Sal Casamassima has a
story that makes Rep. Duncan Hunter look like one smart
In fact, Casamassima could be a poster boy for the
Alpine congressman's latest complaint that environmental
regulations make it hard – that is, expensive or a
regulatory nightmare – for some San Diegans to keep
fire-prone brush cleared from around their homes.
It would be easy to dismiss Hunter's complaint as just
another conservative rant, or to buy some Democrat's
argument that he wants an excuse to bad-mouth laws that
stifle the moneymaking plans of earth-scorching,
But apparently there really are people out there, such
as Casamassima, who can put a face to Hunter's gripe.
Casamassima is active in the Palo Verde Fire Safe
Council, which encompasses about 350 homes in the
communities of Rancho Palo Verde and Palo Verde Ranch.
These two ranches comprise more than 1,000 acres and lie
along the eastern flank of Alpine. The Cleveland National
Forest borders much of this land to the east and south.
For the most part, the homes are custom-built and valued
in the $1 million range.
CLEARING THE BRUSH
After the 2003 Cedar fire, the Palo Verde Fire Safe
Council concluded that the area's hilly terrain and
canyons – as well as its large home lots of 2 acres or
more – made it prudent to clear vegetation at least 200
feet from homes to prevent them from catching fire, rather
than the standard 100-foot space the county requires.
But the homes lie within the boundaries of the county's
Multiple Species Conservation Program, created in the late
1990s to preserve open space while making room for
development. Because the program area is home to
endangered species and habitat, clearing brush beyond the
100-foot county requirement caused some headaches.
Property owners applied for federal grants to clear the
second 100-foot stretch of “defensible space.” But because
the council's homes are in the program area, government
grant regulations required that they first get an
environmental and biological review to determine whether
endangered species or habitat might be disturbed by
clearing brush and vegetation from this additional land.
The fire-safe council discovered that retaining a
qualified biologist to conduct property surveys can cost
$5,000 or more, Casamassima said. Meanwhile, the biologist
then must send his or her report to the federal government
for review. It's “a process that can take forever,”
David Hogan, a San Diego-based conservation manager for
the Center for Biological Diversity, sees no problem with
such environmental hurdles.
“It's a sad fact that these fires bring the
anti-environmental zealots out of the woodwork,” Hogan
said. “There isn't any harm in making sure that species
aren't driven extinct in the process of identifying areas
that are important for defensible space. That's not going
to stop the creation of defensible space. It just inserts
a little sanity into the process.”
As it turned out, the fire-safe council's local U.S.
Forest Service ranger station stepped in. Rangers
concluded that because the fire-safe council's homes
adjoined the Cleveland National Forest, the Forest Service
could provide a biologist free of charge.
Then came another snag: The U.S. Bureau of Land
Management told homeowners they couldn't use federal money
to clear brush in preserved areas unless they could be
certain that the Quino checkerspot butterfly didn't live
in the surrounding vegetation. The butterfly is in danger
of extinction because frequent fires burn through its
“This could have delayed us for a year and involved
state agency review,” Casamassima said.
RANGER RESCUE, AGAIN
Again, local Forest Service rangers stepped in. Their
biologist concluded that the terrain surrounding the fire
council homes wasn't butterfly habitat.
“Without the support and intervention by the (Forest
Service) ranger station, our project could have been
delayed indefinitely and impossible to complete,”
Casamassima said. “Federal agencies generally are so
gun-shy that any hint of environmental problems brings out
the obstacle course.”
One wonders where homeowners in similar circumstances
turn if they don't have ranger-station friends.
“Numerous environmental hurdles get in the way of brush
removal,” Casamassima said. “Our (fire-safe council) has
to go through several environmental hoops, and without
help from our local ranger station, we'd still be waiting
Dana Wilkie is a
Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service
and a longtime observer of California politics and