|Is Napa County’s granting of exceptions to Road and Street Standards for new development in fire prone areas in violation of the Board of Forestry’s updated (July 27, 2020) SRA (State Responsibility Area, urban wild lands) California Code of Regulations?
It appears so. And to take heed from our neighbor, Sonoma County, which just received a reality check in 2020, we better listen up!
Is Napa County headed for similar fate?
When the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors insisted that their road standards were equivalent or better than the State standards, the Board of Forestry (BOF) disagreed. Sonoma County pushed it again, and again, and again, and when the BOF disagreed the fourth time, the state agency placed a temporary moratorium on any further consideration of counties’ requests for alternative fire safe ordinances touting to be the same or supersede the Cal-Fire standards. The Sonoma County Gazette covered this is detail here.
In part, it comes down to that phrase “same practical effect” that we see so often in Napa County Planning staff reports. Since the devastating fires of the last years, the BOF is taking a stronger stance. For instance, Cal Fire standards require new development to “allow concurrent civilian evacuation” in the wildfire urban areas. A driveway must be a minimum of 20 feet wide, not including the shoulder width, to allow an arriving firetruck to pass an exiting vehicle. The BOF does not allow mitigations that try to get around this safety issue. Nor are they in for mitigating new development on dead-end roads longer than one mile. Now BOF is also required to identify existing development on dead-end roads in high fire prone areas and to make recommendations to improve fire safety there.
What the counties won’t insist upon, the Board of Forestry may.
And there is the added question: Where lies the liability when a county decides to “mitigate” a state road and street regulation with a measure deemed with the “same practical effect” as the regulation, and it is not the same practical effect (read: in violation of Cal Fire regulations) and there is loss of life or property?
In the most recent Napa Register article on upcoming appeals, at least two appeals include issues of fire safety: Mountain Peak Winery and Anthem Winery. Against the protests of countless neighbors and other Napa County residents, Mountain Peak Winery was permitted and the appeal to the BOS denied just a month before the October 2017 fires. Mountain Peak is at the end of the narrow, six mile, dead-end Soda Canyon Road. 82% of the homes burned on Soda Canyon Road, and six lives were lost. The Mountain Peak site was used as a helicopter evacuation site for those trapped. Citizens took the decision to Napa County Superior Court, which insisted that fire safety must be taken into consideration and remanded the case back to the Board of Supervisors. This is yet to be decided. The new state regulations will insist adjustments be made, including perhaps on visitation and event limits.
Anthem Winery plans to access the winery on a 3/4 mile substandard residential driveway requiring a number of road exceptions. The Planning Commission permitted this. 1700 lineal feet of the driveway do not meet the minimum 20 feet wide requirement, being 14-18 feet wide. The grade in places reaches 18-20%, requiring more exceptions. The county thinks using signage (same practical effect) mitigates the lack of turnouts either end of a proposed 60 foot one-way bridge on the driveway (Cal-Fire regs requires turnouts at both ends.) The bridge would also cross a Class II stream near the top of a gully which has been identified by Cal-Fire Firewise as a route a fire in that area would take, putting the bridge in an exceeding vulnerable position even if it had the required turnouts. Although REAX, an engineering fire consulting firm, recommended no more than 50 people be present at any one event, Anthem has been permitted for one 100 person event.
These are only two of several recent cases which involve fire safety in new development in our wildlands.
The Board of Forestry wants to know what is happening in our County. Please send an email to Matt.Dias@bof.ca.gov describing the above mitigations or others that you know of.
Let’s make sure that development in Napa County follows fire safe rules.