‘Granny flats’ law won’t solve the housing crisis, but it will increase fire hazards

Senate Bill 13, intended to address the housing crisis, simply trades one problem for another due to unintended consequences that are sure to occur if certain aspects of the bill are not addressed before it’s enacted. While we recognize the housing crisis faced by Californians, we cannot solve it if we cannot protect and insure our homes.

Widespread residential development, which adds fuel to wildland and forested areas, combined with a warming climate have made catastrophic wildfires year-long events in California. Fire agencies are already unable to keep pace in populated, vulnerable areas like Lake Tahoe, Northern California and the Sierra foothills. California cannot afford legislation that further reduces fire and life safety.

SB 13 encourages the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), commonly known as granny flats, by eliminating development impact fees. Without these fees, how will our community pay for the equipment, apparatus and facilities needed to serve the people who move into these new units? It can only lead to reduced services and more risk for all.

Granny flats are constructed under reduced building standards and may be at greater risk than traditional homes. It’s reasonable to expect that increased population and property built to lesser standards in high fire areas are likely to worsen the insurance crisis currently plaguing California, making it even more difficult for homebuyers to get fire insurance and for existing policyholders to be able to renew their insurance policies.


All anyone has to do to grasp the flaw in SB 13 is read a recent op-ed in The Sacramento Bee by the bill’s author, Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont. The op-ed lists the obvious benefits of the proposal, yet fails to address how local governments would serve and protect the additional populations these units will bring.

The bill fails to consider the small percentage that most impact fees truly represent in a construction budget. It also fails to recognize that many fire departments, such as our fire protection district in North Tahoe, already have a scalable fee, whereby impact fees have been thoroughly analyzed, are transparent and are proportionate to the additional square footage – or fuel and risk – being added to the forest.

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Images from the North Tahoe Fire Department annual ceremony in Kings Beach, Ca., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum Cathleen Allison Cathleen Allison

Granny flats create more densely populated neighborhoods that add more risk to popular forested and wildland areas that are already high risk. Yet, SB 13 encourages this growth while taking away the one funding mechanism fire agencies have to add the firefighting capability they need to provide that protection. Development impact fees are often the only funding available to meet the demands of additional structures and population.

In popular tourism areas like Lake Tahoe, it is likely and even probable that eliminating development impact fees will also create an incentive for homeowners to add units to their properties that will be used as short-term vacation rentals through companies like Vrbo or Airbnb. SB 13 would essentially become a profit-making tool for landowners that won’t further the bill’s original goal of affordable housing.

We all remember with horror the massive fire that virtually wiped out the town of Paradise last year and killed dozens who could not escape. Here in Lake Tahoe, more than 350 wildfire ignitions were recorded in the past seven years. More than 80 percent of these wildfires were human-caused. Adding unmitigated square footage adds people and will result in more fires with less fire protection.

The Fire Districts Association of California, the California Special Districts Association and the California Fire Chiefs Association all strongly oppose SB 13. It would be irresponsible to sign this measure into law unless it is amended to address the serious consequences its language currently ignores.

Michael S. Schwartz is the fire chief of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District.
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