Planning Commission Wading Through Woolsey Rebuild Issues

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Malibu City Hall

With a full plate on its agenda, the City of Malibu Planning Commission met Thursday evening to address the myriad issues concerning the Woolsey Fire and how to facilitate the quickest and easiest way to get Malibu burn victims back into their properties. However, with a multitude of permitting issues, coastal codes and construction steps, it still looks like it will be a long road to recovery for many.

Most of those in attendance—and many on the commission—agreed that in order to ease the daunting task of rebuilding, some of the old, rigid codes would need to be relaxed—although not in terms of safety standards. The first public speaker, Richard Stutsman, urged the city to level with residents.

“City management needs to take a leadership role in helping the residents rebuild,” Stutsman said. “I am asking for some flexibility. I’m not asking for rebuilt structures to escape safety oversight, but I am asking for some flexibility in some rigid codes.” He suggested the city allow innovations, such as using modified shipping containers to house burn-out victims and suggested using city-owned property at Pacific Coast Highway and Heathercliff or the Edison staging site to set up a co-op for building supplies. The Malibu resident brought up what others have also called for: volume buying at a discounted rate that could potentially help save a substantial amount of money for contractors and residents while also limiting pollution-causing truck traffic into the city. He called for only basic building materials to be stocked, such as lumber, cement, nails and sand. Stutzman also implored the commission to work with the county on water flow and loosen fire department driveway requirements—“especially due to the lack of resources we received on Nov. 9.” Driveway requirements are one major sticking point for rebuilds, since some lots are too steep or narrow to construct driveways that meet new, stricter fire codes.

Saying some of these issues are “above their pay grade,” Commissioner Jeff Jennings questioned whether the city could hire its own fire official to make determinations about rebuilds. Developer consultant Don Schmitz said he’s hoping for an expedited process with the California Coastal Commission. He also said—contrary to what the fire department has claimed on record—new homes could be constructed without meeting driveway requirements. 

“I think improvements to an existing single-family home driveway, pursuant to the fire department requirements could, in fact, be exempted—not a waiver as an improvement to a single-family home,” Schmitz said. “Should the fire department require hammer head turnarounds and more on-site water storage, those should also be within the same criteria for waivers as for driveways.”

Resident and developer Norm Haynie also called for waivers to be issued for on-site water storage. “If you have your own water supply with proper training, you can defend your own home,” Haynie argued. “If tanks are not higher than 10 to 12 feet, 20,000 gallons could be stored. Tanks can be built for $50,000 and you maybe get an insurance break.”

Although he did not claim he was opposed to water storage tanks, Commissioner John Mazza had concerns.

“Our purpose here is to do as close to what the CCC will let us do and go as fast as we can to rebuild and not add extraneous stuff,” Mazza said. “With water tanks, you have view issues. It’s not directly related to rebuilding your house as fast as you can. You can come in later. If everybody puts up a water tank, you could have people who don’t want their views blocked.” Jennings said he planned on building a water tank if it could be done without a coastal development permit.

And where relandscaping is concerned, Mazza suggested the commission look at prohibiting what many have called a concern: non-native plants and trees, such as palms. 

“I’m concerned we could rebuild 400 houses that could burn down,” Mazza said. He agreed with a resident’s comment that a city biologist should inspect burned trees, saying, “Anyone can hire an arborist to claim a tree can be saved.” 

Getting temporary power to burn sites was also a topic at the meeting, as residents urged the commission to do what it could to speed the process as electricity is needed for landscape irrigation and pool maintenance at otherwise-burned properties.

As local architect Doug Burdge reminded the commission, most homeowners are insured with a two-year window for temporary housing. “We’re working under a ticking clock,” Burdge said. “Time is of the essence.” 

Additional information

The city planning department is currently processing applications for temporary housing trailers with fire rebuilds getting priority. So far, there are 13 applications for like-to-like rebuilds. Permits from building and safety take longer, due to engineering verifications. Building permits are not issued until properties are cleared of debris. Those interested in temporary housing on cleared properties can go to City Hall for an application. Counter hours at the fire rebuild desk are 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and until 4:30 on Fridays. Lunch breaks are staffed, as well. There are no charges to meet for pre-submittal planning and research meetings. More than 180 public records have been retrieved on behalf of homeowners. One hundred others are still waiting for their site plans and footprints of their structures. A LACo public works representative is now stationed at City Hall from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. through January on a walk-in basis to help fill out debris removal forms. Jan. 24 at the Malibou Lake Clubhouse, a debris removal workshop is scheduled. Cal Recycle’s opt-in deadline date for debris removal in January 28. FEMA and SBA deadlines are January 31.