Some 580 people signed an online petition urging Portola Valley council members and staff to cede some of their say over development to the local fire district, in light of new state housing laws that encourage building. The residents, who have voiced an ongoing lack of trust in town officials, say the district is the most equipped to make the best decisions to protect them against wildfires.
On Dec. 8, some of those residents came out in full force to a Town Council meeting — that ran past 1 a.m. — asking council members to delay approving several items on the agenda related to fire safety and development in town.
One item of importance to the group included design standards that builders will have to meet to get approval to subdivide single family lots and/or develop up to two residential units per lot.
The standards apply to the new law, Senate Bill 9, that allows homeowners in single-family zones to split their lots and build up to four housing units. SB 9 requires local agencies to grant ministerial approval to certain lot splits and up to two units on each resulting lot, with 4-foot minimum side and rear setbacks. The council ultimately unanimously approved an urgency ordinance that establishes a set of objective standards for building in town.
In the petition, the residents also asked the council to adopt an ordinance, effective Jan. 1, imposing a 30-foot minimum building separation between homes (the state's standard for "very high fire hazard severity zones"). They asked that the Woodside Fire Protection District make final determinations over whether any land use, subdivision, development or building application in town complies with or otherwise satisfies the fire prevention and protection objectives of the building code and municipal code. They also asked that, by Sept. 1, 2022, the town give the fire district extra funds to fulfill this expanded authority.
"Home hardening and vegetation management are important defenses against devastating wildfire, but they're not nearly enough," the petition states. "Experience and research both show that inadequate structure separation and excessive building density in wildland environments such as ours result in homes and neighborhoods that are not just 'vulnerable' or 'exposed' to wildfire; they are in fact an important cause of cataclysmic destruction."
This is not the first time residents have sparred with town officials in the past year over development. Portola Valley Neighbors United (PVNU) members, who have come into conflict with the town about the proposed Stanford Wedge housing development and the lack of support for holding a townwide evacuation drill, are some of the vocal supporters of the petition.
The urgency ordinance governs things like grading limitations, prohibits basements; preserving privacy by prohibiting roof decks or balconies; and limits on building patios, decks, pools, fire pits and saunas, according to a staff report.
Don Bullard, the Woodside Fire Protection District battalion chief and fire marshal, said the district can’t implement a 30-foot minimum building separation between homes until the district completes its updated fire code, set to be finalized in December 2022. The code is updated every three years.
"Some of the best minds are trying to solve this problem," he said. "We don't have the science yet that tells us what the threshold should be. … Maybe the magic threshold will be 45 feet. I can say with confidence, home hardening and defensible space will work and more restrictive building codes are going to be a good first step for us; I think anything else is going to be putting the cart before the horse."
Fire Chief Rob Lindner said he understood "people want everything now," but that the district is working on a more specific plan.
Resident Dale Pfau said many people in town are "quite concerned about fire" and he is "incredibly uncomfortable with waiting for the new fire code" to be finalized.
"That's a full year — you could adopt 30-foot separation tonight as part of this urgency ordinance," he said, referring to the SB 9 urgency ordinance.
Land deemed "very high" risk of wildfire by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is exempt from SB 9, but Portola Valley doesn't qualify for that exemption because it didn't adopt Cal Fire's 2008 fire maps. On the 2008 maps, the northwest corner of town falls into that category.
At the time, the mayor said the council wanted to "consider all the aspects (of fire protection) and not just the Cal Fire map." This exception could apply if the town adopts the next round of Cal Fire maps.
"Our big issue with the the town is over is fire safety," said PVNU President Rita Comes. "Why can't they adopt the maps for the wildfire areas? The insurance companies know where there is high fire danger and have been canceling people irregardless (of whether) the Portola Valley Town Council wants to adopt the maps or not."
Vice Mayor Sarah Wernikoff said residents and town officials are in agreement that building needs to be done in the "safest way possible," although she acknowledged the county needs more housing inventory. Her concern with the petition is that the approach suggested is "inconsistent with the way the town and fire district" work.
"I appreciate the stress and frustration for how long these things take," she said. "There's a heightened anxiety in lag time between development mandates while we're still waiting for fire maps and the code development."
Councilman Jeff Aalfs said the petition is not actionable by Jan. 1, but he understands its sentiments.
Councilwoman Maryann Derwin said she would like to see a more racially and economically diverse Portola Valley and that can only happen with laws like SB 9.
"Of course we all care about fire danger," she said. "As soon as the (fire code) standards come through, we will adopt them."
Mayor Craig Hughes said residents should keep in mind that houses don't get built quickly, so while it seems like the town needs to change the fire code imminently, there is actually not a huge rush.
"If it takes us three months to get some changes in, we'll maybe get three or four (housing) applications in during that time," he said. "It's not going to be the end of the world."
Increased fears about wildfires
Although no one in Portola Valley was ultimately forced to evacuate because of the nearby CZU August Lighting Complex fires that burned over 86,000 acres in 2020, it was a wake-up call to the small, heavily wooded town that fire danger needs to remain top of mind. And fires are at the forefront of the minds of local officials and residents as temperatures rise. Gov. Gavin Newsom said that the CZU fire incident was a "coastal fire," saying that fires in this area are a proof point of a changing climate.
The "great interest" in recent months about ways the fire district and town government are addressing the threat of wildfires prompted Chief Lindner and Town Manager Jeremy Dennis to send an open letter to Portola Valley residents last week.
Although the town and district work very closely on such issues, the town does not play a primary role in the development of the fire code/ As partners, the fie district works closely with all the entities it serves to ensure that potential proposals can be successfully implemented, it said.
The Wildfire Preparedness Committee considered two proposals in November that could be included in the 2022 fire code update, including a proposal to require that all future buildings in Portola Valley be spaced at least 30 feet apart. The committee did not choose to make a recommendation to the council at that time, according to the letter. Bullard did not make a recommendation on these proposals at the meeting, and stated that he continues to work with CPAW (Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire) and other experts on a comprehensive code update that will be presented toward the end of 2022.
"It is appropriate for the district, with its partners, to continue its due diligence to determine what should be included in the upcoming code update," Lindner and Dennis wrote.
CPAW wrote the town this week to say that Portola Valley's recent home hardening ordinance adopted during the Dec. 8 meeting is “an excellent representation of new and robust standards needed to meet these increased risks and is a leader among communities addressing wildfire hazard by mitigating risks to the built environment.”
The ordinance prohibits wood shake and shingle roofs, eliminates combustible exterior wall coverings and requires fences and gates within 10 feet of a home be of non-combustible materials, among other measures.
Town's hazard mitigation plan
Residents also pushed back on approval of San Mateo County's hazard mitigation plan, an 800-page document that is generally approved on the consent agenda.
The council pulled the plan for review at a future meeting to address mistakes in the county's wildfire data. The town needs to approve the plan this week to qualify for FEMA funds in the future, Dennis said. He also noted that it's a "living document" that can be edited over time.
Resident Bob Bob Turcott said he's usually "full of opinions," but this document left him "full of questions."
Hughes acknowledged that the plan was "glaringly bad" at describing Portola Valley.
"The county has been working under pandemic conditions," he said. "We can have it come back to a special meeting. It's important to get this to be less wildly inaccurate and to make a statement to the county about how they've described Portola Valley."
Watch a video of the meeting here.