Fall 2010 pg5

GPU New Fire Policies: Help or Hindrance?

Glenn Ziemer – 33 year career in fire service

Currently sits on State Board of Fire Services representing special districts.

"Simply put, in my mind, the proposals were designed with the goal of preventing virtually any new development in rural lands." -Glenn Ziemer, Planning Commission meeting 7/29/10

As proposed by staff, Chapter 5 of the General Plan Update (GPU), the Community Infrastructure and Services Element was just as fraught with problematic language as Agricultural and Forest Resources and Land Use Classification were before it.

Once again, those with a working knowledge of the reality on the ground, in this case firefighters, immediately saw that language in the proposed plan was so flawed that it would either put a stop to rural building or would bury volunteer firefighters in paperwork and basically shut them down for fear of not being able to honor proposed contracts.

When firefighters made their concerns known to the Planning Commission the commission requested that staff meet with fire chiefs in order to come up with better proposals. But even the results of that meeting are flawed according to Glenn Ziemer who made his concerns known to the commissioners at their meeting on August 9th.

At issue were two specific standards that dealt with requirements for building outside of Fire District boundaries:

  1. IS-S4 deals with Subdivisions outside of Fire District boundaries and requires the subdivider to annex to or form a Fire District or a County Service Area (CSA), or execute a fire protection agreement with a local fire service (and establish an ongoing funding source).
  2. The new language allowed the possibility to record an acknowledgement that there are no available emergency services and implement required mitigations.

  3. IS-S5 deals with other development outside of Fire District boundaries (new industrial, commercial and residential) and requires the person or business to obtain, from an appropriate local .re service provider, written acknowledgment of the available emergency response and .re suppression services and recommended mitigations.
  4. The new language allowed that in the absence of that written acknowledgement a permit to build a home or business would have a note placed on it indicating that no emergency response and .re suppression services are available.

Ziemer, former fire chief of Humboldt Fire District 1 had this to say:

Several of the staff proposals (in particular IS-S4 and IS-S5) are completely dysfunctional in that they come with huge administrative and financial burdens, ignore fiscal reality, and ironically will not result in any actual improvement of fire services. I make this assertion because:

  1. ) Given other constraints proposed by the staff in their preferred alternatives, formation of a new District is virtually impossible given the nature of the process and the burden of findings necessary in the LAFCO process.
  2. ) Even if you were able to form the District, the AB8 property tax process denies the new agency any share of the property tax revenue, resulting in an agency that has only benefit assessments, and donations as a revenue source.
  3. ) It is highly unlikely that such an agency could ever achieve a functional status since the funding base would be so limited. As an example if you created a new 40 square mile district and were able to pass a proposition 218 benefit assessment measure at the highest level ever approved in the county ($108.00/sfr) with an average density of 1 sfr/80 acres you would generate $34,560.00 on an annual basis, at 1 sfr/160 acres the funding falls to $17,280.00, so at probable rural densities the capability to fund an effective organization simply does not exist.
  4. ) CSA establishment falls into the same financial hole based on the simple fact that effective fire service provision requires a density of population and a per capita/per parcel funding level that cannot be achieved in a low density rural setting.

In reference to IS-5, the capability to obtain fire protection services via a contract for service is simply fantasy. Cal Fire will not execute such agreements per statute and policy, and even if they did the service is only available on a seasonal basis. Local Fire Districts will not enter into such agreements based on a desire to maintain reasonable service levels within their area of response, and the huge strains that such agreements would entail for basic operations at distant locales.

I believe that the proper role for the County in the area of Fire Service Provision is in continuing the development with input from the fire service community of the GIS information system elements that allow the public to accurately determine the level of protection available in any location so that the public can make the reasonable decisions about risk assumption that are necessary prior to initiating rural development or residency.

The concept of identifying the status of all emergency services provision (fire, law enforcement, and EMS) via a recordation of acknowledgement is a bit "big brotherish, but at least the process is relatively benign from a process and financial perspective.

Regarding the amended proposals which included two new proposed policies:

These four proposals work to offer options to extract applicants from the staff proposals insurmountable requirements, but still have difficulty in that the determinations necessary to allow applicants to exercise the least onerous options require a determination of feasibility/nonfeasibility that may go all the way to a LAFCO determination of nonformation of a new district. At the very least, the Commission should ensure that there are well-defined determinations and standards that result in a feasibile/nonfeasilble determination, and put definitive limitations on the required mitigations.

The most reasonable mitigation limitations would be enforcement of existing construction/development standards as characterized by the California Fire Code, Wildland Fire Code, State Fire Marshall Standards, or other reference code documentation. Leaving such matters open to case by case determination would lead to a patchwork application that would be ineffective and unevenly administered.

Editor Note: Another issue not addressed:
Policy language is unclear on whether one can rebuild a house in a rural area if it burns down?

California Public Records Act Request

Filed for County’s Lawsuit Expense.

– Rondal Snodgrass, Conservation Land Consultant

The lawsuit filed by Humboldt County against Bob McKee, Buck Mountain Ranch, and Secondary Defendants began in 2002. To date millions of dollars have been spent on both sides of this dispute. The case was originally tried in the Humboldt County Superior Court, and that court decided McKee did not violate the Williamson Act, the Tooby Contract, the Sub-division Map Act or the County’s General Plan. That decision was later overturned, was heard in the First District Appellate Court, and is now back in Humboldt County Superior court, to be tried a second time. The Superior Court judge now responsible for this case sent it to mediation. For two days, August 18 and 19, 2010, all parties and their attorneys participated in a mediation that has been described as a grueling event without coming to final resolution.

Rondal Snodgrass

From my point of view, the public has not been informed of the facts and circumstances of this case and should be so informed. Essential to this would be a full reporting of our County expenses for this long, unnecessary and protracted legal procedure. To get to the cost for our County, I filed a request under the California Public Records Act for an accurate estimation or record of staff time as well as well as direct expenses.

My request was filed on July 14th and the County Office of Risk Management did give me their limited response within the time frame of the law. This was the fourth such request known to me: the Eureka Reporter (2006), Joe Russ (2007), and Timothy Wykle (2009); all had previously made similar requests, and eventually did get qualified results.

I received 408 pages of billings and a DVD record as well for a fair price of $45.80. However all the pages billed by the outside the county law firm and consultants hired to handle the case are redacted or blacked out as for what was being charged to our County. The totals are there, and up 2009, Morgan Blair of Walnut Creek had been paid approximately 2 million dollars, with another $200,000 going principally to Natural Resources Management, Gary Rynearson, Richard Hendry, and KP Title Service all of Humboldt County. No fees paid after July 6, 2009 were reported, because the County claims they are now exempt pending some litigation regarding attorney-client sections of the California Public Records Act.

What also was not there was my request for the staff time and direct expenses for County Counsel, Community and Development/Planning, Assessor, Code Enforcement and Auditor. The Office of Risk Management did say the County does have records that are responsive to this request for each of those departments, but are exempt from disclosure pursuant to some sections of Government Code Sections 6254 (b) and (k).

On May 17th, the day before mediation began, I did appear before the Board of Supervisors and asked them to fully report the costs of this case and forego interpretation of limitations by the County Counsel and Office of Risk Management. Now the costly mediation has gone by and there still is not up to date and full public reporting of true costs.

I would estimate that the out of pocket costs to the our County for this lawsuit could easily be $3 million, plus now ten years of huge amounts of staff time in those several departments endlessly working on this matter, could even be close to another million. The personal costs to Bob McKee, Buck Mt. Ranch and the 25 landowners named as secondary defendants likely matches the cost to our County. We are witnessing costs close to $8 million dollars for a dispute where it is unlikely that the plaintiffs or defendants will ever recover any damages.

We do not need and cannot afford a new and horribly costly trial when our County services are being cut and people are suffering from those cuts. It is time for our County to work with the new landowners and Bob McKee to keep this ranch in open space and agricultural use without further attack. There are equitable solutions that have been offered by our County to other sellers of properties under the Williamson Act that would work here as well. Bob McKee is an extraordinarily fair and decent man and should be so respected. The new legal owners of parcels should also be respected. We the people of this County should be respected as we are ultimately paying and bearing the direct and indirect costs of this too long, and exhausting legal struggle.

It is now once again clear to me that an administrative solution is, and has always been, possible without such a prolonged and grossly expensive struggle. Our County Supervisors and Department heads that went to mediation, with apparently excessive demands, could simply open up new settlement negotiations. It is time for an honorable settlement, admitting a continued lawsuit path is broken, tireless and costly beyond means. Our County’s best and least expensive solution can be cooperating with all the defendant landowners involved. That can be accomplished by fully recognizing their ownerships; helping and aiding those landowners form fully compliant Agricultural Preserves, and allowing lot-line adjustments leading to new parcel configurations that will produce sensible support of open space and agriculture for the Tooby/Buck Mountain Ranch.


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