Napa Soda Springs, County RSS and the BOF
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Bill Hocker | Mar 13, 2023

The Soda Springs Resort property is located in a Fire Hazard Severity Zone (FHSZ) in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's (Cal Fire's) State Responsibility Area (SRA), ie the areas of the state in which Cal Fire is the lead firefighting agency. It also means that development is governed by the State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations (MFSR) enacted by Cal Fire's Board of Forestry (BOF). Beginning in late 2019, following major destructive wildfires in the state, the BOF began a review of their regulations to see what could be improved. The review process was preceded by a decision by the State Attorney General's office earilier in 2019 to deny the EIR for the Paraiso Springs Resort development in Monterey County. That project was to be located on an existing long dead-end road. The Attorney General concluded that the EIR failed to mitigate the fact that the existing road did not comply with the BOF regulations regarding width or length of a dead end road. Monterey County had contended that the BOF regulations should only apply to new roads, not existing ones. The Attorney General's office disagreed in their comment letter while reviewing the EIR, and the BOF review of its MFSR began.

A year and a half of marked up changes to the MFSR were proposed involving input from all stakeholders (local governments, developers, and private citizens). The process is documented here. At the end of the process the BOF apparently decided that their original regulations were for the most part adequate, but it was the process of enforcement of those regulations that was lax, leaving too much of that enforcement to local governments whose priority was to enable development rather than prevent wildfire catastrophe. The approval of the regulations as modified in 2021 was upheld. The major change to come out of the review was in how active the BOF would become in reviewing projects in the SRA.

The Napa Soda Springs Resort project may become a test to see how far the BOF will go in enforcing their regulations. Napa County is in the process of presenting their interpretation of the BOF regs to the Board of Supervisors and the public. They are relying on a 2016 certification of Napa County's Road and Street Standards (RSS) by the BOF. The certification meant that the RSS complied or exceeded the BOF standards. The certification was re-approved in 2019 before the State began to review their regulations. A major change to come out of the review was that the State would no longer certify local standards. It would now be up to local jurisdictions to prove that BOF standards were being complied with on each individual project.

The current RSS explicitly state that existing roads are exempt from the provisions of the RSS. The County is relying on the previous certification to allow that provision to remain in effect. But the Attorney General specifically rejected that interpretation of the BOF regs in the Paradiso Springs EIR. They concluded that the EIR failed to mitigate for the length of the dead-end road that exceeded BOF standards and that, indeed, there was no mitigation that would provide the "same practical effect" as a shorter road. Existing dead-end roads can not be exempted from BOF regulations.

But even more recently, when Sonoma County tried to have their local road standards certified by the BOF in 2020, the BOF rejected that certification on the basis that Sonoma's road standards, just like Napa's, exempted existing roads. Deborah Eppstein, who led the fight in Sonoma County against the certification, has just now sent a letter to Napa County rebutting their effort to claim that existing roads are exempt.

Which brings us to the ruins of the Napa Soda Springs Resort, 3.4 miles up Soda Canyon Road in a Fire Hazard Severity Zone. At this point it is total conjecture what will happen as the Napa Soda Springs projects progresses. To our knowledge, nothing beyond a zoning review in March 2022 between the county and the previous owner has transpired. But intuitively there must have been a more substantial informal commitment by the County that the project could proceed in order for the new owner, with development ambitions, to buy the property. The future of this project very much depends on how well the County can convince the State that their own RSS should supersede the BOF regs when the two are in conflict, as is the case over whether the BOF regs apply to existing roads. It may be come an important test of the State's newfound interest in curbing development in fire-prone areas.

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