Board of Forestry denies Sonoma County’s Fire Safe Road exemptions….“….Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, despite stating at prior board meetings that this broad exemption was not appropriate, approved an update of this flawed fire ordinance on Dec 2, 2019, that kept all the exemptions.”
Summary of Fire-Safe Roads Issues in Sonoma County
1. SRA Fire-Safe Regulations
The state of California enacted a fire-safety code for all the State Responsibility Area (SRA), which for Sonoma County is virtually all of the unincorporated county. The SRA regulations contain minimum road specifications required for all new development after 1991, siting of manufactured homes, lot line adjustment, use permits, and road construction or extension. Development is defined in CA Government Code 66418.1 as “the uses to which the land which is the subject of a map shall be put, the buildings to be constructed on it, and all alterations of the land and construction incident thereto.”
The SRA road requirements are good and are stated as the minimum to allow unobstructed traffic circulation during a wildfire emergency, and safe concurrent fire equipment access and civilian evacuation. These road specifications include that grade not exceed 16%, 2-way roads must be at least 20 ft wide; 1-way roads must be a min of 12 ft wide with a 1 ft shoulder on each side, cannot be longer than 1/2 mile and must connect to 2-way roads at each end; and dead-end roads (which must be 20 ft wide) cannot be longer than 800 ft to 1 mile, dependent on the parcel zoned size of <1 acre to >20 acres.
Local fire ordinances are required to be at least as stringent as the state SRA Fire-Safe Regulations.
2. Sonoma County Fire Safe Ordinance
Sonoma County adopted its own fire ordinance for the SRA which does contain the state’s road standard requirements for new development. However, Sonoma County has included a list of 9 exemptions for the SRA where the fire-safe standards do not apply. Only 3 of these exemptions are supported by the SRA regulations. One of the most egregious non-supported exemptions is §13-25(f), which exempts any road built prior to 1991 and serving a legal parcel, that provided unobstructed year-round access to fire engines and sedans. The Board of Supervisors has stated that this exempts basically all the roads in unincorporated Sonoma County. Although we have asserted that one-lane roads don’t provided unobstructed (which is legally defined as unhindered) access as when vehicles meet, one must back up, the county refuses to even discuss.
Surprisingly, the California Board of Forestry certified the Sonoma County Fire Ordinance in 2017 as being as or more stringent than the SRA regulations, including §13-25(f), virtually gutting any fire-safe road requirements. Some of the nonsensical applications of this flawed ordinance have allowed new home construction on long, one-lane, 10 ft wide dead-end roads, but then required a new driveway at the end of the subpar road to be 12 ft wide, with fire-engine turnouts.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, despite stating at prior board meetings that this broad exemption was not appropriate, approved an update of this flawed fire ordinance on Dec 2, 2019, that kept all the exemptions. This updated Sonoma County Fire Ordinance No. 6296 needs to be again certified by the State Board of Forestry as being at least as stringent as the updated 2020 SRA Fire-Safe Regulations. The certification meeting is being held on January 21 at the Board of Forestry Headquarters in Sacramento.
We have provided detailed letters to the B of F as to why the Sonoma County Fire Ordinance exemptions are not as stringent as the SRA regulations, including a letter from outside counsel, and we will be attending the meeting. We have obtained all available public records from Sonoma County and the B of F related to how these exemptions are justified, but there is no information at all even discussing this. We strongly suspect that the Sonoma County 13-25(f) exemption arose back in 1992 as the SRA regulations were initially written in a confusing manner that implied that all roads built prior to 1991 were exempted. Due to this confusion, the exemption was clarified in a 1993 opinion from the state Attorney General, specifying that the exemption was only for construction after 1991 in a subdivision if the conditions of access and perimeter roads were specified as part of the pre-1991 map approval. This clarification formed the basis for the updating the exemption in the SRA Fire-Safe Regulations in 2011, which is preserved in the current 2020 SRA regulations.
( Authors name withheld for privacy)