Thomas Fire: Ventura recovery rules aim to keep displaced fire victims local

Contractors hike up a steep street in the Clearpoint neighborhood of Ventura, capping gas lines at homes that burned in the Thomas Fire.
Contractors hike up a steep street in the Clearpoint neighborhood of Ventura, capping gas lines at homes that burned in the Thomas Fire.
Sharon McNary / KPCC

Ventura city council gave tentative approval this week to some new rules aimed at helping the residents displaced by the Thomas Fire remain in the city and expedite reconstruction of their homes.

About 524 single family homes burned in Ventura in the fire that broke out Dec. 4 near Santa Paula and whipped through the coastal city and into Santa Barbara County. The fire also consumed two multi-family buildings with a total of about 98 apartments.

The council, on a 6-1 vote, directed city staff to draft an ordinance to be voted on Feb. 26. It would permit residents displaced by fire to  live in an RV on their burned-over parcels with temporary hookups for water and power. 
The new rules would also waive development fees for parks or traffic that are charged to offset the added community burden created by construction. However, the council kept intact normal building permit fees, because they cover the cost of processing permits and inspecting construction sites, said Ventura Community Development Director Jeffrey Lambert.

Councilman Matt LaVere voted against the rules because he wanted the permit fees to be cut by half.

Under the recovery rules, homeowners could rebuild a duplicate of the house that was lost, or even expand it up to 10 percent, even if the setbacks don't meet current building codes.   However, any new home must meet the city's fire codes, Lambert said.

Some underinsured homeowners may find they cannot afford to rebuild what they lost and seek to use a less-expensive replacement like a mobile or prefabricated home. The City Council balked at including such homes in its  expedited rebuilding process. Several speakers and city council members said such homes might not fit well as replacement homes in some of Ventura's single-family neighborhoods.

The council asked the city attorney to research whether state law required pre-fab or mobile homes to be permitted in areas of Ventura that are zoned for single-family homes.

The City Council did not immediately adopt a temporary moratorium on short term home rentals such as those offered by AirBnB, preferring to have the city attorney's office research the legality of that measure.

The rental market in Ventura was already tight, with just about a 1.5 percent vacancy rate and perhaps 120 homes rented out as short term vacation rentals, said Lambert.

"If we can prevent any units that might be available for fire victims from being converted to vacation rentals, that will preserve the housing stock for fire victims to have a place to live until their homes are rebuilt," Lambert said Monday, before the council's vote.