Coastal Commission approves San Diego brush maintenance ordinance

In a vote that could have significant impact on La Jolla, the California Coastal Commission approved new standards for brush maintenance in the coastal regions of the City of San Diego.

In a unanimous vote Aug. 7 at its monthly meeting, the commission accepted a city request to require all structures to have a 100-foot perimeter of defensible space. They also approved the use of goats to do the work.

San Diego’s fire chief has called for such a perimeter to allow firefighters a margin of safety in attempting to defend structures against wildfires.

Throughout inland areas, the city had already required the 100-foot buffer.

In coastal regions such as La Jolla, however, state law requires the city to obtain coastal commission approval before it can change land management ordinances.

Prior to the vote, city regulations in the coastal zone had required a variety of brush management zone widths ranging between 40 and 80 feet.

Besides standardizing the city’s defensible zone at 100 feet, the ordinance change also affects the way brush is to be managed around structures. The

100-foot defensible space is divided into two zones.

Two-zone split

The inner zone is the first 35 feet from the structure and brush is to be cleared in this area.

The outer zone is the next 65 feet from the structure. Instead of requiring this second clearance zone farthest from structures to undergo removal of half of all vegetation, the newly approved ordinance requires reducing the height of half the existing vegetation over 24 inches in height to six inches in height, and thinning and pruning the remaining vegetation.

The new method allows root systems to remain undisturbed and reduces erosion risks.

Perhaps the most colorful part of the city’s request to the commission is that goats be allowed to perform brush management activities in the coastal zone.

Less costly, but...

According to a commission staff report, “The city wants to allow this since it appears far less costly than hiring crews to perform brush management. As such, it is more likely that homeowners will actually do the brush management and reduce the frequency of fire threats.”

The same staff report, however, expresses concerns “over the use of goats with respect to indiscriminate browsing, the increased nutrient levels in runoff resulting from animal droppings, the increased spread of invasives, and the potential need for restoration after goats have browsed an area.”

The commission approved the use of goats for a five-year trial period.

The city filed its original request to be allowed to standardize defensible space ordinances with the commission on January 11, 2007.

The commission certified that request in February of 2007 with the request that modifications be made. The commission’s primary concern was that the new standards would create negative environmental impacts in areas where structures abut wildland as is the case in many parts of La Jolla.

City and Commission staff members have been negotiating improvements to the city’s request for more than a year. Primarily, the city agreed to purchase 715 acres to set aside for wild habitat land as a partial mitigation for the encroachments that the new defensible zones will make into environmentally sensitive habitat areas.

While expressing dissatisfaction with this mitigation effort because it does nothing to directly mitigate encroachments, Coastal Commission staff recommended that the commission accept the current amendments.

Only one commissioner, San Diego City District 8 Councilmember Ben Hueso, commented on amendments saying, “I’m very happy we’ve come to a conclusion on this item. We’ve reached a resolution that meets everybody’s goals. I’m very pleased that we’re finally here.”