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County aims to help fire survivors with new rebuild directive.

Jerimiah Oetting / KAZU News
Dave Reid, the director of Santa Cruz County's Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience.

For months, survivors of last year’s CZU fires in the Santa Cruz mountains have demanded the county ease the strict geological requirements that have stymied their ability to rebuild their homes. Earlier this month, the county announced a new pathway forward that aims to address their concerns.

The CZU Rebuild Directive allows fire survivors to bypass the county's geology requirements as long as they still meet the state building code. It’s the latest attempt by the county to quell frustration and anger due to the complicated rebuilding process.

The new directive comes on the heels of a similar plan announced by county leaders in September, that would have also allowed fire survivors to move forward without meeting the county’s geology requirements. But there was a catch. A legal disclaimer, called a covenant, would be added to the deeds of anyone who decided to forego the county code.

Antonia Bradford, a fire survivor who shared her experience with KAZU News, said the language of that covenant was unduly harsh.

“It would render our properties valueless. It could bankrupt families and it could destroy credit and all these things that we shouldn’t have to go through,” she said. “We didn’t ask for this.”

Dave Reid, the director of the Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience, has worked closely with the fire survivor community.

“We wanted to try and respond to community feedback and provide an alternative path that still meets the California building code requirements,” he said.

The county toughened it’s building codes substantially after a series of deadly disasters in the 1980s, including the floods in 1982-83, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

County Supervisor Bruce McPherson said the rules were created to keep people safe and protect the county from lawsuits. But the strict code also chilled development in the disaster-prone Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Our planning department has a reputation for being very strict,” he said. “Until five or 10 years ago, the mantra was ‘don't build it and they won't come.’”

But the county code makes no distinction between new developers and people trying to rebuild after a disaster. Reid said that’s a problem for fire survivors.

“For this subset of 911 homes and families that were impacted by CZU, that development requirement was burdensome,” he said.

The CZU Rebuild Directive allows fire survivors to bypass the county’s geologic requirements without the harsh language of the covenant. Reid said home owners will still need to disclose geologic risks on their deeds — a step he said was necessary to protect the county and future homeowners.

But unlike the covenant, which listed all possible hazards of living in the mountains, this new document looks more like a standard disclosure.

“We've tried to tailor the language in that document to be much more specific and focused,” Reid said. “It’s more consistent with the practice that we've had for 25 plus years, where all new development in geologically complex areas have had to have a document like this recorded on their title.”

With the CZU Rebuild Directive, fire survivors can opt-out of creating the site-specific geology report required by the county’s code. Instead, they can rely on a recently completed debris flow study, called the Atkins study. It described the debris flow risk over much of the CZU burn area using computer models.

Fire survivors are still required to meet the state code, which Reid said is the minimum standard. But he hopes the new directive will help people start rebuilding faster.

“We're trying to find that right balance of the regulatory requirements to keeping folks safe and getting them back in their homes in a cost effective manner,” he said.

With climate change increasing the risk of intense wildfires and the large storms that cause debris flows, Reid said he hopes the county can learn from this process, to help better respond to future disasters.

Jerimiah Oetting is KAZU’s news director. Prior to his career in public media, he was a field biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.