San Diego Union Tribune

December 3, 2007

Real people, real gripes

Sal Casamassima has a story that makes Rep. Duncan Hunter look like one smart cookie.

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, construction-happy lobbyists.

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.



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,” Casamassima said.



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 habitat.

“This could have delayed us for a year and involved state agency review,” Casamassima said.



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 for approvals.”


 Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.


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