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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fire Code and County Water District Policy Takes Center Stage

• Regulations Have Effect of De Facto Building Moratorium for Those without Adequate Fire Flow

BY BILL KOENEKER

The fire department and Water Works District 29 policies discussed at the Malibu City Council meeting this week appear to have far reaching consequences for future builders in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains.
However, the focus Monday night was placed on 18 property owners within the city who are eligible for permit issuance with the exception of the final fire department and water district approval, according to city officials.
Malibu’s Building Official Craig George said all of the projects had been issued initial fire department approval to proceed through the entitlement process with the city’s planning department. Projects obtained plans from the fire department for grading for access but when the projects were submitted, final building plans for approval by the fire department were denied.
“These denials were based on the new policy requirements to provide the required fire flow rate from the existing water supply infrastructure,” said George, who went on to say the current policy from the fire department is “to require a flow test on existing fire hydrants or to require the installation of a fire hydrant meeting the requirements of the county’s fire code.”
George indicated the fire department is no longer allowing alternative methods of water supply, including wells and private water storage tanks for new construction.
But a somewhat bewildered council heard from Acting Deputy Chief Roy Dull, of the fire prevention bureau, who said “We have not made a policy change. We looked at the past practices and they are not consistent with the fire code. We cannot circumvent the fire code.”
The chief went on to state that if the water district says they cannot serve the property, then the fire department can consider an alterative method.
The council also heard from a water district official who discussed the entire aging water system in Malibu and explained it would take millions of dollars to upgrade the system.
He reiterated what was written in a policy letter about water service and fire protection to new single-family residences within the Santa Monica Mountains. The district will not serve a project site if it is located at an elevation higher than the existing district tank elevation or at a distance of more than 2000 feet.
The council then heard from permit expeditors, builders and property owners about their particular situation.
Some property owners said the current policy would require infrastructure improvements costing millions of dollars.
Some said they were ready to give up the lots they bought because they were not worth the amount of money it would cost them to improve the parcel.
After listening to the litany of complaints, council members were ready to speak.
“We do have a de facto moratorium. Do we have the authority to overrule this?” asked Councilmember Lou La Monte.
City Attorney Christi Hogin said the city has the obligation to adopt the fire code. “Everybody should be able to make reasonable use of their property,” she said.
Each of the council members queried the fire and water district officials.
When the dust settled the council decided to take action and agreed to send a letter to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky trying to secure a place for the 18 applicants in the pipeline and seek other conditions.
Yaroslavsky’s motion was approved by the supervisors Tuesday morning by consent, according to his office.
The motion instructs the director of public works to prepare a water system master plan for district 29 to provide a comprehensive long-range capital improvement plan “that will meet the existing and future domestic and fire protection water demand of the district.”
Identify funding mechanisms to allow the recommended improvements in the master plan and actively seek a partnership with the City of Malibu.
Within 21 days, the public works head report back to the board and the city with an estimated timeframe for the completion of tasks.
Within the motion was this message. “Unfortunately, even as this work to create responsible solutions begins, a few development consultants and permit expeditors have separately sought to allow their clients’ proposed projects to be built without complying with the water supply requirements mandated by the fire code. This is not a legally viable option. In fact, under state law no local government may adopt standards that are less protective of public health and safety than the state’s minimum building requirements.
Accordingly, and rightly, the county and the Malibu City Council have each adopted these fire code requirements. Now both jurisdictions should work to ensure that these requirements are enforced,” the motion states.

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