San Diego County has quietly scrapped a nearly 30% increase in the one-time fee developers of new homes pay to help cover fire station and equipment costs for rural areas.

The county’s chief administrative officer removed the increase from a Board of Supervisors agenda in May, so the elected supervisors never voted on it. A spokesperson told inewsource that economic hardships experienced by residents and businesses because of COVID-19 prompted the decision to delay raising the fee.

It would have been the largest increase of the fire mitigation fee in at least 20 years and would have generated potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve fire protection. Fire chiefs from Lakeside to Fallbrook to Borrego Springs backed the proposal but eventually went along with the delay.

Stephen Abbott is chief of the North County Fire Protection District and president of the San Diego County Fire Districts Association. He worries delaying the increase means he won’t be able to replace aging fire stations in his district, which serves Fallbrook.

Fire Chief Stephen Abbott is shown outside of Station 4 of the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook, Aug. 6, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Abbott estimates the existing fees can barely bring in enough money over the next 20 to 30 years to cover the cost to rebuild one of his small fire stations. The increase would have come closer to capturing what he called “the true costs” of building fire stations that are needed to keep up with anticipated new housing developments.

Four of his five fire stations are outdated, he said. Some aren’t earthquake or fire resistant, and one is “in a constant state of disrepair,” Abbott said. 

Two stations are approaching 60 years old, while others are temporary facilities going on 40 years old. In an emergency, he said, the layout of the buildings and slow sliding doors delay firefighters’ response.

“That (fee increase) would have gone a long way,” Abbott said.

Fire Capt. Rick Rees, right, makes room for paramedic Jake Swan to get into a truck at Fire Station 4 in Fallbrook, Aug. 6, 2020. Firefighters say the narrow space in the station is one of several factors that can slow their response. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Wildfires have burned the region before, including in 2002, when the 5,760-acre Gavilan Fire destroyed 43 homes. One of them belonged to Dorothy Roth, who has lived in the Fallbrook area for 40 years.

Sometimes, it’s easy for residents to overlook fire protection needs in the backcountry, Roth said.

“When there is no fire going on, you do not notice these things,” she said.

Amid the Gavilan Fire’s complicated aftermath, she started the Fallbrook Fire Safe Council to help clear vegetation for neighbors and teach readiness and fire prevention skills. She is still the volunteer organization’s facilitator.

She’s seen some positive changes come to fire response since she lost her home, including better radio communications and evacuation procedures. But she’s still on edge.

“It would be much better to have more modern equipment. It would be much better for rescue and all kinds of things,” Roth said. “But until we get them, we just have to keep plodding along.”

‘Timing just wasn’t right’

The county’s proposal to boost the fire fee came in February following a staff assessment. A committee of fire chiefs and representatives from the San Diego County Farm Bureau, Building Industry Association of San Diego County, the Planning Commission and the county Fire Authority recommended increasing it from 58 cents per square foot of new housing to 75 cents.

A separate trailer where firefighters spend time between calls is shown at Fire Station 4 in Fallbrook, Aug. 6, 2020. Traveling between buildings is one of several factors that can slow the response time of firefighters at the station. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The San Diego County Fire Districts Association that Abbott heads also urged the supervisors in a letter to approve the increase. 

But when the pandemic hit the region in March and continued to worsen, fire officials agreed to back down from the request. That included Abbott and Tony Mecham, the Cal Fire San Diego chief and county Fire Authority director.

“We understand what’s going on,” Mecham told inewsource. “People are out of work. People are hurting. It’s not the time to be raising fees.”

Holly Porter, the deputy chief administrative officer who oversees the county’s public safety group, linked nixing the fire fee hike to the decisions made to waive and defer other county fees because of economic challenges related to COVID-19.

Why this matters

As new housing gets built in San Diego County’s most fire-prone areas, mitigation fees are one of the few tools rural fire departments have to raise money to upgrade stations and equipment.

Even so, 754 permit applications for new homes were made in the county’s unincorporated areas during the first half of 2020 compared to 494 for the same period last year — an increase of nearly 53%. That’s according to data from the Building Industry Association of San Diego. 

The association’s president and CEO, Borre Winckel, said his problem with the fire mitigation fee is that it’s largely ineffective at raising money unless housing development significantly increases in the region.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, whose North County district includes Fallbrook and other areas with rural fire stations, told inewsource he supported freezing fees to help during the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. That included not raising the fire mitigation fee. 

“I didn’t get that far in depth with it, but the timing just wasn’t right,” Desmond said.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose East County district also includes rural fire stations that would have benefited from the increase, said she relies on the recommendations of the fire officials when it comes to the fee charged to developers of new housing projects, but she stressed this mitigation fee is a “small piece” of the county’s fire funding effort.

In fiscal 2019, the fee brought in just over $2 million. For comparison, Abbott said it could cost $7 million or more to build a modern fire station in his district.

Jacob said the county general fund pays for the Fire Authority and “all the improvements that have taken place” in its service areas.

But independent fire protection districts not under the county’s jurisdiction have struggled to raise revenue in rural communities.

A ballot measure last October in Abbott’s district would have raised $20 million through a parcel tax, but it fell 10 percentage points short of meeting the required two-thirds vote for passage.

Since the measure failed, he said, “We’ve economized about as much as we could, but what we don’t want to do is to cut service.”

Abbott said he’s considering other measures to raise money or cut costs, including adjusting fees or contracting out services.

“At some point we’re going to have to make a difficult decision about appropriately funding these facilities in the backcountry,” he said.

Mecham said the county has also negotiated with large developers to build fire stations as part of their housing projects.

For now, what revenue is generated from the fire mitigation fee will go toward helping to fund the renovation and expansion of the station at Palomar Mountain, the construction of a new station in Valley Center, the purchase of inspection vehicles in Rancho Santa Fe, and other projects like these in unincorporated county areas.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is a former investigative reporter for inewsource focused on environment and energy in San Diego and Imperial counties. Her position was partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. Previously, she covered growth and development in San...