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Napa County grapples with controversial state fire safe standards

Oct 21, 2022

Napa County is deciding what revised state Minimum Fire Safe Regulations mean for winery and home construction in local hills, sparking debates over property rights and the need for evacuation routes.

The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection has adopted new standards for designated high fire danger areas. That’s 73% of the county, much of the land outside of the Napa Valley floor and flat Carneros areas.

For more than a year, Napa County commented on developing standards. The county in 2021 warned that early versions could in some cases require expensive road improvements for even small projects — a person building a home or a winery adding even one employee.

With the dust settling, the state is making less-drastic changes that could take effect as soon as January. County officials are interpreting existing county rural road standards as meeting revised state rules.

“The important message for today is nothing is changing from the way it is now,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

But, as Dillon noted, the state looked at more than roads. For example, the county and Cal Fire in coming months must designate "strategic ridgelines" for wildfire fighting and prevention that will be off-limits to building beyond such things as a barn.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 13 and Oct. 18 meetings was peppered with comments from the public.

“I am shocked you are sitting there trying to find ways to weasel around finding ways to implement these new policies that are clearly designed to keep people from dying,” Angwin resident Kellie Anderson said.

Vintner Lee Hudson owns land in the Carneros. He lost two structures and thousands of trees in the 2017 Partrick/Nuns fire. There are ways to protect against fire besides simply keeping people from building, he said.

“It’s just an unnecessary taking of property,” he said.

St. Helena resident Jeffrey Warren brought up the strategic ridgeline issue.

“That’s a big bugaboo,” he said. “Nobody knows that’s going to be…all the hills have ridgelines. So that’s extremely scary…I wish you would err on the side of the landowners and the people who grew up in the hills.”

Robert Pursell said a focus needs to be on how to harden properties against wildfires. But it takes about $20,000 to clear underbrush on one acre. The county should find ways to help rural residents who can't afford this.

“We have a number of low-income and retired people out in the hillsides,” he said.

A key issue is how Napa County defines “access” to a property proposed for development. The county says its existing definition of being from the nearest public right-of-way to building construction — essentially the driveway — meets state standards.

Napa Vision 2050 disagrees. California regulations require access from a fire station to a structure to be on roads at least 20 feet wide, co-president Eve Kahn wrote to the county.

It’s a big difference. The county’s interpretation might require someone to improve a driveway, while the Napa Vision 2050 interpretation could also require improvements to public roads or, if that’s too expensive, to avoid building.

The county’s interpretation “threatens the safety of the buildings, the surrounding area, the safety of first responders and everyone around in the event of an emergency,” Kahn wrote.

Interpretation of the Board of Forestry regulations has been a thorny issue. County officials said that the Board will no longer do so itself, leaving each county to make the call in a way it hopes can survive a legal challenge.

“It will be a patchwork quilt across the state,” county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said on Sept. 13. “And all the local jurisdictions will have been thrown on their own, as the Board of Forestry sits back and watches the chaos from afar as a bystander.”

Morrison has since been named interim County Executive Officer.

Yet county officials noted that Napa County has kind of a retro-approval for its definition of “access,” even if the state will no longer make the call. The Board of Forestry certified county road standards in 2019 that included the county's interpretation.

They also noted that some projects are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, which triggers a separate review of fire safety. In those cases, county officials would look at whether both public and private roads are adequate for emergency evacuations.

Development on dead-end roads a mile long or longer has caused confusion. The county’s existing rules will remain in place. They apply to private roads, not public roads.

Properties reached by taking a private, dead-end road a mile or longer serving five or more homes or commercial use can’t be built on, under county rules. However, the rules allow owners to seek an exception.

“The path is a little bit more than it was previously, but there is still a path to ‘yes,’” Morrison said.

Would-be builders could show the road will achieve the “same overall practical effect” as the road regulations, perhaps through such means as adding turnouts, county officials said.

“Are there going to be parcels out there we won’t be able to support the exception of a mile? Potentially. We’ll have to look at that on a case-by-case basis,” said Patrick Ryan, deputy director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services.

Napa County will allow homes destroyed in wildfires to be rebuilt without facing road upgrades. Conditions include keeping the same square footage and having the county determine that access didn’t delay emergency response or evacuation during the disaster.

In addition, the county will consider expanding this fire rebuild relief to commercial structures.

Napa County since 2016 has lost about 1,300 homes to wildfires, with about 200 rebuilt and another 150 approved. It lost 363 commercial structures, county officials said.


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