The remote Last Chance community was devastated by last summer’s CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Last Chance’s best chance? County program takes less-restrictive approach to rebuild for CZU Fire victims

Santa Cruz County is relaxing building codes to help ease the burden on residents of the remote community between Big Basin and Davenport ravaged by last summer’s wildfires.

Residents living off-grid in the remote Santa Cruz County community of Last Chance can soon take advantage of a new pilot program to streamline their rebuilding from last summer’s CZU Lightning Complex Fire, which ravaged the settlement tucked away between Big Basin State Park and Davenport.

Expected to kick off June 11 and run for three years, the county program relaxes building codes to allow residents in the area — named after Last Chance Road — to rebuild using alternative means of construction as long as the homes are found to be structurally sound and meet basic health and safety requirements.

And to judge from the enthusiastic reception the program got from at least one local, the county might want to look at extending that timeline — something Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said last month was entirely possible as the county seeks to meet affected residents at their level of need.

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“I personally would love to take advantage of it but am under too much debt from my previous home to start within that period of time,” lifelong Last Chance resident Forest Martinez told supervisors during a meeting on the topic in April. “And I feel that there’s probably others in the same boat as me.”

The measure, which was officially approved by the board of supervisors last week, aims to allow for cheaper, quicker rebuilding with fewer hurdles in an area where county officials estimate homes burned on 40 to 50 parcels, some with multiple structures.

“They were pretty hard hit,” said David Carlson, a resource planner for the county’s planning department.

The idea behind the program: Allow the homeowner to look for ways to reduce cost while rebuilding as long as some basic requirements are met. “It allows for creativity and ingenuity of the builder,” Carlson said.

Unlike with structures elsewhere, the new homes would not be required to have such things as electricity or insulation, but they would need a heating source, bathing and washing facilities — though those don’t have to be indoors — and individual sewage disposal systems. Structures would also have to adhere to fire safety regulations.

“The cost savings will be in the construction of the building,” Carlson said, adding that residents could potentially use on-site resources such as lumber.

“We expect to see some alternative materials that may or may not be lower cost, like straw-bale construction,” he said.

The number of inspections during the building process would be reduced, too, going from at least seven to no more than four. To preserve the program’s owner-built concept, homeowners building under the pared-back regulations would be prohibited from selling the new construction for a period of three years.

A map shows where structures were destroyed by the fire along Last Chance Road.
(County of Santa Cruz)

The new program, though more tailored to a specific community, is the latest county effort to lessen the burden of CZU Fire victims in their arduous quest to rebuild.

Santa Cruz County officials also previously implemented an expedited permit system and a 40% reduction in fees for fire victims, hoping to ease the path to recovery for owners of homes lost in the blaze.

How the Last Chance community responds to the pilot program could affect not only whether the county extends the timeline, Carlson said, but whether it expands the program to other areas or ends it. County officials want to see how many people take advantage of it, what kind of structures are built and how difficult it will be to administer the process.

“There’s any number of small incremental steps of expansion that you can do,” Carlson said. “But we’ll see how it goes in the Last Chance area.”