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Mill Valley residents must remove flammable trees and gardens as part of anti-fire measure

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But the city council backed off on a more aggressive removal plan that prompted public outcry

A panorama of Mill Valley, showing homes dotting a green landscape of grass, trees, and shrubs from above.
MIll Valley.
Photo by Frank Schulenburg

The Mill Valley City Council outlawed a list of plants and trees last week that it deemed potential fire spreaders. The city’s powers that be declared that most residents must remove offending vegetation by mid-2021, but stopped short of an aggressive measure that would have further slashed gardens across the bucolic Marin County enclave.

The city’s “hazardous fuel reduction” measure is meant to diminish the vulnerability of residential homes in the case of catastrophic wildfire.

One of the provisions require the removal of the following plants from Milly Valley properties: acacia, bamboo, arborvitae, cypress, junipers, French broom, Portuguese broom, Scotch broom, Spanish broom, and gorse.

The new rules don’t apply to the entire city, but only to homes within the wilderness urban interface (WUI—sometimes pronounced “wooey”), which is firefighting jargon that refers to metro areas surrounded and interlaced with greenery to the point that wildfires pose a particular threat.

Fire Chief Tom Welch tells the city council that some 75 percent of Mill Valley sits within the WUI, around 5,000 homes.

In a 4-1 vote in August, the council approved an even more aggressive form of the anti-fire measure that would have demanded all WUI homes also establish a three-foot “hardscape” of concrete, gravel, or other non-flammable materials around the perimeter of their homes. The staff report from that meeting argued, in part:

Providing for three feet of hardscape at the foundation [...] will greatly enhance safety and survivability. It is possible for homes in the WUI to experience an extreme wildfire without suffering significant loss. Property owners can reduce the flammability of their property by modifying fuel conditions, and by using ignition resistive building construction design and materials.

These modifications can significantly change outcomes of a wildfire by removing flammable-materials immediately adjacent (within 3-5 feet) to residences, and by decreasing the flammability of the residences themselves.

Although the hardscape plan proved extremely unpopular with Mill Valley residents, only Councilmember John McCauley voted it down.

However, by September the rest of the city’s governing body had a change of heart after residents expressed outrage at the idea of slashing their gardens and trees.

An online petition that has since drawn over 1,300 signatures argues, “We are all unified in our belief that the hardscape provision of the ordinance will do very little to lower our risk of wildfire, but will have a drastic impact on the beauty and enjoyment of our homes and gardens, significantly harm property values.”

Petitioners also claim that the removal of plants and trees would cost millions of dollars to homeowners.

Ahead of last Thursday’s vote, which would have made the hardscape plan law after it passed the initial vote the month before, City Manager James McCann said that the city received over 200 emails about the anti-fire measure.

McCann acknowledged, “The three-foot hardscape provision is one that hasn’t resonated with the community,” prompting laughter from the meeting chamber, which was packed with people there to complain about that very thing.

McCann also noted that the hardscape would now be a voluntary recommendation, calling the previous mandate “too fast, too much,” thus quashing most of the criticism from the public.

The rest of the fire measure passed unanimously, including the prohibition on broom shrubs and other greenery.

Residents in the affected area will have until May 2021 to comply.