An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported how landowners would be charged a new $150 state levy to help cover the cost of fighting wildfires. Landowners would be charged that amount per “habitable structure,” not per parcel.
A legislative proposal that would impose a $150 fire-prevention fee on people who live in rural areas is drawing ire from elected officials from rural counties, who consider it double taxation.
The concerns expressed by San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham and Central Coast state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, however, might have little practical effect: Gov. Jerry Brown has signed the legislation into law.
Under the bill Brown signed Friday, rural homeowners will pay $150 per “habitable structure.” The fee aims to defray the costs of wildfires, and in essence is telling people that if they want to live in rural areas then they should pay more for fire protection.
Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, called the bill “a classic bait-and-switch scheme.”
“Many folks who are living in rural areas near Cambria, Nipomo, and Avila (Beach) are already paying for Cal Fire contracted services through their property taxes, and now must pay an additional tax for the same level of fire services,” he wrote.
Blakeslee said the legislation is both flawed and disingenuous.
It seeks to raise $50 million for Cal Fire expenses, Blakeslee wrote in an email to The Tribune, but Cal Fire loses $50 million in another part of what he described as a “badly cobbled together” budget.
“The fee is being sold as holding homeowners accountable for additional fire protections in high-risk areas,” he wrote, “when in reality it is balancing the state’s books by unfairly double-taxing select homeowners while providing no additional services or protections.”
The particulars of the plan — how the state would administer the fee and how it would affect San Luis Obispo County — remain vague, and Mecham on Tuesday asked the county staff to look into it.
“It bothers me,” Mecham said of the legislation, adding, however, that there may be “nothing we can do.”
Blakeslee is not so sure that the county’s hands are tied.
“It’s most likely illegal,” Blakeslee said of the bill. “It’s very probable that the courts will side with taxpayers who are bringing forth lawsuits that will challenge the constitutionality.”
County planning departments have some control over what is built and under what conditions in rural parts of the county.
“Minimum parcel size is partially based on fire hazard and response time,” according to Kami Griffin, assistant director of the county Planning and Building Department.
The higher the fire hazard and the longer the response time, the larger the minimum parcel size becomes, she wrote in an email. “Lessening the number of new parcels that are allowed also lessens the density in that area.
“Building codes also require additional protections in high fire areas,” Griffin added. “But other than that we don’t have policies or regulations that limit or don’t allow construction based on fire hazard.”
County Fire Chief Rob Lewin told The Tribune the bill affects land outside city limits and national forest boundaries. It affects 850,000 structures statewide, according to The Associated Press.
California has spent an average of $177 million a year on firefighting over the past decade, The Associated Press reported.
In his signing message, Brown said the bill “recognizes that a portion of the costs borne by the state for wildland fire prevention and protection services should be funded by the landowners in these areas.”