By Antonia Bradford
“We are up against a very strict timeline and the insurance companies don’t care if they make us homeless. Ironically, just this morning I got an email from Nationwide stating that we have till April to build our home. That’s 8 months from now!” – Julie Lucia, Fallen Leaf Neighborhood
“Homes that are still standing and located in a geological hazard zone are not being red-tagged. Why are we being punished because we lost our homes and those who were lucky enough to not lose their home suffer no ramifications? The covenant requires us to tarnish our deed, impacting our home values and lending options, yet not the home across the street that still stands. How is this fair? We should not have restrictions on our deeds because we lost it in a fire! If they were still standing, this would not be required.” – Phaedra Schrock, Riverside Grove
“The evidence seems clear now, the Supervisors would be perfectly happy if none of the houses that burned were ever rebuilt. The evidence seems to support the notion that all of the hoops to jump through, and the inventive new costs and hurdles are simply means of extracting the maximum revenue from the Fire Community before folks either run out of money or simply give up. It is Nancy telling Charlie Brown “This time I really will hold the football for you, honest.“ We all know what happens to him every time he trusts her. I believe at first we thought that if we could just explain things clearly enough, the Supervisors would finally understand and make things a bit easier. My personal opinion, based on their actions, is that they never had any intention of making things easy, or even possible. Some of the comments at the last meeting border on sadism. Power does corrupt absolutely.” – Chris Copeland, Scotts Valley
On August 10, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors directed the Planning Department “to return no later than September 14, 2021, with options for Board action, including but not limited to code amendments, General Plan amendments, or existing code interpretation, that would allow CZU Lightning Complex Fire survivors to rebuild their homes without evaluating and mitigating potential geologic hazards that pre-date the August 2020 fire, as outlined in the memorandum of Supervisor McPherson and Supervisor Coonerty.”
Consider options and resolution to allow CZU August Lightning Complex Fire survivors to rebuild without evaluating and mitigating potential geologic hazards, direct ordinance amendments, and take related actions, as outlined in the memorandum of the Acting Planning Director
- Resolution for CZU Rebuild Directive 9.9.21 Attachment A – eSign
- Declaration of Covenant for Geologic Hazards 9.9.21 – Attachment B
Unfortunately, the Planning Department, under guidance of interim planning director Paia Levine, returned with a convoluted resolution that negates much of which it purported to solve, raises numerous questions, diverts the solutions, and creates more problems for fire families. The covenant is extreme in its scope and creates further harm to CZU victims. And the supervisors were unanimous in passing it.
This past Tuesday, 13 months after the CZU Fire, a packed Supervisors’ chambers heard fire victim after fire victim tell their stories about the challenges of working with the Santa Cruz County planning department, some breaking down into tears. Others demanded accountability and clarity. All conveyed that they desperately needed help in order to build within terms of their insurance policies. Valid concerns were expressed and tensions were high. The Supervisors seemingly had not read the documents or had not been sufficiently advised. They did not seem to understand the plight of the fire families and then voted unanimously to pass the resolution and covenant with no substantive discussion.
The covenant recorded on one’s deed will lower property values for a variety of reasons. This particular covenant lists every worst-case scenario that might befall the property. Banking experts have begun speaking out, confirming that lenders will likely not touch a property with such recorded notional risk. The result is financial detriment to the fire victims when it comes time to sell their properties, refinance mortgages, and get insurance. There is a risk that current mortgage holders could put homeowners in default for taking the path outlined by county officials as the terms of risk will be altered from those in place at the time of original loan. One lender described a situation where the lien holder could conceivably put the loan in default for breach of contract, deny building plans, then redistribute rebuilding funds to pay down the loan leaving the fire victim out of resources.
This resolution and covenant put fire victims between the proverbial rock and hard place. Choose to follow the planning department’s costly, restrictive and arbitrary geology processes leaving the landowner with insufficient money to rebuild or take the county’s misguided project and risk a devalued property with limited future options. Neither of which, by the way, guarantees a rebuild. A home is a sacred place for family and community but it is also an investment. This has the potential of bankrupting fire families.
Is this what the county had in mind when they told us they were going to streamline the process and support us?
On Tuesday, the Board’s unanimous vote caused stunned silence in the chambers. Larry Greene, who lost his home of 38 years in the fire asked “So you left the covenant in there?” Bruce McPherson, our 5th District Supervisor, responded, “That is correct.”
Fire victims had taken the time out of their workday to attend this meeting and express their concerns just to be ignored. One would think the board had made up its mind before the sun had even risen that day.
1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig told the fire victims that they shouldn’t worry because the housing market was supply and demand, and therefore in his opinion, our home values would reflect that. “If you feel strongly that this is going to have an impact on the value of your home I suggest you come back with evidence from real estate professionals or expert knowledge….I didn’t hear any lending professionals speak today.”
- Why is the burden on the fire community to research and educate our supervisors with such an impactful vote?
- Why did supervisors and planning decision-makers not include stakeholders and experts prior to drafting such a damaging document?
- Where was our 5th District Supervisor in his outreach to his constituents, the fire victims?
As someone who lost her home in the fire and has been fighting every single day since to get her family back home, I was in shock. At the August 10th meeting, supervisors and the planning director left the fire community with what appeared to be a lifeline. Supervisors directed the planning department to look at the code and find some way to waive non-fire-related geology. Why is this important? Geology surveys are extremely expensive and time-consuming. Then you have to pay the county to read the report. Then you have to pay for the mitigating factors that most assuredly will be over engineered and can cost as much as six figures. This makes rebuilding cost prohibitive. And honestly doesn’t make much sense. The geology around our homes didn’t change (excluding debris flow from fire). These features were a part of our landscapes before the fire. They were there when our homes were built with permits. The county is treating us all like new builds after promising for months that this wouldn’t be the case.
Additionally, the county has not red-tagged one single surviving home in the burn scar. Many of these surviving homes have the same geologic patterns that fire victims’ properties do especially in terms of damage to the landscape. Yet, the county is not requiring a covenant on their deeds. They are not requiring mitigating factors. They are certainly not telling these families who were lucky enough to have their homes spared that they are living in unsafe conditions. The injustice is clear. The treatment of fire families in the burn scar should be fair and impartial.
Since the meeting, the lending and real estate community has approached fire families and provided an avalanche of information supporting our position: that this resolution and covenant are not only harmful but unnecessary given parameters that 1. are already in place that protect the county from liability and 2. already compel anyone selling their home to disclose every aspect of their property to potential buyers.
It has been frustrating to watch county officials intentionally and some of the media unintentionally cheer what appeared to be a positive thing based merely on the title of the agenda item. Please read the resolution. Read the covenant. This action by our representatives is a setback, not a streamlining. It’s damaging and does the opposite of what we’ve been promised for 13 long months.
How can you help?
- Share this article broadly via email and social media
- Contact the County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Contact our local and regional electeds. Request a fair and equitable streamlined process for fire victims:
- Write letters to the editors of our local press:
5. Write, call, post on social media urging an agenda item to address the concerns of the resolution be added to the BOS meeting on 9/28/2021. Manu Koenig specifically asked that the fire community present evidence for the concerns listed above. We demand the opportunity to do just that.
Antonia Bradford lives in Boulder Creek with her husband and five children. She is a writer, artist, and business owner. Antonia advocates for fire families in the area having lost her own home in Boulder Creek. She is committed to making contributions to the San Lorenzo Valley community wherever and however she can.