Council delays fire zone vote

NEWPORT BEACH — The City Council on Tuesday decided that a proposed ordinance to formally adopt the state's new Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone Map was too puzzling and needed more public input.

"Right now, even with this discussion, I'm still a little confused," Mayor Nancy Gardner said after a presentation about the maps at the council study session.

About 5,000 Newport Beach homes fall within the state's Very High Fire Hazard Severity Map Zone, which includes homes along Buck Gully and Morning Canyon and stretches from Orchid down to Crystal Cove, with most of Newport Coast also is included.

If the council adopts the maps, homeowners would face more intense scrutiny of fire hazards such as location of woodpiles, tree species, where trees are and how many are clustered together as well as buffer zones for firefighters to access blazes.

New construction also would face stricter regulation, and homeowners would have to disclose to future buyers that their houses fall within the Very High Fire Hazard area.

Many homes already have regular inspection or have been constructed under strict fire codes, said Fire Marshal Ron Gamble in a study session presentation.

But council members, along with members of the public, wanted more information about how the new restrictions would work, including how many additional homes would face landscaping changes and how much live vegetation would have to be removed from smaller lots that had never before faced fire hazard reduction rules.

"How much actual impact on homeowners would we expect coming out of this?" asked Councilman Mike Henn.

Architect Brion Jeannette told the council that he thought an ordinance that required removing live vegetation would conflict with California Coastal Commission regulations.

"You definitely don't touch that vegetation without getting Coastal [Commission] approval," he said. "That has been … one of their most important issues these days. You've put the homeowner in a Catch-22."

The council asked that Gamble work on refining the language of the ordinance, as well as provide maps that show more details about the fire zone.

"All I see is red," said Councilman Rush Hill.

City Manager Dave Kiff, who pulled the item off the consent calendar, said the ordinance needed more public scrutiny.

"It would be my recommendation that we not act on first reading tonight, to let this percolate in the community a little bit more," he said. "I don't want anyone to feel they didn't get notice of this."

Robert Hawkins, a former planning commissioner, applauded Kiff's recommendation.

"I found it appalling that this was set for a consent calendar item," he said, adding that he thought the item should have its own public hearing. "This is going to affect a lot of people in the southern part of our city."

The council will send notices to homeowners associations in the impacted area, as well as possibly send notices to homeowners.

Kiff said the item would be on the council's Feb. 14 agenda.

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