Bill Hocker | Feb 3, 2021Update 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 developent.
The revised (2/8/21) Draft is here.
PRN comments on the draft
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 absoulute prohibitions of SB-55.
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 mitigatible 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 regualtions.
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 argumemt was firmly rejected
by the State Atorney 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 assocaition. 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.