Widespread reports of property owners clear cutting large swaths of chaparral on their land throughout the Santa Barbara County foothills had the county supervisors tinkering with their own ordinances this week in hopes of curbing the potentially harmful land-scraping. Despite the county’s existing Brush Removal Ordinance, which is meant to limit such cutting to no more than five acres at a time, the wholesale clearing of chaparral — a unique native calling card of the local Mediterranean landscape that plays an infinitely important role in the ecosystem and health of our creeks — has been on the rise, according to county staff and the folks from the Environmental Defense Center (EDC). Even worse, despite many of these instances being in flagrant violation of the brush ordinance, county staff has been unable to levy fines or enforce the rules due to a loophole in the original ordinance. That is, until now.
Not to be confused with the fire prevention-minded practice of creating “defensible space” in the landscape near a house, a majority of the cases that created the impetus for Tuesday’s discussion (which included testimony from County Fire Chief Michael Dyer in support of an ordinance tweak) involved hunks of land often in excess of 10 acres — and in some cases up to 200-plus acres — that were nowhere near residential or outlying structures. The practice, though potentially motivated by a desire to decrease fire potential, can actually increase fire risks by allowing nonnative and more flammable species to move in while also hamstringing the habitat of the some 40 special status species that call our local chaparral home.
With their unanimous vote, the supervisors approved the mechanisms necessary to empower the Building and Safety Division to enforce the rule, Planning and Development to administer the fines, and the Grading Board to field any potential appeals. Further, the supes asked staff to bring the discussion back to them later next month as part of their long-range work plan to drill deeper into the debate of where and how much chaparral is safe to remove.