Property Owners Seek Dialogue About MOFD Firebreak Ordinance


    The Moraga Orinda Fire District (MOFD) recently passed Ordinance 23-08, adopted a month after its introduction, which repeals a similar law from February, leaving some property owners confused about the change and upset that it was approved so quickly without more time for community input.
    “I don’t disagree that it was a rapid process,” said MOFD Chief Winnacker. “But the new ordinance was in response to a threat of litigation over which we had no control.”
    The complaint about the February ordinance questioned the district’s fuel break size extension to 100 feet on properties of more than an acre and in areas of natural wildlife habitat. In 2022, the fuel break size requirement was 30 feet.
    The August 2 threat of litigation came from North Orinda property owner Anita Pearson and her daughter, Sandy. In a complaint to MOFD through their attorneys, the Pearsons claimed MOFD did not procedurally comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or show the ordinance to be exempt from CEQA before adopting it in February.
    The new ordinance doesn’t address the Pearsons’ objection to the 100-foot fuel break size. “Our primary objection to the ordinances is that people are required to devastate natural areas for no fire protection benefit,” said Sandy Pearson.
    The substantive change to the February ordinance, said Winnacker, was the addition of “two minor amendments” which more clearly explain the CEQA exemption.
    The first excludes parcels from fuel break requirements that aren’t in or adjacent to a community at risk or that do not include, nor are adjacent, to a habitable structure.
    “The second change is that separated plantings of non-irrigated brush may now be retained. In this way the ordinance is less restrictive,” said Winnacker, who added this is “not a new concept” but a “minor tweaking, primarily administratively, in response to the threat of litigation.”
    Eight pages longer than the February iteration, the update outlines wildfire risk factors in the district and explains the CEQA exemption. The environmental concerns section states fuel break requirements “shall not impact any environmental resources or hazardous or critical concerns where previously mapped.” It stresses avoiding “the taking of endangered, rare, or threatened plant or animal species; significant erosion and sedimentation of surface waters; and the removal of healthy, mature, scenic trees.”
    Winnacker said dead, dying or diseased trees must be removed, but “there’s nothing requiring the removal of healthy and mature trees.”
    The ordinance also states that multiple contiguous affected parcels, owned by the same person, may be treated as a single parcel upon request.
    Many residents seek more detail about what can stay and what must be removed. Miller requested more attention to other aspects including the removal of unirrigated plants.
    “We want to make our community fire safe, but we have to balance concerns such as the very minimal water resources and the fact that removing unirrigated vegetation from hills can lead to landslides,” she said.
    Orinda resident Barbara Leitner, a plant ecologist and environmental consultant, worries residents may clear more vegetation than necessary.
    “People want to do the right thing, but we have to discuss risks and tradeoffs,” she said.
    According to Leitner, removing too much vegetation can cause the spread of invasive species like French broom and invasive weeds can be introduced or spread by human activity.
    “Seeds can cling directly to equipment or workers’ clothing or may be incorporated into soil carried from site to site on tires, equipment and footwear,” she said. 
    Sandy Pearson said, “home hardening and defensible space around structures is more important than fuel breaks; that’s what most other jurisdictions start with.” She referred to the Ecologically Sound Practices Partnership of Marin County as an example.
    On a case-by-case basis, Orinda property owners may be eligible for exceptions, which MOFD refers to as modifications.
    In response to questions from community members, Chief Winnacker pointed to the Resident Guide to Environmental Best Practices on the district’s website, which describes several protected species of plants and animals. That guide, along with Annual Abatement Requirements and FAQs, can help residents complete Modification or Extension Request forms.
    Pearson suggested MOFD help property owners understand possible modifications.
    “I want them to create a brochure with pictures showing, ‘this vegetation is OK and this must be cleared,’” she said.
    Pearson, Miller and Leitner called for joint meetings between the Cities of Orinda and Moraga, the MOFD board and the public to discuss this and other proposed amendments or ordinances.
    Winnacker recommends public outreach to increase attendance. He said, “We’re happy to hold more meetings to inform the public.”

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