Héctor Hernández | Indefensible Inspections

Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

Defensible space inspections are critical for prevention of wildfires, especially in areas prone to periodic drought conditions like L.A. County, which only recently came out of a years-long, severe drought. So why would the Board of Supervisors and the county Fire Department risk tainting this much-needed public safety function with controversy by funding the cost of those inspections through an ill-advised plan that is sneaky at best and illegal at worst?

In January 2023, about 60,000 property owners received a notice from the Fire Department saying that, for the first time, they would be subject to annual defensible space inspections (basically, brush clearance inspections). In January of this year, 20,000 more property owners — many in Santa Clarita — received the notice for the first time. I was one of them.

I questioned why my home, in a dense urban area, would be subject to brush clearance inspection. Isn’t that for homes in rural areas or abutting forested land? Before I could get an answer, I received a second notice. It was an abatement notice.

The notice explained that the supervisors had passed a resolution on Jan. 9 declaring “hazardous brush, dry grass, weeds, combustible growth or flammable vegetation[,] where growing upon or in front of [my] property[,] . . . to be a potential fire hazard or nuisance . . . which must be removed and the nuisance abated,” but only if the Fire Department verified through later inspection that there was an actual hazard or nuisance. In other words, there MIGHT be a hazard or nuisance, but the Fire Department would need to inspect my property to determine if there was an ACTUAL hazard or nuisance.

This was putting the cart before the horse. Why issue an abatement notice before you knew if an actual hazard or nuisance existed? Logic would dictate the Fire Department should inspect my property first and then, if a hazard or nuisance is found, issue an abatement notice. Reversing this process made no sense. Then I dug into how the department was planning to recover its inspection costs. That’s when I uncovered the county’s ill-advised plan for paying for these inspections.

California Health & Safety Code, Section 14902, allows recovery of various abatement-related costs —including inspection costs — associated with abatement of rubbish and hazardous weeds (“weeds” being a broad term loosely defined in Health & Safety Code, Section 14875). The Fire Department started recovering its inspection costs from property owners beginning in 2022 under the authority of 14902. But there’s a catch. In order to recover inspection costs, there must be an abatement order given by the board. If the Fire Department inspects a property, finds an actual hazard or nuisance, and the board subsequently gives an order to abate that nuisance, the inspection cost can be recovered from the property owner. On the other hand, if the department inspects a property, finds NO actual hazard or nuisance, an abatement order wouldn’t be given (there would be nothing to abate) and that inspection cost couldn’t be recovered, at least not under 14902.

With 20,000 properties scheduled to be added this year to the 112,000 properties already in the defensible space inspection program and the potential that a good chunk of those properties won’t be found to pose a brush hazard or nuisance, the Fire Department was desperate to find a mechanism to guarantee recovery of all their inspection costs. And they found one, but they would need the board’s help. The board would have to agree to issue an abatement order before the department performed inspections. That way, even if an inspection revealed no hazard or nuisance, the cost could still be recovered. At least that’s what the department believes. It’s disturbing that the board would go along with such an ill-advised plan.

And I say ill-advised because the board issued that Jan. 9 resolution knowing it contained false information. Contrary to the restatement of the board’s resolution in the Fire Department’s notice, the actual language in the resolution did not declare a potential fire hazard or nuisance on my property. The resolution, available on the board’s website, simply accepted as fact that an actual hazard or nuisance exists, and the board “declared [it] to be a seasonal recurrent public nuisance which should be abated.” Even more disturbing, the board knew the Fire Department had not yet inspected my property to determine if an actual hazard or nuisance existed. The first inspections aren’t scheduled to start until April 1.

And now the board is on the cusp of ordering abatements to proceed at its next public meeting, knowing full well that there may be nothing to abate on my property or on tens of thousands of other properties falsely identified as having a hazard or nuisance. But as long as the order is given, the Fire Department will seek to recover its inspection costs through assessments to be levied on all properties in the inspection program, even on those properties where inspections fail to reveal hazardous or nuisance vegetation, and they plan to do this every year going forward.

This ill-advised and potentially illegal plan cannot be good governance.

Do I and the other 132,000 affected property owners have any recourse? Yes. On March 12, at 9:30 a.m., the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear objections and/or protests to the abatement notices. That would be a good time for voices to be heard.

Héctor Hernández

Canyon Country

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