‘This is my children’s future’: Angry fire survivors dig in against potentially damning clause, vow to fight

A scorched property in Bonny Doon
A scorched property in Bonny Doon.
(Via CalMatters)

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors approved the CZU Rebuild Directive, which removes a geological hazard evaluation requirement but required another document stating the evaluation had not been done. Owners say this clause will affect property values, and officials are looking into possible adjustments.

It’s been more than a year since the CZU fire turned the lives of thousands of Santa Cruz mountains residents upside down, and fire survivors are still dealing with the continued ramifications of rebuilding their former homes.

At Tuesday’s Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting, one agenda item was introduced as a way to speed up the process — but it included a clause that many survivors felt was another hurdle to overcome as the clock keeps ticking.

Antonia Bradford, a San Lorenzo Valley resident who lost her home and has become a grassroots organizer of fire survivors, tried to put into words the devastation families like hers are feeling after the board heard the concerns and then pushed through a yes vote anyway.

“We’re telling you this is an issue for us and it’s going to cause potential long-term hardships,” she said, “and you’re pushing it through anyway?”

Following the vote, Lookout connected with many of the homeowners who were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and heard more about their concerns surrounding the covenant.

“The board did not take the time to research what the implications of this would be,” Bradford said. “You need to be doing due diligence and understanding what you’re voting on.”

Lookout also reached out to the supervisors, who acknowledge the clause was added solely out of liability concerns. At least one, whose constituency was most affected by the CZU fire, said he hopes information emerges that will allow the county to remove the potentially harmful language.

“We don’t want to take any action that would potentially hurt our survivors,” said Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson. “The goal is to help them.”

The background


Led by Supervisors McPherson and Ryan Coonerty, the board discussed the CZU Rebuild Directive, aimed at streamlining the rebuild process for fire survivors following continued community concerns at the Aug. 10 meeting.

Yet, at the Tuesday meeting, many community members vocally opposed the new rebuilding plan, which would require a signed covenant that acknowledges the geological hazards — such as soil conditions that could lead to potential debris flow issues — on their property have not been investigated.

After the unanimous vote for the directive, Bradford and other fire families were enraged, especially after sharing their struggles during the public comment and feeling as though the board did not take those concerns seriously.

Julie Lucia, a San Lorenzo Valley resident, said that she and Bradford had reached out to McPherson’s office in advance of the vote to reiterate their concerns, but felt they were not heard. Lucia noted that McPherson’s office stated the directive could not be passed without the covenant, even as they agreed with the concern.

“This is all about liability — there’s already language written into the code that protects the county, so it doesn’t make sense to require the covenant,” Lucia said.

Catherine Wilson, a 77-year-old lung cancer survivor who left her Boulder Brook home last August with just enough for a few days, lost not only her two homes but the largest part of her income through her rental property. Now, she isn’t sure what else she can do with an estimated annual income of less than $20,000.

Antonia Bradford and her family.
The Bradford family.
(Courtesy Antonia Bradford)

“I have just enough to rebuild my residence as it was — I don’t really have any place else to go,” she said. “I think it’s very unwise and unsporting for the county to make this process so difficult.”

Additionally, Bradford expressed disappointment that the board released the directive item only on Friday, leaving many fire families with limited time to prepare and understand what the actual directive was saying about their futures.

“The county is trying to make sure they don’t care about us in any way,” she said. “This is my children’s future, quite literally — why is it that we have to have something on our deed?”

What county leadership says


McPherson acknowledged the fire community’s concerns Friday, and said the board has pledged to continue working on a solution that’s effective for the families.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions, but more are needed,” he said.

McPherson said that the supervisors will be able to better address fire families’ concerns when they receive and review the results of a debris flow study before the Sept. 28 meeting.

“There’s a concern that if we don’t let buyers of these properties know of the potential dangers, we may be liable,” he said. “But we can soften that thought, and we’re working on how that can be done.”

Manu Koenig at a park.
Manu Koenig raised the ire of homeowners at Tuesday’s meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Supervisor Manu Koenig — who addressed the community concerns after the board vote Tuesday in a manner certain fire families called “patronizing” — told Lookout via email: “Most of us down here at 701 Ocean St. know that we need to fix permitting, not only for CZU victims. There are efforts underway to modernize the permitting process through organization, technology and updating county code. Yet, the void left in the room after everyone stormed out on Tuesday, made it clear we need to do more, faster.”

McPherson, meanwhile, said he believes the county must continue its efforts to meet more of the concerns of the homeowners, especially in regard to the covenant.

“We do need input from insurance and legal and real estate interests as to what’s reality if we release the covenant,” he said. “We’re just getting some of that feedback now.”

Fire victims gathering expert input


As fire families await the next board meeting, many have already taken on the work of connecting with insurance agents, realtors and lenders to better understand how this covenant could impact their attempts at rebuilding.

Bradford acknowledged that, of those in the financial sector she’s already spoken to, they believe the covenant is a major problem.

“A home is a home, but it’s also an investment,” she said. “It’s unfair for [the board] to neglect that aspect in their decision-making.”

Lucia, whose insurance will run out by April 2022, prays that the results of the debris flow study will relieve many families from that burden and encourage the county to loosen its geological restrictions. Yet, even if the evidence is unhelpful, she aims to return to her land, permit or not.

“For years, the planning department has had the reputation of making things so difficult,” she said. “Their actions are only going to promote unpermitted homes in the valley.”

Wilson put it plainly: “Do you want me to live in a tent on my land illegally, or down by the levee?”

We want to hear from you: What is the fair thing to happen for homeowners in the Santa Cruz Mountains who are having to rebuild? Send an email to news@lookoutlocal.com.