Quick Take:

The California Coastal Commission will get the final say on the proposal from the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, which aims to streamline the permitting process for local projects like prescribed burns and trimming undergrowth. Cal Fire leadership, meanwhile, favors a more uniform statewide approach.

A plan to make it easier for Santa Cruz County residents to protect forested areas from fire took a big step forward this week, with the county’s resource conservation district approving what its director called a “unique in the state” approach — despite reservations from Cal Fire and others.

Streamlining permits for fire-prevention projects is at the heart of a new Forest Health and Fire Resilience Public Works Plan for Santa Cruz coastal forests approved on Wednesday night by the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. The proposal, which now goes to the California Coastal Commission for final authorization, covers an area starting just north of the city of Santa Cruz and extending to the San Mateo County border. The permits would apply to projects being undertaken by private landowners as well as government agencies and other entities.

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The new plan would cover permits for projects such as prescribed burns, thinning forest undergrowth and using hired goats for vegetation management. At present, each individual project within the coastal zone (land close to the ocean that falls within the jurisdiction of the coastal commission, between 0.6 and 5 miles inland in Santa Cruz County) requires a permit from the coastal commission.

Under the new proposal, these projects wouldn’t need individual permits if they can prove they fit the scope of the overall forest health and resilience program — a change that would cut the approval time from about 210 days to 30.

“There are identified barriers to implementing these types of projects,” RCD director Lisa Lurie said. ”Some of them are barriers [of] limitations to funding, or limitations in labor, and then also, these barriers for, ‘How do we permit this work in the coastal zone?’”

Preferring more uniform statewide policies over piecemeal local plans, Cal Fire leadership registered its disapproval of the plan, saying that it is not a good long-term solution to the work that needs to be done in coastal zones up and down the state.

“We believe a better tactic would be for the Coastal Commission to take a statewide approach and work with Cal Fire and other interested parties on several potential solutions,” wrote Gabriel Schultz, a staff chief and regional resource manager of the Northern Region.

Members of the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council, a volunteer group that does educational and hands-on fire prevention and safety work, also voiced concerns, with BDFSC president Joe Christy charging that the plan omitted the work of his and other local fire safety organizations and criticizing the resource conservation district for a lack of action on the issue in recent years.

“Claiming that the RCDSCC is an appropriate leader of ‘a regional prioritization effort’ without mentioning the lack of progress that they have made in the past seven years of attempt adds insult to injury,” he wrote.
Lurie said she believed the RCD had addressed the concerns of the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council by making it clear that the RCD is not planning to take over the management and implementation of fire prevention projects. Individual property owners, groups such as the BDFSC and other conservation partners will continue to be able to initiate and manage their own projects.

She said that Cal Fire’s preference for a statewide, long-term option was “a fair opinion.”

“Cal Fire and others are looking for substantive changes at the state level to really address this issue of needing to increase the pace and scale of this work across the state and particularly in the coastal zone,” Lurie said. “What we’re looking at with the PWP is we don’t want to stand in the way of these solutions being advanced, and in the meantime, how do we meet the immediate need within the existing legal framework and mechanisms available to us?”

The public works plan was approved unanimously and will be on the coastal commission agenda in July. It was developed in conjunction with San Mateo County, which aims to send a similar plan to the coastal commission if it is approved by the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District.

Follow Mallory Pickett on: Twitter. Mallory brings deep expertise in environmental issues to Lookout, as well as national reporting experience that she will now apply in her hometown of Santa Cruz. She...