Rancho Palos Verdes City Council
   

AUGUST 3, 2004

TO: HONORABLE MAYOR AND COUNCILMEMBERS

FROM: DIRECTOR OF PLANNING, BUILDING & CODE ENFORCEMENT

DATE: AUGUST 3, 2004

SUBJECT: VERY HIGH FIRE HAZARD SEVERITY ZONES

Staff Coordinator: Kit Fox, AICP, Senior Planner

RECOMMENDATION

Review the information regarding Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs) in the City and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and direct Staff to work with the other Peninsula cities to develop more appropriate boundaries for these zones.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The matter of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs) has been agendized for the City Council’s review as a result of citizen concerns about the cost and availability of homeowners’ insurance. Staff presents a summary of the establishment and past implementation of VHFHSZs on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, along with a discussion of the procedure for future modification of VHFHSZs, if so desired by the City Council.

BACKGROUND

At the June 1, 2004 City Council meeting, Councilmember Long asked Staff to look into the issue of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs) on the Peninsula. This was prompted by correspondence from Rancho Palos Verdes residents who experienced difficulty obtaining quotes for homeowners’ insurance because their properties were identified as being located in a fire hazard area.

DISCUSSION

Establishment of VHFHSZs and Statutory Requirements

The designation of VHFHSZs was mandated by AB 337 (the so-called "Bates bill") in the mid-1990s, in response to the disastrous 1991 Oakland Hills fire in the Bay Area. Assembly Bill 337, as codified in Sections 51175-51189 of the California Government Code, required the Director of CDF to identify and designate VHFHSZs in certain specified counties (including Los Angeles County) by January 1, 1995, and in all remaining California counties by January 1, 1996.

The designation of property as being located within a VHFHSZ imposes certain obligations for property maintenance upon property owners "in any mountainous area, forest-covered land, brush-covered land, grass-covered land, or any land that is covered with flammable material." Pursuant to Government Code Section 51182, these property owners are required to:

  • Maintain around and adjacent to the dwelling or structure a firebreak made by removing and clearing away, for a distance of not less than 30 feet on each side thereof or to the property line, whichever is nearer, all flammable vegetation or other combustible growth. This paragraph does not apply to single specimens of trees, ornamental shrubbery, or similar plants that are used as ground cover, if they do not form a means of rapidly transmitting fire from the native growth to any dwelling or structure.

  • Maintain around and adjacent to the occupied dwelling or occupied structure additional fire protection or firebreaks made by removing all brush, flammable vegetation, or combustible growth that is located from 30 feet to 100 feet from the occupied dwelling or occupied structure or to the property line, whichever is nearer, as may be required by the local agency if the local agency finds that, because of extra hazardous conditions, a firebreak of only 30 feet around the occupied dwelling or occupied structure is not sufficient to provide reasonable fire safety. Grass and other vegetation located more than 30 feet from the dwelling or structure and less than 18 inches in height above the ground may be maintained where necessary to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion.

  • Remove that portion of any trees that extends within 10 feet of the outlet of any chimney or stovepipe.

  • Maintain any tree adjacent to or overhanging any building free of dead or dying wood.

  • Maintain the roof of any structure free of leaves, needles, or other dead vegetative growth.

  • Provide and maintain at all times a screen over the outlet of every chimney or stovepipe that is attached to any fireplace, stove, or other device that burns any solid or liquid fuel. The screen shall be constructed and installed in accordance with the California Building Standards Code.

It should be noted that Government Code Section 51184 provides an exemption from Section 51182 for property maintained as habitat for endangered and threatened species, and other sensitive open space and natural areas. In addition, upon sale or transfer of property located within a VHFHSZ, Government Code Section 51183.5 requires disclosure of this fact by the transferor of real property.

Local Implementation of VHFHSZs

Based upon information provided to Councilmember Long by the County Fire Department, it initially appeared that the unincorporated Westfield County island—which includes Chadwick School and the Westfield and Academy Hills neighborhoods—was the only VHFHSZ on the Peninsula. In fact, the entire Palos Verdes Peninsula is designated as a VHFHSZ by the State, based upon information Staff obtained from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) website (see attached County and Peninsula maps).

Upon designation of VHFHSZs by CDF, local jurisdictions were supposed to designate local VHFHSZs by ordinance within one hundred twenty (120) days. Staff has found no evidence that this was ever done for the City of Rancho Palos Verdes, which means that the boundary of the VHFHSZ remains as identified by CDF in 1995. As depicted on the attached maps, the entire City west of Western Avenue falls within the CDF-designated VHFHSZ.

In addition to the attached County and Peninsula maps obtained from the CDF website, the City maintains a map that appears to have been prepared by the County Fire Department, which breaks down the City of Rancho Palos Verdes into Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas and Buffer Zones (see attachments). The WUI areas generally correspond with undeveloped open areas and canyons, while the Buffer Zones consist of the built-out portions of the City. Given this, the property maintenance requirements delineated in Government Code Section 51182 are most likely to apply within the WUI areas that are not subject to the exemption under Government Code Section 51184 (see discussion above). Staff believes that these requirements are consistent with and at least as strict as the general brush-clearance requirements imposed by the County Fire Department.

Staff regularly provides copies of this VHFHSZ map to the public upon request. However, this map is more than nine years old and could be updated to reflect recent development within some of the WUI areas, most notably the Oceanfront and Seabreeze neighborhoods. Otherwise, it appears to be generally consistent with the CDF map of VHFHSZs.

Process for Local Amendment of VHFHSZs

Government Code Section 51179 authorizes local jurisdictions to exclude property from VHFHSZs or to expand the local boundaries of such zones beyond those identified by CDF, based upon a finding by substantial evidence in the record that the restrictions imposed by Government Code Section 51182 are (or are not) necessary for effective fire protection within a given area. Therefore, if the City Council wishes to amend the present boundaries of the VHFHSZ that covers nearly the entire City, it may do so at any time through local ordinance. Such ordinance would probably need to be supported by a fire hazard assessment study to determine the appropriate boundaries for VHFHSZ within the City. In addition, since the City Council has in the past used the unique climatic, topographic and botanic conditions of the City to justify the imposition of more restrictive building code requirements for fire-resistant construction, the impact of changing the VHFHSZ boundaries should be carefully considered so as not to undermine the enforcement of these building code requirements for future development in the City.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Staff is researching additional issues related to VHFHSZs, but the results of this research were not complete as of the date this report was prepared. If at all possible, Staff will be prepared to present the results of this additional research at the City Council meeting on August 3, 2004. Specifically, Staff is looking into the following issues:

  • Based upon the map on the CDF website, it appears that the entirety of the cities of Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills and Rolling Hills Estates; the unincorporated County communities of Westfield and Academy Hills; and portions of the cities of Torrance, Lomita and Los Angeles fall within the VHFHSZ on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. If the City Council directs Staff to pursue revisions to the VHFHSZs within Rancho Palos Verdes, the effect of such revisions may be dulled or muted if the VHFHSZs in the surrounding cities and communities are not similarly revised. As such, Staff is surveying the County and the three abutting Peninsula cities to determine the extent of the VHFHSZs and how they are implemented in those jurisdictions.

  • Since the review of this matter was prompted by concerns about property owners’ ability to obtain reasonably-priced homeowners’ insurance, Staff is conducting additional research into the effect of VHFHSZs on insurance rates and availability.

FISCAL IMPACT

The review of this report regarding VHFHSZs has no fiscal impact. However, if the City Council directs Staff to pursue amendments to the VHFHSZ boundary within the City, costs would be incurred for the preparation of a fire hazard assessment study to support any decision to amend these boundaries, as required by Section 51179 of the California Government Code. The cost of such a study, which would probably be borne by the General Fund, is unknown at this time.

CONCLUSION

Staff presents the foregoing information about VHFHSZs for the City Council’s review and consideration, and requests direction for the City Council for any future action regarding this issue that it deems appropriate.

 

Respectfully submitted:

Joel Rojas, AICP, Director of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement

Reviewed by:

Les Evans, City Manager

 

Attachments:

Correspondence provided by Councilman Long

Government Code Sections 51175-51189

VHFHSZ maps from CDF website (full LA County and detail of Palos Verdes Peninsula)

VHFHSZ map from LA County Fire Department (City of Rancho Palos Verdes only)

CALIFORNIA CODES

GOVERNMENT CODE

SECTION 51175-51189

51175. The Legislature hereby finds and declares as follows:

(a) Fires are extremely costly, not only to property owners and residents, but also to local agencies. Fires pose a serious threat to the preservation of the public peace, health, or safety. Since fires ignore civil boundaries, it is necessary that cities, counties, special districts, state agencies, and federal agencies work together to bring raging fires under control. Preventive measures are therefore needed to ensure the preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.

(b) The prevention of fires is not a municipal affair, as that term is used in Section 5 of Article XI of the California Constitution, but is instead, a matter of statewide concern. It is the intent of the Legislature that this chapter apply to all local agencies, including, but not limited to, charter cities, charter counties, and charter cities and counties. This subdivision shall not limit the authority of a local agency to impose more restrictive fire and panic safety requirements, as otherwise authorized by law.

(c) It is not the intent of the Legislature in enacting this chapter to limit or restrict the authority of a local agency to impose more restrictive fire and panic safety requirements, as otherwise authorized by law.

51176. The purpose of this chapter is to classify lands in the state in accordance with whether a very high fire hazard is present so that public officials are able to identify measures that will retard the rate of spread, and reduce the potential intensity, of uncontrolled fires that threaten to destroy resources, life, or property, and to require that those measures be taken.

51177. As used in this chapter:

(a) "Director" means the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection.

(b) "Very high fire hazard severity zone" means an area designated by the director pursuant to Section 51178 that is not a state responsibility area.

(c) "Local agency" means a city, county, city and county, or district responsible for fire protection within a very high fire hazard severity zone.

(d) "Single specimen tree" means any live tree that stands alone in the landscape so as to be clear of buildings, structures, combustible vegetation, or other trees, and that does not form a means of rapidly transmitting fire from the native growth to any occupied dwelling or structure.

(e) "State responsibility areas" means those areas identified pursuant to Section 4102 of the Public Resources Code.

51178.(a) The director shall identify areas in the state as very high fire hazard severity zones based on consistent statewide criteria and based on the severity of fire hazard that is expected to prevail in those areas. Very high fire hazard severity zones shall be based on fuel loading, slope, fire weather, and other relevant factors.

(b) On or before January 1, 1995, the director shall identify areas as very high fire hazard severity zones in the Counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Marin, Napa, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma, and Ventura. This information shall be transmitted to all local agencies with identified very high fire hazard severity zones within 30 days.

(c) On or before January 1, 1996, the director shall identify areas as very high fire hazard severity zones in all other counties. This information shall be transmitted to all local agencies with identified high fire hazard severity zones within 30 days.

51178.5. Within 30 days after receiving a transmittal from the director that identifies very high fire hazard severity zones, a local agency shall make the information available for public review. The information shall be presented in a format that is understandable and accessible to the general public, including, but not limited to, maps.

51179.(a) A local agency shall designate, by ordinance, very high fire hazard severity zones in its jurisdiction within 120 days of receiving recommendations from the director pursuant to subdivisions (b) and (c) of Section 51178. A local agency shall be exempt from this requirement if ordinances of the local agency, adopted on or before December 31, 1992, impose standards that are equivalent to, or more restrictive than, the standards imposed by this chapter.

(b) A local agency may, at its discretion, exclude from the requirements of Section 51182 an area identified as a very high fire hazard severity zone by the director within the jurisdiction of the local agency, following a finding supported by substantial evidence in the record that the requirements of Section 51182 are not necessary for effective fire protection within the area.

(c) A local agency may, at its discretion, include areas within the jurisdiction of the local agency, not identified as very high fire hazard severity zones by the director, as very high fire hazard severity zones following a finding supported by substantial evidence in the record that the requirements of Section 51182 are necessary for effective fire protection within the area.

(d) Changes made by a local agency to the recommendations made by the director shall be final and shall not be rebuttable by the director.

(e) The State Fire Marshal shall prepare and adopt a model ordinance that provides for the establishment of very high fire hazard severity zones.

(f) Any ordinance adopted by a local agency pursuant to this section that substantially conforms to the model ordinance of the State Fire Marshal shall be presumed to be in compliance with the requirements of this section.

(g) A local agency shall post a notice at the office of the county recorder, county assessor, and county planning agency identifying the location of the map provided by the director pursuant to Section 51178. If the agency amends the map, pursuant to subdivision (b) or (c) of this section, the notice shall instead identify the location of the amended map.

51180. For the purposes of Division 3.6 (commencing with Section810) of Title 1, vegetation removal or management, undertaken in whole or in part, for fire prevention or suppression purposes shall not be deemed to alter the natural condition of public property. This section shall apply only to natural conditions of public property and shall not limit any liability or immunity that may otherwise exist pursuant to this chapter.

51181. The director shall periodically review the areas in the state identified as very high fire hazard severity zones pursuant to this chapter, and as necessary, shall make recommendations relative to very high fire hazard severity zones. This review shall coincide with the review of state responsibility area lands every five years and, when possible, fall within the time frames for each county's general plan update. Any revision of areas included in a very high fire hazard severity zone shall be made in accordance with Sections 51178 and 51179.

51182.(a) Any person who owns, leases, controls, operates, or maintains any occupied dwelling or occupied structure in, upon, or adjoining any mountainous area, forest-covered land, brush-covered land, grass-covered land, or any land that is covered with flammable material, which area or land is within a very high fire hazard severity zone designated by the local agency pursuant to Section 51179, shall at all times do all of the following:

(1) Maintain around and adjacent to the dwelling or structure a firebreak made by removing and clearing away, for a distance of not less than 30 feet on each side thereof or to the property line, whichever is nearer, all flammable vegetation or other combustible growth. This paragraph does not apply to single specimens of trees, ornamental shrubbery, or similar plants that are used as ground cover, if they do not form a means of rapidly transmitting fire from the native growth to any dwelling or structure.

(2) Maintain around and adjacent to the occupied dwelling or occupied structure additional fire protection or firebreaks made by removing all brush, flammable vegetation, or combustible growth that is located from 30 feet to 100 feet from the occupied dwelling or occupied structure or to the property line, whichever is nearer, as may be required by the local agency if the local agency finds that, because of extra hazardous conditions, a firebreak of only 30 feet around the occupied dwelling or occupied structure is not sufficient to provide reasonable fire safety. Grass and other vegetation located more than 30 feet from the dwelling or structure and less than 18 inches in height above the ground may be maintained where necessary to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion.

(3) Remove that portion of any trees that extends within 10 feet of the outlet of any chimney or stovepipe.

(4) Maintain any tree adjacent to or overhanging any building free of dead or dying wood.

(5) Maintain the roof of any structure free of leaves, needles, or other dead vegetative growth.

(6) Provide and maintain at all times a screen over the outlet of every chimney or stovepipe that is attached to any fireplace, stove, or other device that burns any solid or liquid fuel. The screen shall be constructed and installed in accordance with the California Building Standards Code.

(b) A person is not required under this section to maintain any clearing on any land if that person does not have the legal right to maintain the clearing, nor is any person required to enter upon or to damage property that is owned by any other person without the consent of the owner of the property.

51183.(a) The local agency may exempt from the standards set forth in Section 51182 structures with exteriors constructed entirely of nonflammable materials, or conditioned upon the contents and composition of the structure, and may vary the requirements respecting the removing or clearing away of flammable vegetation or other combustible growth with respect to the area surrounding the structures. In no case shall this subdivision be deemed to authorize a local agency to vary any requirement that is a building standard subject to Section 18930 of the Health and Safety Code, except as otherwise authorized by law.

(b) No exemption or variance shall apply unless and until the occupant thereof, or if there be no occupant, then the owner thereof, files with the local agency a written consent to the inspection of the interior and contents of the structure to ascertain whether the provisions of Section 51182 are complied with at all times.

51183.5.(a) A transferor of real property that is located within a very high fire hazard severity zone, designated pursuant to this chapter, shall disclose to any prospective transferee the fact that the property is located within a very high fire hazard severity zone, and is subject to the requirements of Section 51182.

(b) Disclosure is required pursuant to this section only when one of the following conditions is met:

(1) The transferor, or the transferor's agent, has actual knowledge that the property is within a very high fire hazard severity zone.

(2) A map that includes the property has been provided to the local agency pursuant to Section 51178, and a notice is posted at the offices of the county recorder, county assessor, and county planning agency that identifies the location of the map and any information regarding changes to the map received by the local agency.

(c) In all transactions that are subject to Section 1103 of the Civil Code, the disclosure required by subdivision (a) of this section shall be provided by either of the following means:

(1) The Local Option Real Estate Disclosure Statement as provided in Section 1102.6a of the Civil Code.

(2) The Natural Hazard Disclosure Statement as provided in Section 1103.2 of the Civil Code.

(d) If the map or accompanying information is not of sufficient accuracy or scale that a reasonable person can determine if the subject real property is included in a very high fire hazard zone, the transferor shall mark "Yes" on the Natural Hazard Disclosure Statement. The transferor may mark "No" on the Natural Hazard Disclosure Statement if he or she attaches a report prepared pursuant to subdivision (c) of Section 1103.4 of the Civil Code that verifies the property is not in the hazard zone. Nothing in this subdivision is intended to limit or abridge any existing duty of the transferor or the transferor's agents to exercise reasonable care in making a determination under this subdivision.

(e) Section 1103.13 of the Civil Code shall apply to this section.

(f) The specification of items for disclosure in this section does not limit or abridge any obligation for disclosure created by any other provision of law or that may exist in order to avoid fraud, misrepresentation, or deceit in the transfer transaction.

51184.(a) Section 51182 shall not apply to any land or water area acquired or managed for one or more of the following purposes or uses:

(1) Habitat for endangered or threatened species, or any species that is a candidate for listing as an endangered or threatened species by the state or federal government.

(2) Lands kept in a predominantly natural state as habitat for wildlife, plant, or animal communities.

(3) Open space lands that are environmentally sensitive parklands.

(4) Other lands having scenic values, as declared by the local agency, or by state or federal law.

(b) This exemption applies whether the land or water area is held in fee title or any lesser interest. This exemption applies to any public agency, any private entity that has dedicated the land or water areas to one or more of those purposes or uses, or any combination of public agencies and private entities making that dedication.

(c) This section shall not be construed to prohibit the use of properly authorized prescribed burning to improve the biological function of land or to assist in the restoration of desired vegetation.

(d) In the event that any lands adjacent to any land or water area described in subdivision (a) are improved such that they are subject to Section 51182, the obligation to comply with Section 51182 shall be with the person owning, leasing, controlling, operating, or maintaining the occupied dwelling or occupied structure on the improved lands. All maintenance activities and other fire prevention measures required by Section 51182 shall be required only for the improved lands, not the land and water areas described in subdivision (a).

51185.(a) A violation of Section 51182 is an infraction punishable by a fine of not less than one hundred dollars ($100) nor more than five hundred dollars ($500).

(b) If a person is convicted of a second violation of Section 51182 within five years, that person shall be punished by a fine of not less than two hundred fifty dollars ($250) nor more than five hundred dollars ($500).

(c) If a person is convicted of a third violation of Section 51182 within five years, that person is guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not less than five hundred dollars ($500).

51186. The local agency having jurisdiction of property upon which conditions regulated by Section 51182 are being violated shall notify the owner of the property to correct the conditions. If the owner fails to correct the conditions, the local agency may cause the corrections to be made, and the expenses incurred shall become a lien on the property that is the subject of the corrections when recorded in the county recorder's office in the county in which the real property is located. The priority of the lien shall be as of the date of recording. The lien shall contain the legal description of the real property, the assessor's parcel number, and the name of the owner of record as shown on the latest equalized assessment roll.

51187. Any violation of Section 51182 may be considered a public nuisance pursuant to Section 38773.

51188. In the instance of conflict between this chapter and any provision of state law that allows a regional planning agency to regulate very high fire hazard severity zones, this chapter shall prevail.

51189.(a) The Legislature finds and declares that space and structure defensibility is essential to effective fire prevention. This defensibility extends beyond the vegetation management practices required by this chapter, and includes, but is not limited to, measures that increase the likelihood of a structure to withstand intrusion by fire, such as building design and construction requirements that use fire resistant building materials, and provide protection of structure projections, including, but not limited to, porches, decks, balconies and eaves, and structure openings, including, but not limited to, attic and eave vents and windows.

(b) No later than January 1, 2005, the State Fire Marshal, in consultation with the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Director of Housing and Community Development, shall, pursuant to Section 18930 of the Health and Safety Code, recommend building standards that provide for comprehensive space and structure defensibility to protect structures from fires spreading from adjacent structures or vegetation and vegetation from fires spreading from adjacent structures.