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December 8, 2023
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Fire hazard zone causes construction headaches

Public comment results in some hillside building reform

During the Oct. 3 Town Council meeting, public commenter Brandye Sweetnam shared her concerns with the challenges of building in fire hazard zones in town.

From her perspective, the burden on some homeowners in the hillsides seeking to improve their properties is much too heavy, as they must navigate a difficult Alternative Means and Methods Request process.

“The AMMR is based on the applicant’s ability to prove ‘same practical effect,’” she said. “In reality, this more often than not requires infrastructure development that is beyond the financial means, legal responsibility, environmental and structural access of the applicant—for example, making a roadway wider than it is requires significant capital and infrastructure investment, not to mention the property donation of everybody else on the roadway. Similarly, making a dead-end road not a dead-end road is not something that can be done without land ownership conflicts and exorbitant engineering costs.”

In 1991, California’s Board of Forestry adopted PRC 4290, which established minimum fire safety standards, which have been clarified over the years in regards to construction rules relating to roads, fire equipment access, sign standards, fuel breaks and minimum private water supplies. 

Sweetnam recommended Los Gatos follow the following principles to make things fair for landowners through its exception process: Transparency, Objectivity, Feasibility, Reasonability, Consistency and Timeliness.

“Right now, the current exception process is opaque to applicants,” she said, complaining that PRC 4290 has narrow language. “There’s no path forward that’s documented, and there are no examples of ‘same practical effect’ that can be accepted.”

The laws, as currently written, leave considerable room for subjective assessments, she added.

Much is made of the importance of wildfire prevention in Los Gatos, with the Town ordinances requiring homeowners to clear brush, maintain a defensible space boundary around your home and ensure appropriate tree clearance.

However, the Town does not even enforce this ordinance.

—Brandye Sweetnam, homeowner

“Applicants are left in the dark,” she said. “From a feasibility perspective…making a roadway wider or a dead-end road not a dead-end road, are not feasible, and often will cost more than the actual project in question.”

Ironically, many of these projects would provide a net benefit to the community as a whole and to the property, Sweetnam argued.

“This is not considered when the AMMR is completed,” she said. “Much is made of the importance of wildfire prevention in Los Gatos, with the Town ordinances requiring homeowners to clear brush, maintain a defensible space boundary around your home and ensure appropriate vertical tree clearance. However, the Town does not even enforce this ordinance, particularly in the very, very high-risk fire zones. These rules and requirements are applied inconsistently, thereby creating an inherent hypocrisy in requiring individual property owners to do what the town itself does not even do on our public roadways.”

In her case, it took 10 months and three submissions of an AMMR—working with the Santa Clara County fire department and the Town’s Planning Department—to win approval.

Planning Director Jennifer Armer said when a new home is proposed in the high fire hazard severity zone, a review is triggered.

“There are certain circumstances where there may be a request from Santa Clara County fire for major improvements, for example, if the property is at the end of a dead-end street that is not meeting the width or slope requirements in those locations,” she said.

A renovation wouldn’t trigger this hurdle to development, she said, adding though a replacement of an existing home could.

Councilmember Rob Moore said because the improvements are only required when a large investment is already being made into a property, it makes sense, for safety’s sake, to force landowners to undertake upgrades.

But he asked for a ballpark figure of what the price tag might be.

“In some cases, we have seen them significantly out of proportion with the proposed project,” Armer said. “If you are at the end of a long dead-end street, it can be very significant in terms of the improvement. However, through this process of requesting an exception, which usually involves alternative means…to address the concerns under these regulations, that can result in much less in terms of required investment.”

Armer added that the Town has been working on finding a way, particularly for rebuilds, to get some improvements instead of waiving all requirements.

Brad Fox, the assistant fire marshal for Santa Clara County Fire Department, said their department isn’t the inspection authority, Cal Fire is.

The exception request goes to Cal Fire and it’s only after a denial that the County offers the opportunity for a waiver.

“Our role in the County actually is the same as Planning Commission for the Town of Los Gatos, in that, we are the appeals body,” he said.

Councilmember Matthew Hudes jumped on Sweetnam’s principles, which he said the Planning Commission could use to make the process smoother.

“I would focus on four of those six—transparency, objectivity, feasibility and timeliness,” he said, suggesting reasonability overlaps with feasibility and consistency should be left out so as to not give the impression of setting precedents with each decision. “But, I do think that the idea of including these principles for appeals would help the Planning Commission not try to make it up every time.”

Hudes made a motion to continue with the existing appeals process but to add the stated four principles to the Planning Commission to guide their decisions on appeals.

“And the second thing is that we get a regular update on whether the timelines are being met,” he said.

Moore seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

Drew Penner
Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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