Inmate firefighters
A charred area of Boulder Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Your responsibility, your duty’: Board makes covenant tweaks; homeowners, realty experts still concerned

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors evaluated the findings from the Atkins Debris Flow-Flood Hazard study, addressing how the findings could affect the CZU Rebuild Directive as presented on Sept. 14 and the options for CZU families in the rebuilding process.

Part of the allure of living in the Santa Cruz Mountains has always been the topography. Yet for homeowners who lost their homes in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, the finer geological details of the terrain and its correlating potential for debris flow have led to exacerbated rebuilding challenges.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Bruce McPherson led the discussion in tandem with the County Planning Department to evaluate the findings of an independent study addressing the hazard zones in the area and providing data that could mitigate risks for future builds.

The results of the report, conducted by the Atkins Engineering group, led to the board making small amendments to the proposed covenant language — if not enough to make many homeowners, or realtors, brokers and lenders, feel any better.

“The fire community needs help and they do need it quickly, but rushing into a flawed solution would cause more harm than good,” Boulder Creek property owner Alison Breeze told the board. “Our welfare is your responsibility and your duty.”

Community members, who got a first look at the report only Friday, called for further discussion, and supervisors seemed to leave the door open for more: “We need to make adjustments,” McPherson said.

Genesis of the report

In June, the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County authorized $200,000 to fund the Atkins group to study the area and provide further context to the hazard area mapping. The Atkins group submitted their findings to the county Thursday.

Lead investigator Linda Potter said that post-burn risks differed across the zone, with regards to debris flow, flooding and landslides. The study found both a primary debris flow path and an uncertain debris flow path, which reduced the number of structures originally believed to be in debris flow hazard zones by about 20%. In turn, this might reduce the scope and cost for additional geologic reports, she said, or make elimination of the requirement feasible.

County Senior Civil Engineer Carolyn Burke expanded on this, noting a broadly defined debris flow hazard area that delayed the start of many CZU rebuilds. To ease homeowners’ frustrations, the Watershed Emergency Response Team and the county geologic staff readdressed the findings, identifying more specific potential hazard areas and providing further feedback for where rebuilding could proceed.

As Burke said, “early mapping did not differentiate between risk levels within debris flow hazard areas,” which resulted in an undetermined level of risk for rebuilding in these areas.

What the Atkins team found

From the Atkins study, Potter said that families are cleared to rebuild if they are outside the Atkins primary and uncertain debris flow path and there are no other geologic hazards on the site. Families who sign a covenant — as approved at the Sept. 14 meeting — can rebuild without a geology report, and will adhere to the previously “unknown” level of risk in the covenant.

As of Sept. 17, 204 building sites for permanent homes have received clearance, with 45 sites needing site-specific evaluation. Based on county data, only 18% of geologic clearances have resulted in the need for geologic reports.

What about the covenant?

One of the major concerns from the most recent board meeting was in relation to the proposed covenant, which would require property owners to assume the risk of rebuilding their properties without geologic hazard evaluation.

“For the past 25 years, a declaration of geologic hazards has routinely been recorded on titles as a condition of approval for building in an area subject to geologic hazards,” Burke said. “To date, we have not been made aware of any significant hardship of having this documentation written on title.”

Still, she said, the planning department is addressing those concerns by narrowing the description of potential hazards based on the Atkins report as well as simplifying the documentation process.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all document for every property,” Burke said.

Community voices displeasure

At Tuesday’s meeting, nearly 20 Santa Cruz County residents — CZU fire survivors, realtors, brokers, lenders and other community members — shared their continued concerns over the updates from the board.

Becky Steinberger, a resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, was not affected by the fire last fall, but aimed to remind the board of what the future could hold.

“What happens here today, can happen to any of us in the mountains,” she said.

San Lorenzo Valley resident Antonia Bradford implored the board to delay its vote on the Atkins study findings related to the covenant, and establish a panel to assess the findings in greater depth over the coming two weeks.

“We need to work together in a transparent and honest way, because thus far it’s been very one-sided,” she said. “Our community, not just fire victims, insists the county does right by us. We just want to rebuild our homes, and hopefully we are getting closer to doing just that.”

M.C. Dwyer of eXp Realty — one of a half-dozen real estate agents and brokers who shared their findings on the covenant at the meeting — expressed her feelings on the covenant both as someone in real estate and a fire survivor.

“As it was written, the covenant would have been devastating,” she said. She noted that homeowners who rebuilt would have been unlikely to receive refinancing, could have lost their loan payments and been put in default, and even foreclosed on.

Following public comment, Supervisor Ryan Coonerty addressed the need to focus on the health and safety of residents now and in the future. He recommended that the Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience and the county planning department continue community outreach on the CZU Rebuild Directive with a standard directive instead of a drafted covenant, and offering additional options outside of the covenant to permittees.

The board voted unanimously on the revisions, which will keep the covenant intact.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide relief for our survivors and our actions haven’t been that successful to date,” said McPherson. “We need to make adjustments.”