Council hearing is anything but routine

The City Council spent the better part of an hour Tuesday on the consequences of using the word "routine" in a proposed ordinance amendment — and then continued the hearing for further clarification.

Council members appeared to be evenly split on whether "routine" gave new power to the Fire Department to clear hazardous brush, despite assurances that it did not from the fire chief, city attorney, a majority of the members of the subcommittee who crafted the amendment and the city manager, who warned that deleting the word could thwart city safety practices.

"This simply allows the city to continue to do what it has done," said Matt Lawson, a member of the Vegetation Management Subcommittee.

The subcommittee of the Disaster Preparedness Committee, or DPC, was appointed to review the proposed ordinance dealing with the protection and restoration of native vegetation from the standpoint of public safety — primarily fuel modification.

"We identified the section on the removal of native vegetation as the DPC's area of legitimate interest," Lawson said. "And we only added eight words (shown in bold) to the section."

"Such approval would not be required for city-approved annual weed abatement or routine fire hazard abatement — vegetation management for fire protection as authorized by the state or local regulations, as needed based on seasonal growing conditions in accordance with the fire chief," according to the proposed wording in the ordinance.

"Adding routine does not improve the proposed ordinance," said Richard Picheny, a member of the subcommittee.

Picheny was the only one of the four subcommittee members who opposed the "r" word. He said he had voted for the proposed language only to get the ordinance before the council. He suggested the entire sentence exempting the Fire Department's "routine" fire hazard abatement be eliminated from the ordinance.

However, City Manager John Pietig said omitting routine and the definition of routine from the ordinance may have unintended consequences.

"You may inadvertently create a conflict in which the existing fuel breaks and fuel modification program doesn't comply with the ordinance," Pietig said. "So it's not that it is going to give the city new powers; it's that in the absence of the words, you have restricted the city's existing ability to conduct the fuel break and the existing fuel modification."

Some fuel modification methods — namely goats munching a swath of defensible space between the wild and developed areas — have been criticized by environmentalists.

The ordinance, as proposed, would allow the fire chief to continue the existing program without going through the design review process to obtain a conditional use permit, proponents said. Any new areas would have to be brought to the Design Review Board for approval of a permit, which once granted would not require annual renewal.

Former Mayor Ann Christoph said the concern is that the fire department could circumvent the permit process.

"The fire department has wanted to exempt anything, basically whatever is ordered by the fire chief." said resident Lisa Marks. "I am concerned about the latitude this language introduces."

Subcommittee members Sue Kempt and David Thorne said the idea of routine maintenance is an important concept, not only for city programs but also for private property owners.

"We need to create a culture of awareness of fire danger in the city," said Kempt.

Landscape architect Scott Sebastian said the goal of awareness was doomed.

"I am guilty of writing what is before you," said Scott Sebastian, landscape architect and member of the defunct Environmental Committee. "I don't think this ordinance will raise awareness — because no one is going to read it."

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