Six months after the Thomas Fire raged through Ventura County, we take an aerial view of several burn areas near Ventura.
Ventura County Star
On December 26, 2016, the Cairns family moved from their longtime home on Lynnbrook Avenue in Ventura to a nearby home on Foothill Road. The homes were so close that Nancy Cairns could see their old home from their new home.
The new home was zoned for horses, which was a longtime dream for Cairns.
“I’d been keeping an eye on the property for a couple of years when it came on the market, and I’d always wanted to bring my horses onto the property,” said Cairns. “I wanted to live my dream, and that was my dream property to be able to have horses and that ranch feel in the town that I love.”
But the home burned down in the Thomas Fire on Dec. 5, 2017, less than a year after they bought it. After evacuating to a friend’s house, Chris and Nancy Cairns watched their home burn down on the news.
Nearly three years after the fire, the family got closer to rebuilding this monthafter the Ventura City Council approved a zone change on Sept. 14 that will allow five single-family homes on their 1.54 acre property.
The approved plans will divide the lot into four parcels ranging in size from a quarter-acre to roughly one-third of an acre, with a fifth 0.39-acre remainder lot set aside for the Cairns’ new home.
The Thomas Fire burned down over 500 homes in the city of Ventura. But the Cairns project is the only rebuild in the city that includes a subdivision.
The Cairns family’s home in Ventura was destroyed in the Thomas Fire on December 5, 2017. They had bought the home just a year earlier, in December 2016. (Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/NANCY CAIRNS)
The family plans to sell the parcels, and the buyers will then apply for building permits for custom homes. Nancy Cairns says the family was “grossly underinsured,” and that the subdivision is their only option to afford rebuilding their home, especially after taking out a million-dollar loan to buy the home in 2016.
But the project faced opposition from neighbors, who say building five homes on the lot will allow the family to profit at the expense of the surrounding community.
“We’re not opposed to redevelopment of this land at all, but we are opposed to excessive over-development of this land that would negatively impact this entire community and would serve only the developers and the Cairns. They would be the only ones who would benefit from this development,” said Sue Van Orman, who lives downhill from the property.
Van Orman also expressed concerns over impacts to wildlife and traffic. Other residents said the project would cause increased fire risk, negative impacts to views and property values and disruptive construction noises.
“The Cairns should be able to rebuild, however this rebuild will be a detriment to to the surrounding community,” said Gina Cole, who identified herself as a 20-year resident of Ventura. “This will most definitely put all of our homes in the adjacent area in danger when the next fire occurs. This project is not to the benefit of the community as the Cairns have stated. It is for their profit.”
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While Cole and several other residents said the proposed driveway into the homes wouldn’t provide adequate access for emergency vehicles, the Fire Department has reviewed and approved the driveway access. Residents also claimed building five homes on the property would increase fire risk.
“We’re obviously experiencing crazy wildfires that are getting worse and worse, and this is obviously in a high fire zone. Firefighters couldn’t even put out one house. How are they going to put out fires if there’s several houses?” said resident Greg Morrow, who also lamented that the project would impact his views.
Empty lots where the Thomas Fire destroyed homes along Colina Vista in Ventura are shown in this May 23 photograph. (Photo: JAY CALDERON AND RICHARD LUI/THE DESERT SUN)
At the Sept. 14 meeting, Mayor Matt LaVere asked Battalion Chief Doug Miser, of the Ventura Fire Department, addressed concerns about whether the project would create additional fire danger. Miser noted that the city’s fire marshal already approved the plans for emergency access.
“Our fire marshal is quite astute at determining these types of right-of-way and safety items and is quite diligent, and if this was approved then I’m sure it will be well within the guidelines,” said Miser. “In regard to what the house setbacks are, the construction plans, that would probably have no adverse fire elements based on what I’ve seen here.”
The proposal was also reviewed by all city departments and found to not have any significant traffic impacts or fire danger. The project will include a deceleration lane to slow traffic before accessing the site, as well as a new sidewalk and bike lane.
Additionally, city staff noted that under current state law and the city’s General Plan, the property owner could have proposed a 12-unit apartment project without a zone change. The General Plan designation allows up to eight units per acre, and an apartment building wouldn’t have required a subdivision. This means that the Cairns’ proposed subdivision is still lower density than what would have been allowed.
“This proposal has already been reviewed by all city departments and found to not have significant traffic impacts or fire danger. Now, if there is a Thomas Fire-type of event, there are going to be a lot of cases where we will lose structures, whether one house is built here or two or possibly up to 12,” said Community Development Director Peter Gilli.
“There are individual homes on lots that have been rebuilt that because of where they’re located in the hills they may be lost again, and it isn’t that we want that to happen, but the property owner has certain rights to develop.”
Nancy Cairns called the response from some of her neighbors “ruthless, awful and horrible.”
“They don’t really understand the development costs nor do they get the fact that we are entitled to rebuild our house. They talk about noise and factors associated with construction, but that was going to happen anyway,” said Cairns. “What is most upsetting is the fact that we really tried to do the right thing by the community, and the right thing for us to recoup as much as we could to rebuild.”
According to Cairns, the “right thing” was subdividing the lot for single-family homes, instead of selling the lot to a developer who could have built a 12-unit apartment complex, which she says wouldn’t have fit into the surrounding neighborhood.
Cairns also hopes that infill projects like hers will help the city meet its housing goals. Under the draft plans for the 2021-2029 Regional Housing Needs Assessment, a state-mandated process that sets the number of housing units jurisdictions must plan for, the city of Ventura is expected to plan for 5,300 units over the next decade.
“I think that its important for Ventura to utilize infill lots like ours versus urban sprawl. I don’t want to see the city get to be a long stretch running into Santa Paula, there should be agricultural spaces, parks, trees and open spaces to enjoy the things that we love. In order to preserve that and provide the housing that is necessary, we have to utilize the infill space,” she said.
With the subdivision, Nancy Cairns is giving up her dream of living on a horse property. The zoning change means horses will no longer be allowed. But she’s found solace in the fact that the subdivision will provide more housing opportunities in Ventura.
“I lost my dream of having my little ranch, but I am so grateful that I get to help four families live on this beautiful piece of property in the city that I love,” she said.
Erin Rode covers housing, real estate and development for The Star. Reach her at [email protected] or 805-437-0312.
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