Opinion: Village Matters

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Defend and Protect, Save Our Landscapes.

ann christoph

By Ann Christoph

Yes, we should have space around our homes and community where firefighters can defend us from fire. But defensible space as presently defined by the Fire Department is much more than that—so much more that its requirements will impact how we live in our homes and enjoy our gardens.

The proposed Defensible Space Guideline ordinance will be up for final adoption on the council’s Oct. 5 agenda. Speak up now or face big changes to your own landscaping and the greenery and trees in our whole community.

Defensible space enforcement by a fire department inspector will take place in response to neighbor complaints and whenever a property is sold. Imagine the disappointment of a buyer who falls in love with a beautiful Laguna home, its landscape setting, and its beautiful trees—only to find out during escrow that the landscape and trees were going to be drastically reduced to pass fire department inspection. What about the financial impact on the seller and Realtor if the sale is not consummated? Or the impact to the neighborhood if the requirements are implemented?

What are those defensible space requirements? The fire department divides the space around homes into zones five feet, 30 feet, and 100 feet away. The ordinance will allow no trees in the five-foot wide zone immediately surrounding a home. Since most residents’ side yards are less than five-foot wide no trees at all could be there. The edges of the canopy of a tree cannot be closer than six feet from the house. Most tree canopies are 15 feet or more in diameter so there would be minimal area available for trees in the front and rear yards of many residential lots.  Hedges would be problematic too—any shrub over 6 feet tall would have to be pruned up to four feet from the ground, and those under windows couldn’t be over 18 inches high. Within 30 feet of the house trees are to be pruned to reduce the canopy by 30%, and shrubs reduced by 50%. The whole rest of the area within a 100-foot distance from the house would have similar requirements except that shrubs would be reduced to 60%.

Envision your home garden or your neighborhood with this much plant removal and pruning.

AB 38, the state legislation that is spurring this enforcement of defensible space distinguishes between programs for “wildlands vegetation management” and urban vegetation management”. Yet the Fire Department tries to adapt requirements that are designed for “wildlands vegetation management” instead of applying alternative rules for the urban situation.   

AB 38 provides that “urban vegetation management” is coupled with state grant funding for hardening of buildings to increase their resistance to wildfires. The state has allocated $100 million for grants to assist homeowners in installing fire protective retrofits according to Paul Ramey who assisted in writing AB 38. In emphasizing the benefits of building hardening he said he had “Often seen green trees left standing even though the house burned to the ground. It’s not a wall of flame that gets to a house, it’s the flying embers.” Embers can ignite an unhardened home—one with unprotected vents, wood roofs and decks, and litter on gutters.  The moisture in leaves of healthy trees can extinguish embers.

Many of the requirements in the ordinance are reasonable and beneficial—removing dead wood, dead plants, wood piles, providing safety zones around propane tanks.  We need to support those recommendations and limit the proposed controls on living plants. Irrigated maintained trees and gardens are not a hazard.

Instead of trying to modify the state program designed for the wildlands to suit our urban situation we need to design a program that addresses our small lots, the benefits of tree shading and cooling, the effect of irrigation in reducing susceptibility to fire, and how the significant fire protections of home hardening solutions can outweigh the requirement for living plant removals.

Ann is a landscape architect, long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc., and a co-author of the city-adopted Landscape and Scenic Highways Element and Resource Document. See the appendix on fire research beginning on page 96 of the Element.

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