Special COWncil Meeting: Roundup, June 9, 2008

June 23, 2008

The COWncil held a special meeting on June 9th to take up the burning issue of fire safety and designating Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones in the Town, through the adoption of an ordinance. The issue has been on everyone’s mind with fire season already started in the region and with a Woodside firefighter being injured battling a house fire. You can see the story here:. You can see video of the full meeting on Mootube here.

The meeting was mostly a dialogue between Denise Enea, Fire Marshall with the Woodside Fire Protection District and the COWncil, though local COWs got into the act with questions that may just have swayed the COWncil’s decision on the issue. Under a California state-wide mandate, the Town needs to have such plans in force by July 1st of this year. In November and December of 2007 the COWncil approved changes to Chapter 150 of the Woodside Municipal Code (see our article here) that adopted parts of Chapter 7A of the State Fire Code. It mandates fire safety measures with regard to permitted building materials and landscape maintenance requirements. Left to be done was the adoption of Cal Fire’s “Wildland-Urban Interface Zones” – designation for areas where fires burning in wilderness or heavily overgrown areas meet homes and buildings.

Now, that almost sounds like the entire Town of Woodside! That same sentiment was expressed at the December meeting by COWncil members – you can see it in the Mootube video here. From our article about that meeting, “Some on the COWncil expressed the concern that the whole Town should be considered a high risk fire zone, and that the state map didn’t cover very much of the Town at all – and wanted to explore labeling much more of the Town a high risk fire zone.”

As you will read below, opinions have shifted in the last few months.

The ordinance would require people who are constructing new buildings, or who are doing remodeling worth more than 50% of the valuation of the property, to come into compliance with 7A.

The state map, which will be the applicable unless modified by the COWncil, is actually less restrictive than the one the Fire Protection District has been using for the past few years. That map covers most of the same areas as the approved state map, though generally with a slightly larger area covered, including the addition of the Woodside Glens which the fire department considers to be high fire risk. Fire Marshall Enea passed along Woodside Fire’s concerns to the State Fire Officials, which were noted, but the area was ultimately not added to the official state map. The state told her that the area didn’t meet with their criteria.

There was a lot of discussion of these issues at the meeting. The matter eventually boiled down to the fact that the Town could add land areas to the map, but could not subtract lands on the map. You can see video of the various maps discussed on the Mootube video. The official state map is here.

COWncilmember Mason had many critical questions during the meeting. At one point, he asked why one side of a street would be included in the fire zone, and the other side of the street would not be, stating that they’re “the same.” Fire Marshall Enea responded with, “It’s really not.” She went on to explain that they had used a numerical scoring system that took into account availability of hydrants, topography, fuel load, access, etc. She raised concerns over ember propagation and the difficulty of fighting fires in certain areas. One of her main concerns with the Glens is that it has such narrow streets. The Fire Protection Districts’ map was not based on fire history – in her view, any part of Woodside could have a fire “any minute.”

So then the question becomes, why not include much more of the Town in the Fire Zone, and require more of the Town to abide by 7A? Here is where the testimony of several citizens came into play. Aside from the expense of abiding by the construction rules – (although Fire Marshall Enea stated during the meeting, “I don’t know any downsides I can see” and asserting that the fire resistant materials are often cheaper).

One issue raised was the ability to get fire insurance. It is getting harder and harder to get, with many insurance companies dropping even long-time customers in fire-prone areas. There are concerns that being listed on the map as being in the Severity Zone may make it impossible or prohibitively expensive to get fire insurance. Marshall Enea said that the insurance companies use their own proprietary fuel maps, and said that the new, locally-adopted map might not have any effect at all. She couldn’t say for sure, though, and this didn’t seem to calm many people down. You can read an article on this issue and how it affects our neighboring COWmunity of Portola Valley here, along with some criticism of the Fire Departments views from the Mayor of that Town.
The other issue, and the one that really ignited a firestorm of criticism, was a COWmunity member’s assertion that the adoption of these Zones would require that areas around homes be ‘clear-cut’ by the landscape requirements of the state. He asserted that state code says that no vegetation could be higher than 4” above the ground and only ‘widely-spaced trees’ would be allowed in an area 100 feet around a home. For small lots that would be the entirety of the lot and this citizen of Woodside said it would radically change the look of our Town.

The Fire Marshall said there was a difference between that code and the code that the Town would enforce, and said that the Town requirements were for a ‘defensible space’ that removes ladder fuels, limbs that hang over homes, and other such items. She intimated that the Fire Protection District wouldn’t be interested in such restrictive rules as that brought up by the resident, and that the state would be responsible for enforcing its own mandates – and made it sound like they didn’t check too closely.

The resident and Marshall Enea went back and forth for quite some time, with COWncilmember Mason sounding very sympathetic to the privacy issues and expressed concerns for his landscaping, which he said was carefully chosen, and spoke about looking more closely at the map and seeing if all parcels on the map were scientifically chosen. There is some roughness to the map as Enea pointed out – the state uses computer-generated polygons to develop the map.

Mayor Romines came back with a rebuke to Mason, saying that they “don’t want to go house by house,” and next went after Mason directly. He said that Mason may want to pull his house for landscaping reasons, but his neighbor would be worried that “his fire [Mason’s] would become my [the neighbor’s] fire.” He said that this hypothetical neighbor would be more worried about that then if “[Peter Mason] can accomplish his landscaping goals to the nth degree.”

After all this discussion, eventually it came back to what COWncilmember Tanner called a gun to the head – the state mandate. Since the Town pretty much had to adopt at least the state map by July 1st or perhaps face legal consequences, they adopted the state map as-is without adding any areas to the map, given the concerns and confusion of the consequences of that action. This was merely the first reading of the ordinance, and we can expect these issues to come up again when it’s voted upon in the last meeting of June.

The COWncil supported coming back to the issue of adding areas to the map in the near future, with Mayor Romines suggesting it be sooner rather than later – as the representative from the Glens, he is concerned about that area not being on any official map. The meeting ended shortly thereafter.

We have the highest respect for our Woodside fire district and their knowledge and opinions but we think that COWncil acted appropriately at this point, given the uncertainties of just exactly what it would mean to expand the areas on the map, both financially and because of how it might change the very face of Woodside. However, Susan George should have her staff get definitive answers to the questions raised and bring them to COWncil very quickly. With fire season upon us and the Fire Marshall reporting very low fuel moisture and piles of brush “exploding” when lit during controlled burns this spring, fire dangers are real. Working with our fire department to find solutions that can be implemented immediately is vital.

One citizen’s concerns sum up this issue provocatively. She said that if we don’t start providing adequate firebreaks, “we will have fires clearing it out” anyway.

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