With winter coming and hundreds of homes destroyed in the Butte Fire still awaiting cleanup, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to allow residents to camp on their properties for up to three years.
The board voted 4-1 to allow trailers and recreational vehicles to serve as temporary homes while the properties are first cleared of hazardous debris and then, officials hope, rebuilt with permanent structures. Supervisor Debbie Ponte was opposed.
“I continue to have a concern about people living on their properties in these kinds of conditions,” Ponte said.
Supervisor Chris Wright, who represents the district ravaged by the Butte Fire, called it “common sense” to allow residents to return to their properties as soon as possible.
County staff recommended against the measure as finally approved because it allows residents to begin living on properties while hazardous ash and debris from burned homes are still present. Removing that debris, however, is expected to take another three months.
As a compromise, supervisors inserted language that allows property owners to begin living in RVs if they park them at least 150 feet away from the damaged home and don’t get in the way of cleanup. Those camping in RVs before the cleanup will also have to sign a waiver of liability for any hazards they encounter as a result, and will have to take measures to reduce the chances that humans and animals will be exposed to hazardous waste.
“We don’t want people parked right on top of the burned structure where the kids run out, or the dog, and bring back asbestos or hazardous metals,” said Jason Boetzer, director of the county’s Environmental Management Agency.
Al Segalla, a real estate broker and head of the Calaveras County Taxpayers Association, pointed out that many county residents already live long-term in RVs despite the existing ban on the practice.
“There’s a lot of people who live in RVS. This is called ‘affordable housing,’” Segalla said. He urged county leaders to repeal the existing ban on living permanently in RVs.
The board didn’t do that. But the urgency ordinance it approved does ease rules for temporary housing for Butte Fire survivors in RVs both on their properties and at other locations. The ordinance will also allow the relaxed rules to go into effect during future emergencies.
Previously, county rules only allowed residents to set up camp in such temporary structures if they had building permits and were making progress on erecting permanent dwellings. The new rules allow people to go back to their properties as soon as they can meet certain minimum requirements, such as having electricity, drinking water sources and a way to legally dispose of sewage by connecting to a septic system or hiring tank-pumping services.
The temporary housing can also include the trailer housing units provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. County Building Department Director Jeff White said that FEMA is evaluating 82 sites for temporary housing and has already cleared seven to receive temporary homes.
FEMA, however, won’t allow its units to go to a site until it is certified as clean of hazardous debris.
Calaveras County Fair General Manger Laurie Giannini said that FEMA has designated the RV park at the county fairgrounds south of Angels Camp as a site for its temporary housing. Some families that lost homes in the Butte Fire are already living at the fairgrounds, she said.
She said that with some minor infrastructure improvements, the RV park will be able to accommodate 16 to 20 of the FEMA homes.
White also reported Tuesday on how his department is gearing up for the hundreds of home reconstruction projects expected in the next few years. He said he was putting the finishing touches on a request for proposals from firms that would provide plan checkers and building inspectors to keep up with the work.
White said that so far his office has issued 104 permits for restoring electrical service lines, poles and boxes on properties where the fire destroyed that service. He said his office so far has only received one application for a permit to repair a damaged structure.
He said believes his staff has not yet begun to receive home construction permit applications because architects and engineers are still drafting the plans.