirement would be good news to all county residents currently fighting the county over the commercialization of their neighborhoods for event centers and tasting rooms.

A remand of the Mountain Peak project back to the Napa Board of Supervisors to revisit the fire safety of Soda Canyon Road in light of the devastation of the 2017 fire is due in the not-too-distant future. The Board of Forestry should be asked to weigh in specifically on their half mile limitation on new development in the SRA's, and the county should be asked to justify their exemption from BOF standards in approving some winery projects.