Colorado lawmakers scrap — for now — wildfire building code plan

One of the homes spared in Louisville’s Harper Lake neighborhood from last month’s Marshall Fire is shown in this Jan. 9, 2022, photo. Nearly every home in the development was destroyed in the blaze. (Mike Sweeney, Special for The Colorado Sun)

Controversial effort to set tougher building standards for homes built in wildfire-prone areas of Colorado is scrapped as 2022 legislative term comes to an end with too many other proposals on the to-do list to make the legislature.

Last week, Colorado Senate Republicans threatened to shut down the entire legislative process in protest if the policy – ​​which was backed by Gov. Jared Polis and negotiated privately for weeks – was moved forward. With dozens of bills still to be debated, Democrats backed out of the proposal that followed the 2021 Marshall Fire, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

“We got closer,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver who was pushing for the policy. “I just didn’t get the configuration right.”

He plans to try again the next legislative session, which begins in January 2023, after what officials say will be a dangerous summer for wildfires.

The Democratic majority in the legislature faces the prospect of having to leave a lot of legislation on the cutting room floor with so little time left in the session, and Republicans are blocking the legislative process. As of Tuesday morning, there were still around 200 bills pending.

The “minority is using the only tool they have — which is filibuster,” said state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood.

The fire proposal would have created a council to develop statewide building standards for the interface between nature and the city, the area where development and nature meet. It immediately sparked controversy when it was introduced on Friday as a proposed amendment to Bill 1012, a wildfire mitigation measure.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County, threatened to halt the legislative process in protest by reading the bills at length. A dozen senators gathered on the ground, had a tense exchange and then retired to the office of Senate President Steve Fenberg to try to unblock the situation.

“To have such a substantial amendment, it’s about twice the length of the bill itself,” Holbert said, after lawmakers emerged. “I just think it’s inappropriate for this to be forced on us at the last minute.”

The amendment was withdrawn.

Local or state control?

The idea behind the proposal was to ask people living in wildfire-prone areas of the state to help address Colorado’s vulnerability to fires. The Legislature has spent tens of millions of dollars on fire mitigation, response and recovery in recent years, which some consider financially unsustainable.

The state has seen its four largest and most destructive fires in the past two years and state officials recently warned that Colorado could be heading for its worst wildfire summer in modern history. .

“Improved building codes lead to less fire risk and ultimately less damage,” Hansen said. “They have the advantage of reducing insurance costs for owners. From a state budget perspective, the less damage the better for the state budget.

Passing a statewide building code could also have given Colorado a head start in applying for federal grants. The lack of a statewide building code cost Colorado 20 out of 100 points in recent bids for $74 million in FEMA grants.

Samaritan’s Purse volunteers sift through the ashes to search for personal belongings of the Christensen family that remain after the Marshall Fire Feb. 16, 2022 in Louisville. Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian relief organization, provides disaster relief services nationwide. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Residential damage from the Marshall Fire is seen January 21, 2022 in Louisville. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

But the drafting and introduction of the amendment quickly frustrated opponents of statewide building codes, who saw the proposal as a last-ditch attempt to force a wide range of communities into compliance. to a top-down policy. What’s particularly annoying to some critics is that Polis’ office pushed the amendment despite recently touting its preference for local control over a statewide approach on d other issues, including the failed statewide ban on flavored tobacco and nicotine products.

“He’s mercurial when it comes to local control,” said House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland. “If it’s energy policy, they want state control. If it’s…tobacco, for example, then that’s a responsibility they don’t want to take on, so they hand it over to local control.

The amendment would have created a 17-member council tasked with adopting statewide standards by mid-2024 to reduce fire risk to people and property in the state. The council would then have periodically updated the codes, issued rules on how to apply them, and set fees or other charges to cover the anticipated costs of their promulgation.

It’s unclear which parts of the state the stricter standards would apply to. The new council would have determined which buildings and which “lands” were subject to the new code; cities or counties could have chosen to adopt stricter standards or ask the council for an exemption.

The proposal was based on recent recommendations from a Colorado Fire Commission subcommittee, made up of at least two county commissioners. Last year, Polis asked the group to look at building and land-use policies the state could adopt to ward off the fires.

Polis and other supporters of the amendment believed they had designed a statewide policy with enough flexibility to appease supporters of local control.

It was “designed specifically with Colorado’s local control needs in mind,” Polis spokeswoman Melissa Dworkin said in a statement.

But despite the memory of the Marshall fire and the backing of Polis and the state fire commission subcommittee, the proposal still fell apart – demonstrating how the issue of building codes in the Statehood remains polarizing in Colorado, a self-governing state with a strong ethos of local control. .

While some local governments in Colorado have enacted their own wildfire mitigation programs, the state remains one of eight in the nation without some kind of minimum building code, nonpartisan Joint Budget Committee staff said during a budget briefing from 2021.

The added costs of codes – whether for construction or enforcement – ​​are a sticking point for naysayers, especially amid supply chain issues, inflation and a shortage of housing throughout the state.

Some local officials show support for statewide code after Marshall fire

Still, supporters of a building code hope attitudes will change as fire seasons lengthen and become more destructive in the drought-stricken West.

Local officials whose communities were burned by the Marshall Fire, for example, have expressed support for a wildfire prevention building code in recent hearings. The December 2021 fire burned more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County, many near open spaces.

Ashley Stolzmann, the mayor of Louisville, one of the cities hardest hit by the Marshall Fire, said she thought the proposal was “wonderful”.

Underinsurance and a lack of private sector funding meant the state acted as a safety net for reconstruction efforts, leaving them with a financial incentive to embrace the proposal, she said.

Louisville resident Tawnya Somauroo, whose home burned down in the Marshall Fire, told lawmakers she was frustrated that her neighborhood would only rebuild to find itself as vulnerable to fires as before. .

“It’s bad enough to lose your home in a mega urban fire,” she said. “But knowing you’re (rebuilding) in a neighborhood that’s going to be set up to burn catastrophically again and in exactly the same way if another fire happens – it keeps me awake at night.”

Mike Morgan, director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control and a member of the state Fire Commission, said officials were trying not to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – as other states have role models that could be exported – but they wanted a solution that recognized Colorado’s uniqueness.

“While it’s a break from the norm if you will – the way we’ve done things in the past – we can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results either” , did he declare.

We believe vital information needs to be seen by those affected, whether it is a public health crisis, investigative reporting or holding lawmakers accountable. This report depends on the support of readers like you.

Comments are closed.