Planners move to restrict new housing in Oakland hills fire zone
on October 20, 2021
Thirty years ago, 25 people were killed trying to escape the Oakland Tunnel Fire, which swiftly engulfed neighborhoods in the hills.
Since then, many residents have rebuilt in those neighborhoods, which remain under higher risk of fire.
In the next few months, the Oakland City Council will consider a proposal put forth by the Planning Commission that some worry doesn’t go far enough in restricting development in the hills, where narrow, winding roads still pose challenges as escape routes.
The proposal, which the commission unanimously approved in September, would prohibit detached accessory dwelling units (sometimes called in-law apartments) in hills neighborhoods where the threat of fire is higher, including areas designated by the state as very high hazard zones. However, it would allow smaller, attached units known as junior ADUs. And it also may provide a way for homeowners who can show adequate parking and road accessibility to build detached ADUs.
The restrictions would not apply to homes on streets that are wider than 26 feet. And that, say some residents such as Sue Piper, is a problem. Piper was among the many who safely evacuated the 1991 fire, but she remembers the emotionally grueling minutes spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to get out.
Piper’s house may be on a wide street, but it’s still in a very high hazard zone and it feeds into narrower streets. She’d like the planning staff to review a neighborhood’s entire evacuation zone, considering that some evacuation routes rely on single exit points.
The proposal stems from a California law passed in 2019 that attempted to address the housing crisis by broadening the eligibility for ADUs. The law allows exemptions for public safety concerns, including wildfires, but leaves it up to municipalities to determine where to draw those lines. In Oakland, where there is a great need for more housing, determining which homes will be exempt from ADU development varies street by street.
Housing advocates say building ADUs in the Oakland hills would be potentially dangerous for all. They, as well as wildfire preparedness advocates, would prefer to see building in the flatter areas of Oakland, where wildfire is less of a threat and access to public transportation is more available.
“Cities and the state need to work together to address the pretty pressing problem of sprawl into fire hazard zones,” said Matthew Lewis, spokesperson for the housing advocacy organization California YIMBY. “And that includes sprawl that hasn’t happened yet, and that includes sprawl that has already happened.”
For community members on all sides of the conversation, the planners’ proposal is a compromise that does not address some key issues. While many fire safety advocates want a stricter cap on new building, others want limits on occupancy, vehicles, or street parking instead.
“This is a really, really tough issue,” said Planning Commission Vice Chair Jonathan Fearn at the commission’s Sept. 15 meeting. “And what we’re all trying to figure out — what is the balance of housing and housing affordability, safety, and, quite frankly, equity — all these things need to be weighed.”
Housing advocates agree that the steep, narrow, winding roads in the hills are dangerous during a mass evacuation, but changing the street grid is all but impossible.
Planning Commissioner Sahar Shirazi worries that the proposal is trying to “solve a transportation issue with housing,” she said in the Sept. 15 meeting.
The proposal will go to the Community and Economic Development Commission next, and then to the City Council.
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