USA — The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors is considering whether to eliminate permitting fees amounting to several thousand dollars for landowners who clear their property of brush and other fire hazards.
The issue was brought to the board by supervisor Mark Thornton on Tuesday. He expressed concern that fees could deter people who might otherwise make the county less prone to catastrophic fire in the wildland-urban interface, that is, where forests meet human developments.
The processing fee, according to County Community Development Department Director Bev Shane, comes to $4,800 regardless of the size of the parcel to be cleared. She did note that pieces of land that are exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires an environmental impact report before work is done, can be permitted for a discounted fee of $2,500.
Shane pointed out that land zoned as open space, the designation subject to Tuesday’s discussion, is often a set aside as mitigation for developments landowners have undertaken on other parts of their property. She added that the county’s defensible space ordinance allows landowners to clear, fee-free, land within 100 feet of existing structures.
But sometimes that’s not good enough, according to Craig Maxwell, of Groveland, a member of the public who spoke in favor of Thornton’s proposal. Larger pieces of land must be thinned and cleared to protect entire communities and neighborhoods from fire risk, he said.
“You need incentives to have landowners clean this land, land that is overgrown and prone to wildfire,” he said.
John Buckley, director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, also spoke in support of the proposal, though he said the fee should be reduced or eliminated on a case-by-case basis.
He acknowledged that “surface and ladder fuels” (dense, dry undergrowth that allows fires to spread vertically and horizontally in forests) are undesirable from a fire-prevention perspective, but he added that removing such fuels can lead to a diminishment of wildlife habitat.
“It’s important to try to find balance,” Buckley said.
Those projects that benefit adjacent properties rather than just the land owned by the person doing the project should be considered a priority to receive discounts, according to Buckley.
Due to the high fees, supervisor Paolo Maffei suspects “a lot of people are doing what they’re doing and we don’t know about it.”
Supervisors voted 4-0 to direct the Community Development Department to prepare a draft resolution eliminating the fees, with a decision coming at a later date.