Stephen Homan has a perfect record fighting for CZU survivors. But why did he have to fight at all?
Stephen Homan came out of retirement as an environmental health specialist to help a Santa Cruz County neighbor struggling to rebuild from 2020’s CZU fire. He ended up helping 50 CZU fire survivors whose rebuilds were held up by poorly understood septic regulations and improperly applied environmental health ordinances. His efforts would ultimately help lead to a near sea change in the process, making it better for everyone. And he did it all for free. Daniel DeLong marvels at Homan’s humanity — and, nearly three years after the fires started, takes a few jabs at bureaucracy and incompetence.
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Stephen Homan will never forget it.
He was consulting with a Boulder Creek fire survivor when the official registered environmental health specialist (REHS) working for the company in charge of CZU fire rebuild permits showed up on the property. This person got out of their car, looked at Homan, and demanded of the property owner, “What’s HE doing here? He’s an old man, and he doesn’t know anything anymore.”
Yeah. That happened.
It wouldn’t be the last time Homan, who came out of retirement to help CZU survivors, butted heads (so to speak) with that particular official individual who shall remain nameless (they might have had some unofficial signs about them briefly posted along several local roads at one time).
But here’s the thing: After 50 separate, unofficial consultations advocating for fire survivors, countless emails and conversations with 4Leaf (the company hired by Santa Cruz County to handle CZU rebuild permits) during which he called out egregiously complicated and expensive septic requirements that were being misapplied to fire rebuilds, Homan’s record speaks for itself.
You read that right.
So, I’d officially suggest that this “old man” actually knows quite a lot. Officially.
And he never took a dime for doing any of it.
“I just wanted people to be able to rebuild and get on with their lives,” he says, as we sit on his newly constructed back deck. “Like we were able to do.”
Homan is the first to admit that he and his wife, Chris, had it pretty easy when it came to rebuilding their CZU-destroyed home in the Pineridge neighborhood of Bonny Doon. By the luck of the draw, their property was scraped very soon after the fire, and a contractor who lived nearby, Stuart Kriege, actually called them.
“Stuart was shifting from doing remodels and new construction to rebuilding homes that had been destroyed in the fire, so he reached out.” Homan explains. “Ours was the first CZU home rebuild he completed.” Stephen and Chris are extremely happy with Kriege, and the job he did.
The Pineridge neighborhood took a huge hit from CZU.
It’s one of the many names that evokes a gut punch when imagined in context of the fire: Braemoor. Summit. San Vicente Terrace. Memory Lane. Upper Alba. Fallen Leaf. China Grade. To name just a few decimated neighborhoods. (Forgive me if I left yours out; there were so many.) Over 25 homes were lost in Pineridge, only about 10 of which are currently in the process of being rebuilt.
How many are actually completed? Homan shrugs, and holds up a few fingers. Later he would confirm: four. Just four homes finished in Pineridge, including theirs. And we are coming up on the third anniversary of the fire.
One of the rebuilds not finished but nearing completion is just across the street from them, a project that had been getting held up on the septic end of things by a misinterpretation of what defines “sand hill.” It’s a terrain designation that makes a huge difference for what kind of waste treatment system is required — and Homan knew it was being incorrectly applied to his neighbor’s rebuild. He knew this because he was an REHS himself for pretty much his entire professional life.
At various times he had worked for Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. This was in addition to running his own environmental health consulting business for 15 years. So, at the age of 72, six months after the CZU fire and 14 years into retirement, Stephen Homan reactivated his environmental health registration. It required 24 hours of refresher training (all online) and $300. He then went to bat for his neighbor across the street.
A month later, that became victory No. 1.
Victory No. 27 was my good friends and neighbors on upper Alba, who, after digging up their existing system and spending thousands on inspections and perk-tests and a new leach-field design (which was going to cost many more thousands to build) were suddenly told never mind, turns out Stephen Homan is right: Your existing septic system is just fine. Congratulations on passing preclearance, and thanks for playing.
Oh and sorry about the $6,300 you flushed (pun totally intended) doing all that septic work and new design for nothing (and, of course, the apology part of that never happened).
Infuriating for sure. But without Homan’s help, it would have been way worse.
If you read my previous piece concerning the CZU fire rebuild saga, you know my feelings on the soul-crushing purgatory through which fire survivors must slog. From navigating the near-perfect incompetence of government bureaucracy, to insurance companies that force you to relive the trauma of losing everything by requiring you remember and list each specific item that burned, it’s hard to find a more fitting — or cruel — example of “insult to injury.”
But this, THIS should just be a simple matter of applying the correct/current code/ordinance to the situation, right? Nothing should be open to interpretation. It’s not like in a court of law where some novel legal theory can be argued, successfully managing to convince a jury that poop sometimes flows through pipes a different way (or whatever). How is this even a thing?
Homan explains: “The problem is that there are two categories for the replacement of homes destroyed by catastrophe. One is ‘in-kind’ (building back what was there before) and one is considered ‘new development.’ And there were a lot of situations where that line was blurred, and new development septic standards were being applied to ‘in-kind’ rebuilds.”
Again, to be fair: 4Leaf has been lightning-fast when it comes to getting building permits out. The bottleneck was getting through all the preliminary stuff to actually be able to apply for a permit.
Fortunately, those in charge ultimately did see the issue that was occurring, and made the necessary changes.
Since then, reports indicate that things (on the environmental health side, anyway) are now going smoothly.
As such, Homan feels his services are no longer needed.
Still, he shakes his head. “It should have taken five consults from me, not 50, for them to agree there was a problem and act on it.”
Stephen and Chris bought their property and built their original house in 1975, when Homan was working for Santa Cruz County Environmental Health. He laughs when he points out that just the $30,000 roof of his new house cost as much as the entire original house (land, structure, well, septic, all of it) 48 years ago.
Looking south from the back deck of his home, there is a small ravine full of redwood trees, their trunks blackened, but with green poofing out all over, the “Chia Pet” look we’ve all come to know. Since the fire, you can now get a glimpse of Monterey Bay through this grove, a small silver lining courtesy of CZU.
Homan waves me off when I use “out-of-the-goodness-of-your-heart” to describe what he did entirely for free. “I just really hate injustice,” he says. “And I just want people to have the laws applied to them fairly.”
While he refused to take any money for the jobs, extremely grateful clients did manage to slip some minor gifts his way: a few nice bottles of wine, restaurant gift certificates, even a couple of heart redwood 6-by-6 posts milled for him by one of his clients from a tree that burned on the client’s property. They are now holding up Homan’s front porch.
Plus (as he tells it) he had a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, and made some new friends.
And although Homan once again considers himself retired, he has recently been back out to help his favorite clients: a couple in their 90s, both in wheelchairs, who lost their home to CZU.
“It’s just some minor paperwork shuffling issues,” he says, looking out through that gap in the trees to the ocean. “But when you’re in your 90s, time is of the essence.”
He very much wants to help them rebuild so they can get back on their land.
The couple built their original house themselves with a handsaw and a hammer in 1954, before permits were even a thing.
They, like everyone else, just want to go home.
Daniel DeLong is a retired firefighter and 30-plus-year resident of the San Lorenzo Valley. He’s really looking forward to seeing the movie “Oppenheimer” in IMAX when it comes out this month, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of this article. He just couldn’t think of anything else to add to his bio. Read his previous opinion pieces for Lookout here.