Thursday, December 7, 2023

City of Ukiah Recommends Annexation for Western Hills Development Amidst Fire Safety Concerns

The Western Hills of the Ukiah Valley [Picture by Matt LaFever]

The Ukiah City Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to recommend further annexation of the Western Hills, though they called for a compromise on the number of parcels that should be allowed for development.

In 2021, the city annexed 704 acres in a deal with David Hull of D&J Investments LLC. Though 640 acres are supposed to be preserved for conservation and public use, another 54 acres that are included in a limited development agreement between the city and the owner have been the topic of much concern among neighbors. That acreage consists of seven parcels that are available for developing 14 residential units. They have been zoned R1-H, or single-family residential-hillside, which means that any permits will go through hearings before the Planning Commission and the City Council for approval. No one has applied for permits on those parcels. The Western Hills are in a high-severity wildfire area, which detractors argue is an unsafe place to build. The city believes that, with the property under its control, it will be better maintained and less likely to be used for illegal grows than if it stays in the unincorporated part of the county.

This year, 84 acres were added to the annexation area. The Planning Commission voted to recommend that the City Council approve the proposal to assign R1-H zoning to 44 of those acres, which would stay in private ownership. The city would buy the other 40 acres but let Hull keep the right to develop three parcels on 15 acres. This acreage would be returned to Hull after the annexation. Each parcel could have two residences on it. The developer would be responsible for establishing sewer, water and electrical infrastructure that would connect to city utilities. The remainder would be open space, with trail easements but no road access.

The Commission voted to recommend that the City Council approve only one of the new parcels for development. Chair Mark Hilliker worried about Redwood Avenue, a narrow road that is currently the only access point to the annexation area.

“The county has stumbled over potential provisions to build a second way out of Brooktrails, since there’s only one,” he said. “And it seems like we’re duplicating the same thing…Now we’re creating another issue that needs to be dealt with, I think, before we make decisions to put structures up in that area, and people.”

Public access to the area would be via an easement on a private drive from Redwood Avenue until other roads were built. Hilliker was dubious about the road, after his site visit.

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“You can go up a half mile, maybe,” he estimated. “But I have a pickup truck, and there were places where it was tight. I wouldn’t have passed another pickup truck on the part of the road that’s being paved…At this point, it’s definitely not adequate…I see some pretty negative issues to adding property when where there’s still some available property. If I was selling property, I’d want to get rid of a couple of those before I opened up more property to sell.”

Steven Proctor, a board member with the Ukiah Valley Trail Group, expressed his support for the city’s plan to purchase the property for outdoor recreation.

“The Ukiah Valley Trail Group has long advocated for the preservation of the Western Hills,” he stated. “And this plan does in fact preserve habitat connectivity, increases watershed protection, and provides the possibility for future outdoor recreation access. This parcel is key to giving the entire area of the Western Hills public access for future trail production, which would not only include hiking, but also possibly trail bikes. We strongly support the idea of creating this parcel for the city.”

But Steve Lincoln, who lives in the Western Hills, worries that more public access means more fire danger.

“We hear again and again from fire experts to reduce the wildland urban interface,” he said. “And it seems like we are going in the opposite direction with this. I’m a strong advocate of trails,” he added, praising the Ukiah Valley Trail Group. “But I do have concerns about the fire hazard due to trails. More people going up into this highly flammable area and adding to the risk.” 

Edward Aff, a retired firefighter who recalls fighting the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, likewise cautioned against building in the wildland urban interface.

“The whole of the hills is red on the California fire map,” he said. “It’s the highest fire severity zone in the state. It’s the most volatile environment, according to the State of California.”

City planner Michelle Irace said that projects in the annexation area would be subject to stringent standards.

“There are increased setbacks and fire safety standards,” she said, adding that the city code has adopted the SRA (State Responsibility Area regulations set forth by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection). “Those include a slew of fire safe standards…And then the hillside overlay district requires geological reports, subsurface investigations, grading plans, vegetation reports, hydrology reports,” all of which would come before the Planning Commission and City Council before they could proceed. Individual projects would also include CEQA review. “So just another opportunity to review for all of these considerations,” she concluded.

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The Ukiah City Council will take up the issue of the amended Western Hills annexation area on December 6th.

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  1. What? This is not a good idea! I live in the hills east of Ukiah, in a home that was built in 1977. I have watched the tree clearing and building in the western hills with concern for fire. The more people, the higher risk for fire. There is poor access for firefighters and that should be a dealbreaker! There are people in the east hills who have been dropped by their insurance companies because of their high risk location. We don’t do any burning on our property because of the risk. I think people in these areas shouldn’t be allowed to burn. The safety of the lives and property of the people who live there should be a priority over the people who will profit over this development!

  2. Just drive up West Standley & see the trees down and fire fuels, in the creek areas, that has progressed to very high fire danger. Who will keep up an entire area around a 15 house subdivision, in western hills cleared and what fire insurance, will cover these 15 houses on parcels in the hills? And it wasn’t ever supposed to be grows, was it. Look at the land deal online. In deal, Ukiah has to pay for roads and utility infrastructure, plus fire protection to parcel. Where does that very large amount of money come from? Most housing subdivisions are built in areas inside city infrastructure by developers….because of costs to do everything new. I find it interesting cannabis grows are now default use, if subdivision doesn’t go through. Are we suprised. But what comes with that, is a whole entirely different damage, to the wilderness, water sheds and the quality of life. Will Gibson creek be protected? A deal was made, that has nothing to do with trails. Please save us, the we are green, and building trails…pretense. Ukiah’s council took the bait. Now everyone is squirming because the economy sucks. People can’t afford more taxes for this luxury neighborhood. Or to put in exspensive infrastructure to pot grows. Because Ukiah’s citizens and businesses, are just trying to survive and adjust, because of fire insurance and inflation along with interest rates. The Boards and Council’s are only blaming others for mistakes.

    • What the hell? How stupid ! I’ve worked in construction for over 35 years , large subdivisions and smaller. NEVER have I seen a city or county have to pay for roads or utilities! The developers always pay for all improvements as part of the contract and are required to build said improvements per the specifications of the municipality. Afterwords those improvements are deeded over to the local government to maintain. Even the inspection costs are billed to the developers!

  3. I think these hills would be better governed and overseen by the city than the county. The city has more resources in general and can oversee the area more easily than the county can ever could. Plus the Ukiah Valley Fire is already in close proximity to these parcels. The western hills also are always a potential threat to Ukiah Proper and it makes sense they would want to have more accessibility over these potentially volatile fire zones just west of the city.

  4. I can’t wait till the day I can leave California. For now I’m committed to taking care of elderly parents and grandparents but one day I’m out of here. It’s no long the place I grew up in. May the door hit me where the good Lord split me. Government over regulation, extreme fire danger, high cost of living, leftist control. I could write a whole page as to the reasons I must leave. You won’t miss me, nor will I you. I will miss the beauty of California though. And that’s it.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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