By Antonia Bradford
In the year since the CZU Fire of 2020, fire families have been grieving and processing our losses all while trying to work, raise children, and rebuild our homes. For many of us, rebuilding efforts have been stalled by Santa Cruz County’s Planning Department.
Before the smoke cleared last year, we were assured by County officials that rebuilding would be streamlined and that our process would be treated as rebuilds, rather than new builds. This is significant in terms of cost and permit requirements. The fast track process was outsourced for $6.3 million to 4Leaf, a Pleasanton-based private company. With the Planning Department being notoriously difficult to work with, this was initially very welcome news.
However, the path to rebuilding for many fire families has been anything but streamlined.
Under the direction of Interim Planning Director Paia Levine and County Geologist Jeff Nolan, inexplicable and costly geology requirements have been placed on landowners. One property owner is being required to drill 100 feet down because of a mudslide that happened thousands of years ago. Against promises, even properties originally built fully permitted are being treated as new builds.
After a geology waiver attempt failed in June, Supervisors Bruce McPherson and Ryan Coonerty placed a new item on their August 10th agenda. This time the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to direct the Planning Department to come back in September with options within existing code for a hardship exemption for wildfire victims. One wonders how losing your home to a wildfire could be interpreted as anything less than hardship.
McPherson referenced the Planning Department’s penchant for making decisions on perceived, yet possibly unstudied, risks. “If we apply the code to pre-fire conditions we run the risk of making it that much harder if not impossible, for some folks to rebuild their homes,” he said. “I believe we have a path forward. We just need to determine what it is.”
At the meeting, Levine stated that of the 259 applications received, 53 home rebuilds need more geologic review. But the presentation was misleading. At that time only 21 home rebuild permits had been issued according to planning staff and some of those are accessory dwelling units, not the primary home. Sheds and outbuildings are included in their numbers. Levine downplayed the impact, but a total of 1,630 structures were destroyed or severely damaged in the fire. That backlog and the barriers to building thrown up by the county are affecting hundreds of families. And only 2% have seen progress. This muddying the waters and juking of the stats on the progress of fire families going home sows deep levels of mistrust between the community and the County. Levine has since refused to respond to FOIA requests regarding updated permit numbers.
Coonerty spoke in support of the fire families saying, “The fire survivors said it more powerfully than any of us ever could. People have been out of their homes for a year. They have been trying to work through the process and right now there is no path for them to rebuild. Their insurance money is running out.”
In terms of inequities fire families are being subjected to by the Planning Department, Coonerty said, “They look at their homes that they were living in and would still be living in that the county would deem to be safe and inhabitable. Then they look at their neighbors whose homes survived and see that the county believes that those houses are safe and habitable. They’re just looking for a way to rebuild their homes and their lives. The trauma is still impactful.”
The Planning Department has until the September 14th board meeting to come back with hardship exemption options. A few things can happen. They can come back with interpretations of the code that alleviate fire families from having to contend with non-fire related geology and the Board will vote to pass the solution. They can come back with something the Board doesn’t agree with and will vote no. Or the Board votes to delay because they need more information.
- Attend the Board of Supervisors meeting on September 14th, in person or via zoom, to express your support for the fire victims. If you didn’t lose your home or you’ve already passed pre-clearance, please come support those of us who are still struggling to move forward.
- Comment on the county page at santacruzcounty.us when the agenda is published the Thursday before to express your support of non-fire related geo exceptions.
- Write the Board of Supervisors urging them to support and advocate for these constituents: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
- Share this article urging the people in your community to support the fire community.
This has been a challenging year for all of us. For those of us struggling to gain footing in our recovery, this agenda item was the first time many fire victims felt a sense of hope. I deeply appreciate the offices of Supervisors McPherson and Coonerty for listening to the pain and troubles of their constituents and presenting this item. My hope is that it truly gets us over this hurdle toward rebuilding our lives.
Read my statement to the County at slvpost.com/august-2021-bradford-statement.
Antonia Bradford lives in Boulder Creek with her husband and five children. She is a writer, artist, and business owner. She is an advocate 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.
Photo by Antonia Bradford