Benefit Zones

Fire safety in Mendocino County is not just a construct for fire season. It is an ongoing process which requires the efforts of several diligent agencies such as the Sherwood Firewise Communities, The Mendocino County Firesafe Council, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, The County Department of Transportation, Cal Fire, local fire departments and several other local fire safe and firewise councils. In the Sherwood Corridor, northwest of Willits, in addition to the aforementioned organizations, the Brooktrails Township and The Brooktrails Fire Department have been instrumental and have worked closely with other entities in order to create conditions that are as conducive as possible, given the constraints of money, time, and resources, to mitigate the dangers inherent when the conditions become dry towards the end of the summer months. North Coast Opportunities has also been instrumental in funding much of the Sherwood Firewise projects.

The reduction of combustible fuel, the establishment and clearing of both ingress and egress routes and the maintenance of these, as well as identifying possible emergency challenges has become the focus of several programs, meetings, and procedural agreements.

In a special meeting on February 11, organized and chaired by the Sherwood Firewise Council, the primary subject of discussion was the creation of what is known as “Benefit Zones,” in order to fund the maintenance of access routes which would provide ways for emergency vehicles and crews to gain access to fires and other natural disasters, while at the same time providing a clear route for evacuations of residents.

The efficacy of the access routes was proven during the recent Oak Fire of last year. The Firco and Schow Roads which had previously been cleared by crews from Cal Fire through an order from the Governor’s Office. Utilizing these two roads, which were accessible from Highway 101, the fire crews were able to gain access to the fire along with many pieces of heavy machinery used to cut firebreaks amongst other purposes. Although these two roads were a part of the focus of the meeting, they are currently in fairly good shape and only need to be maintained.

The other route in question is the Willits Creek route which is a private road from the end of the Par Course in Brooktrails down to the Northbrook subdivision of Willits. This route requires CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) studies to protect the creek and its surrounding from any environmental damage during construction. This route is an old railbed so it is fairly well established, requiring some widening for the ingress of heavy firefighting equipment. The property owners have all agreed to allow this work and the use of the road on their property.

During the meeting it was emphasized by Keith Rutledge of Sherwood Firewise that all of these routes are to be utilized only during emergencies and at the direction of Incident Commanders (usually Sheriffs) at the scene. Citizens needing to evacuate at this time, need to use Sherwood Road, which may have both lanes open in a north direction. The access routes are never to be used for recreation or casual traversing. Possible evacuation could be accomplished on the routes only if directed by Incident Commanders. Rutledge, “The Emergency Access Routes are secured by a license agreement with the owners. It reads that the purpose is for securing the emergency access route for use in an emergency when declared by the sheriff and the county. We really need to make sure we are following the emergency services, or the sheriff, or the fire department or law enforcement, whoever is the Incident Commander. What we are working on here is the access to maintain these routes and keep them from becoming overgrown and unusable in the future.”

Keith Rutledge, “The meeting tonight is following on obtaining unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors, in meetings with Sherwood Firewise and legal representatives from Kronick, who donated pro bono legal services. The Mendocino Community Foundation has paid for some of this as well as Supervisor Haschak and the Christian Curtis of the County Council. We’ve been meeting regularly as a team to set up Benefit Zones and finding out what it’s going to take to get this done. We presented this in a report to the Board of Supervisors in their meeting last month. The Board gave authorization to continue the formation of this benefit zone area which will, currently just include two access routes, the Willits Creek Route and the Firco Route.” [The Firco route includes Schow Road which intersects Firco.]

In the Thursday evening meeting, attended by thirty-nine interested citizens and officials, including Supervisor Haschak, Holly Roberson of the Kronick law firm who has been donating much pro bono work, Tony Orth of the Brooktrails Board of Directors, Eric Hart of the Williams Ranch Fire Safe Council (who is looking to create his own benefit zone on the area near The Ridge), members of the Sherwood Firesafe Communities, and other residents wanting to become familiar with the efforts.

The Benefit Zone is hopefully going to be a pilot program for the County of Mendocino. Rutledge continued, “where is the money coming from to maintain the routes? We’ve had unanimous consent from both Brooktrails and the county to continue what we’re doing. The county has now stepped up to become the responsible agency. The County Department of Transportation is going to take on the responsibility of making sure all this happens and it stays maintained. The way we do this is through a ‘Benefit Zone.’ This will allow for individual property owners to self-assess for public safety services and in our case, to fund the maintenance of the emergency access routes. We form a zone that is a legal entity. It takes a resolution from the county, a public hearing, and then a ballot process where the property owners that are impacted in this zone get to register whether they are for or against it. The benefit zone for these two routes is Brooktrails, Spring Creek, Sylvandale, and the Gates subdivisions. These are only the improved properties. Vacant lots aren’t included, nor are second parcels.

“A professional engineer needs to confirm the basic maintenance specifications and to do what is called ‘apportionment,’ make a decision as to if everyone pays the same or if there should be some other payment mechanism. Right now, the benefit is going to accrue to everybody equally. Balloting goes to the property owners. This is what is called, ‘a majority protest’ type of vote. Which means that, for example, if we send out a thousand ballots, there would have to be 501 votes coming back ‘no’ in order to not be successful.

“The Majority Protest is a good way for property owners to make sure they have a group of people who are willing to make these payments or at least they don’t have a large group of people who are not willing to make the payments. That is a public process coming up within the next six months. If we do get the approval we will move forward and start the process of setting the benefit zone up with the county, figuring out what kind of work needs to be done. Both the Firco and the Willits Creek routes will have had quite a bit of recent work done to them so there won’t be a great need for a lot of maintenance for the first few years so we can start collecting and saving a little bit of money so we will have it when we need it.”

The estimated assessment per improved property is expected to fall within the $20 to $30 range per year.