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State looks at proposed changes affecting county regulations on development, rural roads and fire safety

Workshops set for public comment on draft new rules

By Jay Gamel

The State of California has put off considering Sonoma County’s special fire safety rules pending upcoming changes to the existing state fire regulations concerning development in back country areas. A request for re-certification of changes to applicable Sonoma County fire regulations has been tossed back and forth all summer after objections by local residents shook up the status quo, prompting State Board of Forestry (BOF) directors to reconsider how their rules are being interpreted by local counties to permit development in back country areas served by roads that do not meet modern safety standards.

Most of California’s lands lie outside of urban areas. Protecting them from fire is the job of Cal Fire, the state fire department that is governed by the BOF. The lands they protect are designated State Responsibility Areas, or SRAs, as opposed to Local Responsibility Areas (LRAs), which are served by urban and suburban fire departments. Sonoma County is a rich mix of the two types of lands. While counties are responsible for all development permitting in territories, they must apply both their own as well as state standards when it comes to SRA designated lands.

While city streets and county roads are usually wide enough for all kinds of traffic, back roads, typically built in SRAs, are often narrow, twisty and can be hard to negotiate, especially for big fire equipment going one way while people are evacuating the opposite direction. This is especially true of older roads built before modern rules went into effect.

Fire fighting equipment didn’t exist or was much smaller when many of California’s wild land roads were built over the last century, particularly in mountainous areas. Roads in the mountains surrounding Sonoma Valley, coastal areas, and throughout the county are good examples. Almost everyone has a favorite backcountry road – a twisty, narrow Sunday jaunt through the beautiful back country scenery makes a perfect getaway from urban life.

Over the past 40 years, back country Sonoma County has experienced an explosion of hilltop and hillside development in areas served by these substandard roads: large homes, vineyards, marijuana farms, and vacation rentals now dot formerly bare mountainsides. Today’s typical fire engine is much bigger than anything formerly seen on these roads other than farm equipment. The friction has been growing between residents and developers over improving roads to modern standards before allowing new homes, wineries, and pot farms in these areas.

Sonoma County is encouraging the addition of Additional Dwelling Units, or ADUs, to help resolve its persistent affordable housing shortages, particularly when people replace homes lost to the violent wildfires that have plagued the county since 2017. Many of those homes are in the back country areas under scrutiny.

California allows counties to apply their own standards, so long as they are “equal or better” than the BOF rules. Only a few counties have their own rules, including Sonoma, but those rules must be certified by the BOF, and re-certified whenever modified.

Here’s the rub. The language in the state rules concerning roads built before 1992 is somewhat vague, and Sonoma planning agencies have interpreted them to mean that no road built before 1992 ever needs to be modernized to allow development.

A minor point, but one which has a huge impact on back country building. Do you have to widen a 12-foot-wide, one-way road to permit new development? The costs can be staggering. A lot of people want to build ‘up there.’ The outcome can affect development everywhere throughout the state.

A vigorous overhaul of state fire rules was set in motion by the Legislature in 2018 with SB 901. The bill provided millions for fire protection and called for revised rules. A draft of those rules is just coming forward. Requirements imposed by Senate Bill 901 may invalidate all local ordinances and until the new rules are debated and are dealt with, the BOF is not going to address county exceptions.

According to BOF spokesperson Edith Hannigan, Sonoma County’s bid for recertification of its fire rules was withdrawn from the directors.

The BOF found it prudent to impose a “temporary suspension” on local ordinance certifications on Nov. 3 after a draft of proposed new and revised rules was presented to the BOF. They can be found at www.kenwoodpress. com/files/Draft_BOF_fire_regulations.pdf.

An Oct. 23 letter from the BOF’s senior counsel to Sonoma County Counsel reflected serious concerns about the county’s regulations.

“Board members and staff have expressed concerns about portions of Sonoma County’s ordinance that either omit standards included in the Fire Safe Regulations or set standards that, on their face, appear to be less stringent than the Fire Safe Standards.”

Sonoma County Deputy Counsel Linda Schiltgen said in a recent phone call that the county requested the certification request be dropped for now.

The 2018 bill not only pumped millions of dollars into beefing up fire safety statewide, it also requires, among other things, the BOF to issue road standards for fire equipment access, fuel breaks and greenbelts. A challenge to the county rules started with Bennett Valley residents Craig Harrison and Deborah Eppstein who don’t want the county to allow development in SRAs unless the existing road widths are brought up to modern standards, regardless of when the road was built. These objections are supported by 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. Harrison and Eppstein pointed out in a recent press release that, “During the past three years, more than 20 percent of Sonoma County has burned in wild land fires and over 6,000 structures were destroyed. Most county residents have evacuated at least once, and virtually all have prepared to evacuate.” There will be two workshops for public input on the proposed BOF regulations. Interested people may register for the Nov. 18, 9 a.m. workshop at register/3336122098885660171. The second workshop is calendared for Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 9 a.m. with registration at register. 540122303567568907. [These links will be live in the online version of this story at www.kenwoodpress. com.]

During the past three years, more than 20 percent of Sonoma County has burned in wild land fires and over 6,000 structures were destroyed. Most county residents have evacuated at least once, and virtually all have prepared to evacuate. – Craig Harrison