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May 8, 2021

Last Chance will get first crack at county’s fire rebuild pilot

Santa Cruz County is moving forward with a pilot program in a fire-thrashed area of the coast that would allow displaced residents to rebuild off-grid dwellings that otherwise wouldn’t be up to code. The Limited-Density Owner-Built Rural Dwellings plan slashes red tape for some homeowners in Last Chance looking to return, as long as they go through a less-strenuous inspection process and follow other rules, such as only using generators for backup power.

“I think it does create a path for people to rebuild their homes,” said 3rd District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty during the regularly-scheduled Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting, noting those who lost homes in the CZU Lightning Complex fire already face strict environmental health and fire-safety requirements. “We are adjusting the regulations that are within our control.”

The policy—known as the K Code, in reference to the portion of the building standards being revamped—traces its roots to the homesteading and back-to-the-land movements of the 1970s. The local version was introduced as the county attempted to factor in how difficult it could be to access traditional building materials or get contractors out to secluded areas like Davenport.

Overall, the CZU Lightning Complex fires ravaged more than 86,000 acres and cost more than $68 million to fight. It was especially hard on the community of Last Chance.

“One of the most sad parts about this fire is we did have a civilian fatality out in the Last Chance area,” Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit Chief Ian Larkin recalled during a March post-mortem, emphasizing how under-resourced they were. “It got down to the point where we were calling back-door ‘bro deals,’ calling our neighbor to the east and saying, ‘Hey can you just give us a few engines for the night?’ so that we could try to protect structures.”

Compared to the Lockheed Fire in 2009, where, after 72 hours, there were 1,500 firefighters in action, it took almost 12 days for Cal Fire to muster the same number last summer, Larkin said during that webcast.

In the end, 1,431 structures were consumed by flames across the county, and supervisors have been eager to experiment with new ways to get shovels in the ground.

The off-grid housing rules update—which passed second reading unanimously after a public hearing—takes a more modest approach than originally envisioned. Instead of accepting the idea, as proposed by Last Chance residents, that it apply to the entire county, staff is choosing to limit the program to that specific area.

It’s important to strike the right balance, Santa Cruz County Resource Planner David Carlson said during Tuesday’s meeting, noting Mendocino County saw lots of enthusiasm for its off-grid effort, but too many people were trying to build homes in the 12,000-square-foot range (leading them to bring in a 2,000-square-foot cap). Meanwhile, Butte County rolled out a similar program in response to the lethal 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, but they haven’t had much take-up, he said.

The building code relaxation seems to make sense for the North Coast, Carlson said, adding the move is an example of the county being responsive to a grassroots movement (the K Code change was first pitched by Last Chance residents).

“This type of regulation allows certain non-traditional methods of construction and allows construction to conform to standards that are more relaxed than the standard building code,” he said. “The Last Chance community is very remote, lacks electric utility services and sustained the total loss of many homes that provided affordable shelter to the residents of the community.”

It’s one of several tools the county is using to encourage the replacement of structures that were originally built without proper permits.

It introduced a Legacy Older Structures Program, which grandfathers in sites developed before 1986.

And the Office of Response, Recovery and Resiliency has been tinkering with a renewal strategy that would streamline common issues that arise during rebuilding.

Past the burn scar stubble, and over to Last Chance Road, Juan Velasco, 51, continued the detritus removal he’s been doing for the last few weeks. Velasco Trucking, the San Jose-based family business he works for, has been on the job since December and should finally be finished by the end of the week, he said.

“We are hauling all the ash and the debris,” he said, as a logging truck laden with redwood trunks, then a cyclist, passed by. “We (are) almost done in this area.”

Chartreuse and violet wildflowers have sprung up along the switchback roadway down to the Pacific, but the auburn and black wounds remain ever-present.

“Everything’s burned,” Velasco said, adding he’s happy to hear community members are expected to soon have an easier time building off-grid structures. “The life is coming. All the houses and everything.”

Local resident Lisa Guadagna, 58, remembers the terror of embers scattered across her deck, and says it was the particularly fire-retardant materials her husband used when building that saved their house from catching fire.

She said she also remembers him complaining about how challenging the regulatory environment was when they built their home. She said she’s glad her neighbors who lost everything will have an easier time of putting up off-grid units, if the measure is adopted May 11.

“I think it’s a good idea,” she said of the project, which encourages solar power sources and would require just half as many inspections. “It’s good that they’re able to build the way that they want to.”

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