The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to ease some requirements for property owners looking to rebuild from the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
Under the change, county officials will not consider Santa Cruz County Code 16.10—which requires geologic review before building and mitigation of any hazards—when reviewing building permits for people who lost their homes in the fires.
County officials say the rules were meant to protect property owners from such geologic hazards as debris flows. But residents said they were faced with hiring their own private geologists, which cost at least $6,000, a charge that did not include whatever mitigations came from the inspection.
These requirements stymied many residents and were especially hard on those who are underinsured and facing a difficult time in making their rebuilding pencil out.
The new rule applies to permitted structures that existed previously on the properties. The new structure must be “in-kind,” meaning that they must be fundamentally the same shape and occupy the same footprint.
The fire, which began Aug. 16, 2020, destroyed 1,490 structures and left homeowners to struggle with mountains of red tape and baffling county codes as they sought to rebuild.
One of these was Julia Luchia, who lost her home in the Fallen Leaf neighborhood.
“Three hundred and ninety days, and not one of them has gone by without this sick feeling in my stomach that we may not be able to go home,” she told the board. “(My 4-year-old daughter) doesn’t understand why we can’t go home, and frankly, neither can I.”
The board will return later this month to discuss further modifications to the county code and to its general plan that would further streamline similar rebuilding efforts.
They will also discuss a clause in the new rule—which property owners must agree to—that indemnifies the county from any damages resulting from the exemption of geologic review and mitigation.
Several residents told the board that the clause affects their property values and unfairly penalizes them for something beyond their control.
Santa Cruz County Counsel Jason Heath said that clause is meant to protect the county, and taxpayers, from future financial risk, if any future damage leads to litigation.
“This is a choice that fire victims are making to not comply with certain county code,” Heath said. “We have to be ensured that that financial risk isn’t going to come back on the entire community.”
The changes apply narrowly to geologic issues. Septic systems fall under different rules, and any state-mandated requirements still stand.