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Maritime chaparral fuels more than fire in Big Sur

A majestic landscape and homes aren’t the only things on fire in Big Sur: Angry local property owners, who have long chafed at the authority of the California Coastal Commission, contend that state rules protecting maritime chaparral have placed homeowners at risk and exacerbated the fire danger.

The commission flatly rejects that assertion, and notes that property owners sometimes insist on building in high-risk areas with protected habitats. But the dispute has gained momentum as locals were forced to flee the fires that raced across the parched hills.

The familiar chaparral–brushy thickets that thrive along the foggy coast between Santa Barbara and southern Mendocino County–is prime fuel for fires. In fact, experts call the chaparral “fire dependent,” which means the shrubbery requires fire over time to keep the species healthy.

But the problem is that the maritime chaparral is designated by coastal regulators as an environmentally sensitive habitat, which means by law it is protected because “it is susceptible to disturbance or degradation by human activities.”

Estimates vary wildly as to how much maritime chaparral is really out there. Long-time locals say people literally trip over the ubiquitous shrub that blankets 1.3 million acres across the state, or more. But others, including an expert from the state Department of Fish and Game and those who have analyzed the issue for the Coastal Commission, believe it is closer to 20,000 acres but that it may appear far more widespread because other varieties of plants are mixed in.

Whatever the acreage, homeowners say the commission’s chaparral-protection rule blocks them from taking even basic precautions against wildfires, such as cutting a defensive perimeter around their homes, or from remodeling or expanding structures on their property.

They also contend that the definitions of precisely what constitutes maritime chaparral are vague, noting that the Coastal Commission staff said in one report that  “the syntaxonomy of maritime chaparral has not been formally studied, hence arguments as to the identity of a particular stand of chaparral as either falling within or without such a category is subject to the vacillation of personal opinion.”

The statement means that “people will have their land effectively condemned based upon the personal opinion of one person, the expert the county or commission requires them to hire to do a biological assessment of their property as part of the permit process. It seems you couldn’t find a more arbitrary and vague system for designating which land is ESHA and therefore essentially unusable,” said Michael Caplin, a member of the homeowners group who has lived in the area since the 1970s.

The commission emphatically denies that its regulations contribute to the fire danger, and notes that the state generally defers to local fire agencies in emergencies on questions of local property protection. But many homeowners who were forced to evacuate and huddle with neighbors aren’t buying that at all: The chaparral, they believe, contributed to the lightning-sparked Big Sur fires, which by press time destroyed 20 homes and charred at least 72,000 acres.

“At the end of the day, this process really falls on the head of some unlucky property owner,” said Lisa Kleissner of Big Sur.

“Even when everybody could see the fire was raging, they said we had to get permits to cut. People didn’t have a choice. They had to get permits. Finally, the firefighters jumped right in, and of course they helped the property owners remove trees. It shouldn’t take a disaster like this to put some sense into the process,” Kleissner said.

Kleissner, a member of the Coastal Property Owners Association of Big Sur, has battled for years with the Coastal Commission, as have others in her group over such things as construction and remodeling, permits and land-use. There is long-standing anger with the Commission, which they see as arrogant, out of control and disengaged from the needs of property owners.

Such views are not uncommon regarding the 36-year-old Commission, the nation’s premier public regulator of coastal property, which routinely makes land-use decisions involving California’s most prized land in a coastal zone that stretches from Mexico to Oregon. The commission’s executive director reports to the commission, not the governor, which provides a level of independence and self-assurance to the staff that often grates on those who appear before the 12-member panel.   

On June 27, The Pine Cone newspaper in Carmel, often critical of the Coastal Commission, noted in an editorial that the chaparral was widespread throughout the region and that the fires “destroyed in an hour or two more maritime chaparral than all the residents of Big Sur could clear if they worked for 100 years. Unfortunately, if the Coastal Commission persists in protecting maritime chaparral from being cleared, it also won’t be long before a lot more homes go up in smoke.”

The editorial in The Pine Cone struck a chord with some local property owners, who say the chaparral is ubiquitous in the region. But it also struck a chord with the Commission.

“The central message here for us is that the maritime chaparral, like the San Diego coast sage shrub, are not just fire-prone, they are fire-dependent. They have evolved over a millenium to require fire to regenerate. They have to burn, they will burn,” said Coast Commission spokeswoman Sarah Christie.

“When people build in those kinds of habitats, you have to expect that there are going to be wildfires. When a wildfire is raging out of control, it’s not reasonable to expect that you would be able to clear enough vegetation from around your house to keep it from harm’s way. People are emotional distressed and they are looking to lash out. Those fires were caused by natural forces. The Coastal Commission can’t control the lightning.”

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