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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Property Owners Criticize New Hillside Fire Requirements

• Water Flow Increases Are Required

BY BILL KOENEKER


Frustrated homeowners, who are trying to build hillside homes, came to the Malibu City Council chambers this week to complain about the new fire department rules that would require many of them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or in several cases a million dollars to make improvements to the aging water system in order for them to get building permits.
The fire department contends the water flow through the aging pipes of Waterworks District 29 must meet a certain “fire flow” rate and if it does not, in most cases it is lower than the standard threshold, it is up to the builders to mitigate the matter.
When they go to the water district they are told how they can increase that flow either by constructing larger water mains or paying for water storage tanks to increase gravity flow to garner fire department approval for a building permit.
In the past, the critics say the fire department allowed homeowners to place water storage tanks on their own property in order to provide some modicum of fire protection during the all-to- certain event of a wildfire.
John Whiffen said he bought a lot in Encinal Canyon and last year submitted his plans to the fire department, He was told he would have to spend nearly $1 million to increase the water flow. “I'm asking the council to develop a water plan. We need an urgency ordinance and need to set up an assessment district,” he said.
Not one of the critics argued that the improvements are not needed. The biggest complaint was that the burden of improving the water district infrastructure is being placed on the backs of only the new homebuilders and not everyone, who would benefit from the improvements.
Local contractor Richard Sherman said there are about 50 projects and they are not just in Malibu. “The way they are trying to do it won’t work,” he said.
Engineer Norm Haynie said an assessment district is appropriate. “Waterworks District 29 has failed to provide water flow. It has violated the law by not doing that. They say they have no money. They say they have no plan. That is ridiculous,” he added.
Haynie suggested an interim measure would be to allow storage tanks on the home owners' property. “What is safer a storage tank with water or an empty pipeline?” he said.
Don Schmitz, a land use consultant, who said he was representing the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, stated the current situation amounted to a de facto building moratorium. “There was no legislative act. It is unjust. It is not legally defensible. The chamber is concerned about the change of policy and recommends implementation of an urgency ordinance and a policy that allows for onsite water storage,” he said.
“This is a serious situation,” agreed local architect Mike Barsocchini. “They are having each individual upgrade the water system.”
Realtor Paul Grisanti said as a member on the city's public works commission, he knows the panel has been “agitating for more stored water for years.”
“Waterworks District 29 has thrown their hands up. We need a plan. Remodel permits are the same problem. It is not just new people. We need to have more water available,” he said.
There were others who spoke. A retired fire captain who said he was trying to build his dream house in Malibu Park; a fire rebuild on Las Flores Mesa; An applicant on Malibu Knolls. Some said they have already spent thousands and thousands of dollars for plans and permits then were stopped in mid-track when they confronted the fire department regulations.
Council members said they could not talk about it since the issue was not on the agenda.
The fire department critics were allowed to speak under an agenda item about the council approving the updated developer fee program for the benefit of the consolidated fire protection district of Los Angeles County.
The fees can only be used “to address fire protection and emergency medical service requirements within the city and the fire district that result from urban expansion and new development.”
Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich wanted to know how the city would benefit from the program since no new development since no new development of fire stations or other capital improvements were planned for Malibu.
Councilmember Jefferson Wagner made the argument that any new stations built in Agoura would help Malibu, since most of the wildfires start in the 101 corridor, or those stations can be used when the other stations or staging areas in Malibu are in harm’s way during a wildfire.
“By building a station at Kanan and the 101, that benefits us,” Wagner said.
Without being able to address the speakers before them, the council unanimously approved the updated developer fee program and vowed to get the water flow issue on the agenda at a future meeting.

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