Dear Mayor Jones,
The Redding Planning Commission members seriously overreached their role and also breached the General Plan in approving Sierra Pacific Industries’ massive, 440-home Salt Creek Heights subdivision as currently proposed. Ignoring greenway policies in place since the 1970s was unprecedented. Ignoring recommendations from our Fire Marshall is unwise. Unless stopped by City Council, a legal precedent is set for developers in the future. This subdivision is well planned in many aspects, and my issue is not trying to stop the project but to make it safe, bring it into compliance, and lessen the environmental impact in a reasonable manner. Then it will be a development many more of us can support.
I began my involvement with an interest in defending public safety and the ecosystem of pristine Salt Creek and its canyon, home to an unusually diverse plant community with 237 identified species. Eighty percent of the canyon side will be forever altered due to wholesale vegetation removal in an effort to reduce — not eliminate — the threat of wildfire. However, half of that devastation is caused from just 11 outlying lots. This is not justifiable.
Subsequently I found out in the staff report that these lots are in complete conflict with Redding’s General Plan and Greenway Policy. They exceed allowable distances from the main subdivision footprint, cause excessive grading and fill for wide, 500- to 600-foot-long driveways, and many lots barely meet the 20 percent allowable slope baseline — and then only through extensive grading. Some of these outlying houses will be seen from the Sacramento River Trail.
Because of the Commission’s actions, your decision on this subdivision now has much broader implications. Your decision needs to protect public safety, the public process, taxpayer purse strings, preserve the General Plan and Greenway Policy. In addition, it needs to prevent City liability from lawsuits due to damages resulting from allowing these eleven homes to be built on outpads on dangerous sites where your Fire Marshall stated on record that he will not send crews to defend.
1. Sierra Pacific’s entire proposed development is in a high fire danger zone and it knowingly placed eleven outlying home sites in a protected greenway, which violates planning restrictions limiting the length of driveways, limiting amount of grading, limiting placement of houses away from the compact subdivision core, and limiting the terrain to under 20 percent slope. The excellent staff report on this project makes it clear that these outpads are not allowed. The report recommends allowing five because they are less egregious in placement. In the Commission meeting, Doug DeMallie said that if anything, staff can be seen as having been too accommodating by allowing five of the 11 lots because the restrictions apply to all.
It is not the government’s responsibility to ensure that Sierra Pacific makes a maximum windfall profit from these 11 outlying lots and in fact, 11 lots could easily be re-sited within the main project footprint.
2. The public process: the Planning Commission allowed Sierra Pacific to introduce significant new information at the hearing on grading, slopes, and a fire study though staff, commissioners, and the public had not been given these studies in advance or at all. Some commissioners received it. Surprisingly, this information was referred to and used in the decision process by Commissioners. The hearing should have been stopped and rescheduled to fully consider this new information and allow rebuttal from staff and/or the public.
3. Redding’s Fire Marshall stated at the hearing that his recommendation was against all these lots, that he would not be able to defend them and wouldn’t place personnel there because they were unsafe. His crews are only two-person teams and with the City’s budget outlook this will be the case well into the future. The proximity of the CDF (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) station and partner agreement means there may be some fire defense available and CDF has four-person crews, so they could more safely send a truck. However, the lack of sufficient numbers of engines in a wildfire event means this is highly unlikely. Each outlying lot would require a crew. The Fire Marshall also stated that his fire trucks could not go up steep driveways. Sierra Pacific said that if they could make them steeper in places, they would not have to cut and fill so much and would be closer to meeting grading guidelines.
4. The Commission, on their own volition, voted to reduce fuel clearance width from 200 feet down to 130 feet. The 200-foot width was based on the high fire danger zone classification of the entire area and the slopes surrounding the main subdivision and outpads. California has a smaller width, which is based on an average of terrains that includes desert and valleys. Commissioners are not fire science experts and have no basis to make this decision. Commissioner Goedert asked Sierra Pacific if their fire study and request to reduce the fuel clearances was based on wildland firefighting strategies or urban, and the answer was wildland. There are entirely different constraints and approaches with defending neighborhoods compared to open wildland landscapes.
5. The Commission overrode the Fire Marshal’s recommendations to disallow all outpads. This creates City liability from any future injury and death and homeowner property loss. The Commission based their decision on a study produced by Sierra Pacific but not reviewed or received by staff, commissioners or the public.
6. Sierra Pacific’s hired fire consultant stated twice that your Fire Marshall pulled his fuel width recommendation out of the air and it’s not based on science. There was no opportunity for rebuttal by the public or staff. Your Fire Marshall explained that he came up with the width from years of experience and that California’s statewide fuel clearance width was a minimum based on various terrains. This entire subdivision is designated as being in a high fire danger zone and it borders on steep canyon slopes, which increases risk. Again, the hearing should have been stopped right then to allow time for review and rebuttal to the reports from Sierra Pacific’s chosen consultant. Since I had already given my testimony, I was unable to comment on their new information. Sierra Pacific’s statement that our Fire Marshall was not basing his recommendation on science is ludicrous. Science and history prove that wildfires are essentially unpredictable due to so many combinations of variables. The only known fact is reduction of risk is possible, elimination of risk is impossible and in a catastrophic wildfire nothing is safe. Time of day of ignition, humidity, winds, crew availability due to fires elsewhere in the entire country – all of these factors and more lead to the Fire Marshall’s prudent and scientific recommendation: 200-foot clearance and no outpads.
7. The Commission decided that if the homeowners couldn’t get fire insurance or get fire protection, it was their own problem. I find that astounding. I believe that if Council approves these home sites, the City will not only be sued but likely be found liable for damages and negligence.
8. The Commission overrode the General Plan and staff’s recommendation to disallow six outpads.
9. Because most of the fuel reduction will be done in the canyon, which currently is unusually pristine and clear of exotic plant invasions, it should be mandated that all initial and future fuel clearing should be done by hand, with no use of herbicides. It should be mandated that all erosion control efforts use native seeds and sterile straw. The 200-foot or 130-foot fuel clearances will have a huge impact on habitat. It exposes slopes to erosion, given the extremely thin soils, and also changes humidity and the types of plant. The first 100 feet would remove up to 95 percent of all vegetation except for trees over 6 feet.
10. Driveways require wide, excessive cuts, fills and grading to bring to acceptable grades for fire truck access. They are very long driveways (over 500 feet) and will cut an unacceptably wide swath in the landscape. This is what the greenway designation is supposed to prevent. A few Commissioners made a point that two of the outpads are already in a disturbed zone because of the power line easement — implying that they are not causing additional environmental harm. It’s true that those lots themselves are in a disturbed area, but the fuel clearing they will cause (a 130-foot perimeter) is largely in undisturbed areas, thus causing additional devastation.
11. Because the economy is so unstable, there should be no grading in the subdivision phases until a phase will soon be in active construction.
12. The Commission discussed advising homeowners, perhaps through the CC&R’s, of their responsibility to take their garbage to the main road (down the 500-foot and 600-foot driveways) and that they will have no reliable fire protection, but did not follow up in any recommendations. Staff stated that trash collection services will probably be offered over time, which would require the addition of a smaller truck just to get up the driveway grades, at increased costs to other ratepayers.
It was an incredible 4-hour meeting. I recommend listening to the audio recording.
Commissioner Goedert made a very articulate defense of good planning, environmental protection, protection of the planning and public process, and protection of the General Plan and Greenway Policy. She asked specific questions of staff and consultants and the Fire Marshall, which made it very clear what was being proposed and voted on. All of her concerns were dismissed. Staff also did an excellent job in their staff report and during the hearing but they were overruled.
Commissioner Smith brought up his concern that in this day and age, a 440-home subdivision should have access to our trail network. I agree. There is a new exciting trail opportunity that can be explored further. After the Planning Commission meeting, I talked with Bill Kuntz, the Bureau of Land Management’s trails person, and asked what is the cost for the “Sweco” trails (so called after the small Sweco bulldozers that cut them) they are putting in all around Redding. These are not paved but built to accessible standards for wide public use. They are narrower, so have less impact on the land and on aesthetics and are also much less costly to construct and maintain. He said costs for a mile and a half of trail in the proposed 100-foot public easement along Salt Creek from HWY 299W to the River Trail would be from $40,000 to $60,000, excluding a bridge. Bridges are running them between $7,000 and $10,000. This cost includes all planning, construction, erosion control, and brush removal.
Because there is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land at the beginning, he said it is very likely that they could partner on a trail and if so, they could use convict crews and another partner, which would bring the cost way down. If they were to do it, he would make a new trail alignment that is safe, with grades that are easily walkable/bikeable. They have strict national accessibility criteria they follow for their trails.
In the Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Smith brought up that a trail from the back of the subdivision to allow access from the 440 homes would be more desirable than putting the $125,000 set aside toward the Buenaventura Trail. Terry Hansen was asked to comment on this possibility and said that he didn’t think it likely that the City Council would want to require a trail from the back of the subdivision down to an illegal trail. However, with the BLM model, these trails can be done differently and economically. I would like you to consider amending the Developer Condition 12d to allow for all or some portion of this pre-agreed $125,000 set aside to be used instead for a connection from the subdivision to a new, safe Salt Creek Trail. Please consider instructing staff to explore this new opportunity.
In summary, Sierra Pacific Industries sited their proposed subdivision in a high risk fire zone, then deliberately placed eleven homes on undefendable outpads in a designated greenway protected by the General Plan. This is costly and threatens the environment, public safety, property, and sets precedence for future challenges to the General Plan and Greenway policy. Staff advised them of this early on. Sierra Pacific representatives figured they could ram all the outpads through and so far, they have. Instead, they should consider being a better neighbor and follow the rules.
I urge you to protect the public trust and consider the array of issues that I and others have raised. Please make this a development that is a true asset for Redding, for Sierra Pacific and for future homeowners. Thank you for your ongoing service to our community.
Melinda Brown is the director of People of Progress. She lives in Redding.