TO: HONORABLE MAYOR AND COUNCILMEMBERS
FROM:> DIRECTOR OF PLANNING, BUILDING & CODE ENFORCEMENT
DATE: MAY 3, 2005
SUBJECT: VERY HIGH FIRE HAZARD SEVERITY ZONES
Staff Coordinator: Kit Fox, AICP, Senior Planner
Receive and file the follow-up report on Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs) in the City and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and take no action to revise any of the official maps of VHFHSZs at this time.
The matter of Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones (VHFHSZs) was previously agendized for the City Council’s review as a result of citizen concerns about the cost and availability of homeowners’ insurance. Staff investigated the matter and, based upon information received from insurance companies, real estate professionals and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, believes that no action needs to be taken at this time to revise the official maps of VHFHSZs. Staff also presents a summary of additional information about the effect of the designation of VHFHSZs on the City, along with a discussion of alternatives for future City Council action with respect to VHFHSZs.
At the August 3, 2004 City Council meeting, Staff presented 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 (see attached Minutes and Staff report). The City Council directed Staff to conduct additional research and to bring this matter back for further discussion.
Official Mapping and Designation of VHFHSZs
As discussed in the August 3, 2004 Staff report, there are apparent conflicts between "official" maps depicting the extent of VHFHSZs in the City and on the entire Peninsula. Maps obtained from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) website appear to indicate that the entire Peninsula is a designated VHFHSZ. CDF was the State agency tasked with designating VHFHSZs pursuant to the Bates bill (i.e., AB 337). However, the provisions of the Bates bill only impose standards for property maintenance and brush clearance 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." As such, these standards might not apply within the built-out residential and commercial areas of the City.
Based upon information initially provided to Councilmember Long by the County Fire Department, last year, it appeared that only the unincorporated Westfield County island—which includes Chadwick School and the Westfield and Academy Hills neighborhoods—was a designated VHFHSZ. However, the City also maintains a County Fire Department map that purports to designate most of the City as a VHFHSZ, but further breaking down the City into Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas and Buffer Zones. The WUI areas generally correspond with undeveloped open areas and canyons, while the Buffer Zones consist of the built-out portions of the City.
Staff contacted Assistant Fire Chief Thom Glonchak regarding the County Fire Department’s official position regarding VHFHSZs on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Chief Glonchak indicated that it is the Department’s position that the Westfield County island is the only area of the Peninsula that is designated by the County Fire Department as a VHFHSZ. This is because none of the Peninsula cities has formally adopted the County’s fire hazard zone system. According to Chief Glonchak, some of the criteria that are involved with the County’s fire hazard zone system include the types of brush present; minimum brush clearance distances; types and classes of roofing materials; presence or absence of sprinkler systems; pool drafting capabilities and signage; and the availability and adequacy of emergency access. Although any or all of the Peninsula cities might choose to adopt the County standards, it is not clear that doing so would provide any particular benefit to residents; in fact, it could lead to the imposition of more restrictive and costly building standards for residents.
Notwithstanding the lack of official County Fire Department designation of VHFHSZs in the City, it is important to note that the County Fire Department continues its efforts to identify and abate fire hazards in the City. This includes (but is not limited to) regular inspections of canyons and other high-hazard areas; the review of development proposals in the WUI areas to ensure the appropriate location and scope of fuel modification; and the notification of property owners of the need to abate weeds on their properties. The criteria that the County Fire Department uses in implementing these efforts are the same criteria listed above in the designation of the County’s fire hazard zone system. As such, it does not seem to be necessary for the City to formally adopt the County Fire Department’s fire hazard zone system in order to ensure that the fire safety of the City is protected.
Insurance and Real Estate Data Sources for VHFHSZs
Staff researched the data sources employed by insurance companies in determining brush fire risk in making underwriting decisions. The companies researched were GMAC, Hartford and Firemen’s Fund, all of which had been reported by City residents as having declined coverage or significantly increased premiums due to the proximity of properties to brush fire hazard areas. In all cases, the determination of brush fire risk was based upon satellite imagery and/or their own internal databases, not upon the VHFHSZ maps produced by CDF or the County Fire Department. As such, it appears that if the City were to pursue amending the current CDF and/or County Fire Department maps to better define the location of VHFHSZs in the City, it would probably have little or no direct impact upon the underwriting practices of insurance companies. However, if a resident wished to appeal or challenge an insurance company’s denial of coverage based upon brush fire hazard, the official County Fire Department map, which indicates that only the Westfield County island is a designated VHFHSZ, might be of some value to residents.
With respect to real estate transactions, Government Code Section 51183.5 requires disclosure of the fact that a property is located within a VHFHSZ upon sale or transfer of such property. According to local realtors, these types of property disclosures are typically researched and compiled by independent companies, such as Property I.D., which use the CDF maps of VHFHSZs as a reference (but not the County Fire Department maps). As such, amending the current CDF map to better define the location of VHFHSZs in the City might result in fewer disclosure requirements on the sale or transfer of property. However, since real estate laws require disclosure of so many different types of conditions potentially affecting a property (i.e., earthquake faults, flood hazards, liquefaction susceptibility, proximity to former military ordnance sites, proximity to critical habitat for endangered species, potential for exposure to radon gas, etc.), the incremental cost reduction attributable to the elimination of a single disclosure requirement—when such disclosure statements are typically prepared for a given property by a single company—may not be of substantial benefit to either buyers or sellers of real property in the City.
Possible Building Code Issues for Construction within VHFHSZs
As a follow-up to a presentation by the City of San Diego Fire Chief at the October 16, 2004 Community Leaders’ Breakfast, the City Council had several questions about whether the City’s current building codes implement "fire wise" building practices. Specifically:
1. Do we require non-combustible material for new or replacement roofs?
Yes, all roofs—new and replacement—require ‘Class A’ materials, the highest and most fire-resistant class required in the California Building Code. This requirement is adopted in the Rancho Palos Verdes Municipal Code under Section 1503 of Title 15.
2. Do we require new homes to have residential fire sprinklers?
No, residential sprinkler systems are not typically required by the City’s Codes, unless there are issues with access for fire-fighting equipment or the distance and/or fire flow from the nearest fire hydrant to the home.
3. Are the exterior walls of new homes required to meet a 1-hour fire rating?
No, while stucco exteriors provide a 1-hour fire rating, there is no requirement in the City’s Code for new homes to be stuccoed. Homes may be constructed with wood siding, which would not provide a 1-hour fire rating.
4. Do we require the roof eaves of homes to be boxed in?
No, we do not require boxed-in eaves.
5. Do we require the screening of attic and eave vents to prevent embers from entering a home?
No, we do not require screens on attic or eave vents.
6. Do we require the use of non-combustible rain gutters, fences and garage doors?
No, we do not.
7. Do we require the use of dual-glazed windows and skylights?
The State’s Energy Code (Title 24) requires the use of dual-glazed windows in construction for energy conservation purposes, but not specifically for fire suppression purposes. However, all skylights must meet the same ‘Class A’ standards as other roof materials.
8. Do we require a minimum of 100-foot brush clearance around structures?
Although the City’s Building Code does not require this, the Los Angeles County Fire Code (with which the City complies) does require such clearance, sometimes up to two hundred feet (200’) from structures in extra hazard areas.
Based upon the foregoing discussion, there are clearly many additional "fire wise" building requirements that the City could impose upon new construction and additions in the City. Implementing all of these requirements would probably reduce the potential for the "brush-to-house" and "house-to-house" transmission of fire that commonly occurs in urban conflagrations, such as those experienced in the San Diego County fires of 2003. Implementing some or all of these requirements might impose significant additional costs on property owners in the City. However, as discussed in the attached article from the November 2004 issue of California Planning & Development Review, it seems likely that the State legislature may mandate "fire wise" building requirements in the future. In that event, there may be additional or different requirements mandated than those listed above.
Recent State Legislation related to VHFHSZs
On September 29, 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 3065 (AB 3065). This bill requires cities and counties within or including CDF-designated VHFHSZs to submit the Safety Elements of their General Plans to the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and local fire protection agencies for their review. Under AB 3065, such review must occur at least ninety (90) days prior to the adoption of any new or amended General Plan Safety Element. In cases where no new or amended General Plan Safety Element is proposed by a local jurisdiction, the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and local fire protection agencies for jurisdictions in Los Angeles County must receive each jurisdiction’s General Plan Safety Element for review by December 31, 2011. As the Council is aware, the City is in the midst of a comprehensive General Plan update. Therefore, the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Los Angeles County Fire Department will need to review our amended Safety Element prior to its adoption by the City Council. It should also be noted that AB 3065 provides for no reimbursement of local jurisdictions for the costs associated with complying with AB 3065 since these jurisdictions "[have] the authority to levy service charges, fees or assessments sufficient to pay for the program or level of service mandated by [AB 3065]".
The review of this follow-up report regarding VHFHSZs has no fiscal impact to the City.
The issue of fire hazard zones in the City and on the Peninsula was initially brought to the City Council’s attention as a result of difficulties that some residents experienced in obtaining or renewing homeowners’ insurance coverage. Based upon Staff’s investigation of the matter, Staff is recommending that the City Council take no action to revise any of the official maps of VHFHSZs for the following reasons:
In addition to (or instead of) Staff’s recommendation, there are several actions that the City Council could take with respect to the issue of VHFHSZs in the City:
1. 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. If the City Council wishes to amend the present boundaries of the CDF-designated VHFHSZ, it may do so at any time through local ordinance. Such ordinance would need to be supported by a fire hazard assessment study to determine the appropriate boundaries for the VHFHSZ. 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 (e.g., ‘Class A’ roofs, etc.), the impact of contracting 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.
2. The City could formally adopt by resolution the County Fire Department’s fire hazard zone system, which is currently undergoing its periodic 5-year review. This would probably result in a narrowing of the scope of the VHFHSZs in the City to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas identified on the 1995 County VHFHSZ map that Staff currently maintains. As mentioned above, the lack of official County Fire Department designation of VHFHSZs in the City does not alter or diminish the County Fire Department’s continued efforts to identify and abate fire hazards in the City. Therefore, adoption of the County’s fire hazard zone system might not provide any particular additional benefit to residents, and could possibly result in the imposition of more restrictive and costly building standards for residents within or adjacent to County Fire Department-designated fire hazard zones.
3. Some or all of the "fire wise" building practices described at the October 16, 2004 Community Leaders’ Breakfast could be implemented in the City’s Building Code. Among the practices listed above, only ‘Class A’ roofing and skylights and dual-glazed windows are currently required by the City. Some of these additional requirements, such as attic and eave vent screens, would probably be relatively inexpensive for property owners, while residential sprinkler systems and 1-hour-rated exterior walls are likely to pose a greater financial burden on new construction, additions and remodels. However, as mentioned above, it appears likely that the State legislature may mandate some "fire wise" building practices in the future.
Staff presents the foregoing additional 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.
Joel Rojas, AICP, Director of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement
Les Evans, City Manager
City Council Minutes (excerpt) and Staff report of August 3, 2004
California Planning & Development Report article regarding building standards (Nov. 2004)
Text of AB 2065 (Kehoe)
County Fire Department’s 2005 VHFHSZ map for the Palos Verdes Peninsula
Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone Map Matrix