Helping Rebuilding Homeowners & Leaf Blower Ban Topics of Monday’s Ventura City Council Meeting

By Kevin Harris

The Ventura City Council took a first step in routing extra resources and easing regulations for those recovering from recent fires, and continued the local leaf blower ban at Monday’s City Council meeting. 

Staff Recommendations for Thomas Fire Recovery Action Plan

Based on audience attendance, the clear event of the evening at Monday’s City Council meeting was Formal Item 11, where the Council reviewed staff’s recommendations for additional resources and the easing of some building regulations for those recovering from the recent fires. The initial presentation was given by Community Development Director, Jeffrey Lambert, with input from Fire Chief David Endaya, City Attorney Gregory Diaz, and other staff members as needed. 

Some of the primary issues and concerns between the city and its rebuilding residents appear to be timeliness of services; temporary housing and RV parking during the transition; Design/architecture changes of the rebuilt homes (zoning regs); and building permit fees. 

Like many Council meetings that deal with complex issues, Monday’s meeting was at times disorganized and droned on for perhaps longer than it should have, but in the end progress was made. As the Council prepared to vote on Item 11, Council Member Mike Tracy read off an extensive list of staff recommendations, and how the Council was going to handle and proceed further on each one. No one outside of the Council had the list he read from.

But some highlights of staff’s recommendations include allowing homeowners a 10% variance with their rebuilt home designs, including square footage (from their original home plans). But this variance does not apply to the height of the home – a topic of considerable interest with both the Council and audience members. At issue are hillside views. Those rebuilding want to build higher for improved views, potentially obstructing the views of existing properties. After some discussion, the Council chose to limit home heights to previous levels, for the time being. 

Another issue discussed was building permit fees. While the city waived many fees for homeowners, not all fees could be passed on to the city for rebuilt homes. Even for the basic fees, the estimated cost for a 3000 sq. ft. home will still cost the rebuilding homeowner $9,000 – $10,000, though the Council believes the homeowner’s insurance policies will pay for most, if not all of those fees. 

When a staff member was asked to clarify some of the specific, basic building fees, she was able to rattle them off by memory: Plan Check Fee; Plan Checks for Planning Department/Fire Department/Land Development Department; Technology Fee. 

Restrictions against RVs and permanently towable trailers are also to be relaxed in the affected areas, and a temporary housing permit will be available for one RV per lot during and before construction. On-street parking is still not permitted, and these permits will be good for 18 months.  

During the first Council Q&A session, Council Member Christy Weir asked staff if the zoning benefits will apply to people buying the vacant lots from previous homeowners. The answer is, yes, as long as the new buyer rebuilds within three years. The three year rule applies to all rebuilding Ventura fire victims. 

Council Member Christy Weir

Deputy Mayor Matt LaVere was particularly concerned about the permit fees for homeowners. “I get the premise of the fees. If people have insurance, they’ll pay it, so why not charge it? But what about those instances where someone doesn’t have insurance?,” LaVere asked city staff. 

“Pretty soon they’re having to decide between paying ten thousand dollars towards permits, or ten thousand dollars towards actually rebuilding their homes. That’s a terrible predicament to put the public in. Is there anything we can put in place that avoids a situation like that,?” LaVere added. 

Jeffrey Lambert responded by saying that they have not heard of any such cases where a homeowner was not reimbursed for building fees, so he sees no need for the city to waive them. Further staff discussion on the fees revealed that Ventura has accrued approximately five million dollars in total expenses from the Thompson Fire without having to waive the basic permit fees, and that waiving those fees would mean having to reduce services to residents somewhere else. 

During the Public Speakers period, many audience members spoke (3-minute increments), though quite a few speakers were “industry” reps, some of whom spoke solely to praise staff or Council for their handling of the zoning issues. But following is a sampling of the others:

Dan Ellison:  Lost his home in the fire. He said he thought the 10 per cent variance was “a tad low,” and that he would rather see 15 per cent leeway in the new building restrictions, along with more height allowances. 

David Hurst:  Said he was fine with the 10 per cent wiggle room, but had issues elsewhere. “I don’t want to sound churlish. But listening to staff presentation, when it says you’re giving us a benefit? What would have been a benefit to me and my neighbors – I live a hundred feet from a fire hydrant. It would have been a benefit if there was some water coming out of it when we needed it!” (audience applause)

David Hurst

James Mira:  Local private contractor. Pleaded with the Council to reconsider the excessive fees they’re charging homeowners who opt to use private contractors to rebuild. (Staff later responded by suggesting they could review their policy on this to see if they can lower these fees, and if possible, they will.)

Kathy Krohl:  Lost her house in the fire. She asked the Council what they plan on doing to 1) prioritize residents who rebuild over investors, and 2) to reduce permit fees. 

Jaycus Talby:  Lost his home in the fire, family of six. Said that after the fire, he had several agencies trying to find him a place to rent, but he experienced price gouging with home rentals. 

“It was very frustrating and hard for us. But one source that did prove to be a huge asset  was the short term rental/vacation rentals. It’s definitely an asset that you guys should know about.” 

As the Council made its final comments and prepared to vote on the issue, Council Member Tracy read off the motions from his proprietary sheet. The Council then voted, largely in favor of staff’s recommendations, with Deputy Mayor LaVere voting against. He wants a reduction or a waiver of building permit fees. 

The vote directs staff to return on February 26, 2018, with an ordinance to reflect direction provided by the City Council. 

Leaf Blower Ban

Formal Item 10 saw the Council considering whether or not to continue the local leaf blower ban, passed as an emergency health measure on December 17, 2017. The ban’s purpose was to prevent the further spread of ash from the Thomas Fire. Initially, staff suggested the ban was needed until a significant rain event occurred, one of which took place on January 8, 2018, and staff appeared poised to lift the ban. 

After the initial presentation, given by City Attorney Gregory Diaz, the Council had a question and answer period. Council Member Nasarenko commented that Ventura is still under a “Public Health Emergency” designation, and that the debris removal from toxic sites officially began just days earlier. 

Mayor Neal Andrews also commented on the current environment. “I can tell you that the toxins, the ash, the soot — still are out there. I can tell you that for sure,” Andrews said.

Council Member Weir also believes that lifting the ban would be premature. “I live in the burn area, and the ash is not gone. Even with the rain, we’re vacuuming every day. And the neighbors in our particular neighborhood are happy about the ban, because it does add to the airborne particles, even after the rains,” she said. 

Council Member Tracy, however, saw things differently. “I would suspect that we get a lot more ash from wind and from vehicular travel, and we’re not restricting travel on any of our streets. We can’t do anything about the wind,” he told staff and Council Members. 

“I do think this is a bit of a burden on a particular group of people in the community — the landscapers and maintenance folks… So if there was specific evidence this was going to make a difference, I would support this. But based on my own personal experience, and the information we have before us tonight, I wouldn’t support maintaining the ban,” he added. 

Council Member Mike Tracy

Council Member Cheryl Heitman, after asking if there were any public speakers on the issue (there were none), also expressed her views, siding with caution. “I’m in favor of continuing the temporary ban. I think there’s enough questions here. I think it’s important we do everything we can to protect the public safety of our residents,” she said. 

Deputy Mayor LaVere’s comments were in line with Heitman’s and most of his fellow Council Members, as he also supports maintaining the ban for now. 

The vote to maintain the leaf blower ban passed, with Deputy Mayor LaVere, and Council Member Jim Monahan, voting against. 

The next City Council Meeting will be Monday, February 12, 2018, at 6:00 P.M.

You can watch this and other past meetings by going to www.cityofventura.ca.gov, then clicking on the “Videos” button, and going to the “available archives” section, where the video can be watched or downloaded.

 

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks. 


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