Out of the ashes: With fire code requirements demanding wider roads, turnarounds, and grade standards, Mountain Drive residents like Abe Powell (pictured here on the historic Hyde Rd.) are concerned that many area residents cannot afford the land improvements required to rebuild in the wake of the Tea Fire.
Paul Wellman

No matter which cliche you pick to describe the realities currently staring down property owners devastated by last month’s Tea Fire, the bottom line remains the same: There is work to be done. With more than 200 incinerated houses needing to be rebuilt-not to mention the countless other legal and illegal outbuildings-the winding road to recovery runs straight through the Planning and Development offices of both the city and the county of Santa Barbara. And while shot-callers from both camps have promised to expedite and ease for Tea Fire victims the usually frustration-filled permitting process, the fact is that not everyone will be allowed to rebuild the way they want-and in some cases, they won’t be able to rebuild at all.

“Simply put, anything that gets built is going to get built to code,” summed up John McInnes, the county’s director of long range planning, who’s spearheading that jurisdiction’s Tea Fire recovery efforts. “If it doesn’t meet code, it won’t be built.”

City of S.B.: Easing the Path for Plenty, But Saying No to Conejo

Several homeowners on Conejo Road, which is in the city’s jurisdiction, know exactly what McInnes is talking about. In the late 1980s, the city enacted an ordinance stating that houses in the area of the 1984 Conejo Landslide-roughly along Conejo Road’s big turn, bordered by Ealand Place and Stanwood Drive-could not be rebuilt following any disasters due to the area’s unstable soil. Once the smoke cleared last month, 10 of the 27 parcels in that area had been destroyed and, according to the city, cannot under any circumstances be built upon.

For the city’s other burned-out residents, the streamlined rebuilding protocol is just now starting to take shape. In a plan outlined this week by the city’s Single Family Design Board, planners Bettie Weiss and Jaime Lim³n described a still-forming process that, in the words of Weiss, is “trying to fit reality.” She explained, “We only have a limited number of projects that can be essentially rebuilt as is-probably only six or seven of them. Most projects will have to meet new code requirements. Buildings will change.”

Changes aside, the process described at the meeting aims to be light on reviews and give extra help to homeowners who want to design a more fire-resistant home. Any rebuilds that exactly duplicate burned residences will be permitted quickly, so long as they also meet structural and high-risk fire zone updates and pass the required foundation and soil stability tests. (The latter tests are anything but guaranteed, however.)

Homeowners who want to rebuild bigger or better will run the typical approval gauntlet, but they will enjoy prioritized scheduling and have the benefit of early consultations with planners who’ve been specifically assigned to them. The hope, according to Weiss, is to have everyone’s building permits secured within the next 12 months, because insurance money for fire victims’ rental housing tends to run dry after a year. While nobody within city limits has officially begun the rebuilding approval process, demolition and debris removal permits-a fundamental precursor to any recovery-have been issued on 106 of the 150 affected parcels.

County of S.B.: Streamlining for Some, Struggling for Others

In the County of Santa Barbara, where 81 property owners are looking to rebuild, the approval process has also been streamlined, explained McInnes. Besides assigning planning staff to act as case managers for each impacted parcel-as of press time, all but two homeowners had contacted the county-they have also appointed Tony Nisich as ombudsman for the entire process. As in the city, no one’s officially started the rebuilding permit process yet, but 102 debris and demolition permits have been issued with fees waived (some properties need both a demo and debris permit); additionally, 12 temporary permits for trailers have been issued so people can live on their property during the rebuilding phase. (The city, which typically considers such trailer-living illegal, also passed a temporary ordinance this week that paved the way for issuing such permits to Tea Fire victims.)

Though the Tea Fire destroyed nearly twice as many homes in the city, it’s county residents-especially those living in the historic and widely devastated Mountain Drive communities, like Hyde Road-who are feeling the tightest squeeze from the “rebuild to code” mandate. Celebrated for their eclectic, art-minded, and community-based patchwork of houses, granny cottages, and other nontraditional dwellings, Mountain Drivers-many of whom lost everything during the Tea Fire-are claiming that their way of life is being threatened by the rebuilding requirements.

“As far as the county goes, everyone from their Planning and Development staff to Supervisor Salud Carbajal could not have been more helpful,” said Abe Powell, a third-generation Mountain Driver. “It has been awesome up to this point.” But after a meeting with Montecito Fire officials last week, Powell and others are fearful that many owners will not be able to afford to rebuild if they have to meet the access requirements of Montecito Fire’s protection plan.

“Basically, they are telling us we have to design our community around their equipment if we want them to sign off on a building permit,” said Powell. “It is a de facto condemnation of people’s property. I mean, if you enforced [Montecito Fire’s requirements] on the Riviera, nobody would ever be able to rebuild up there.”

He is referring to Montecito Fire’s stance-as dictated by the State of California’s 2007 Fire Code-that driveways for single-family homes need to be 14 feet wide, driveways that access more than four homes need to be 20 feet wide, and driveways that are more than 100 feet long must feature a turnaround spot with at least a 40-foot radius. Furthermore, the state code mandates that driveways cannot be graded steeper than 15 degrees, which is especially problematic for the mountainous area and usually very expensive and time-consuming to remedy.

Because much of Mountain Drive was developed decades ago, many of the burned-out parcels-often with driveways more than 100 feet long and serving more than four homes-come nowhere near these standards. Powell and his fellow Mountain Drive Community Association members worry about the effect such mandates will have on the character of their neighborhood, but they’re even more concerned about the heavy financial cost of reengineering and grading roads in the hilly region. “Nobody’s fire insurance covers re-engineering their driveway,” explained Powell. “And that stuff is not cheap-we are talking thousands and thousands of dollars.”

For his part, Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace said this week that the rules are “built on dead bodies”-inferring that you wind up with dead residents and firefighters when these rules aren’t followed-and that he has no immediate plans to broker a compromise despite having the authority to do so. “Obviously we will review all the cases, but I think it is doable [for Mountain Drivers to comply],” said Wallace. “But it is going to take some work, money, and they are going to have to get together and compromise with each other.”

Powell believes his neighbors can work together, and points to such developments as the post-Tea Fire formation of a Mountain Drive Architectural Review Board, which will send a representative to serve on the Montecito Planning Commission when Mountain Drive rebuilds are up for approval. He’s hopeful that the community will once again rise from the ashes and create an even better incarnation of its fabled lifestyle.

“It is going to be an interesting process,” said Powell, “but Mountain Drive will be back.”


The Community Environmental Council is hosting a forum called From Ashes to Opportunity: Rebuilding and Retrofitting After the Tea Fire on Saturday, December 13, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Montecito Covenant Church, 671 Cold Springs Road.


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