Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Wood-shake roofs stir hot debate

Amid fire worries, Sun Valley allows homebuilder to use wooden shingles

Express Staff Writer

The fire chief said they are hazardous. The homebuilder insisted they can be safe. City leaders decided they are a potential threat but voted to allow them?at least for now.

In a sometimes-fiery debate last week, Sun Valley City Council members found themselves trying to determine if the city should place stiff restrictions on the use of wood-shake roofs, particularly in zones that border areas prone to wildfires.

The issue came to a head Thursday, Aug. 19, as council members considered an appeal by a builder who insisted the city reneged on permission to use the popular roof surface on a house he is erecting off Elkhorn Road.

Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes argued vigorously against the use of wooden shingles in fire-prone areas, warning that Sun Valley is one of the state?s most-vulnerable targets for a catastrophic suburban wildfire.

?I?m flabbergasted that common sense does not fall into place,? Carnes said. ?Why would you build a house with a combustible roof next to the wild-land interface??

At issue Thursday was a development application filed by Curtis Johnson, who is building an approximately 6,900-square-foot house at 89 Elkhorn Road, in Proctor Ridge subdivision.

The Sun Valley Planning and Zoning Commission approved Johnson?s application in May. One condition of the approval stipulated that Johnson install a so-called ?Class A? roof, which could include an assembly with fire-retardant-treated wood-shake shingles.

However, in a follow-up review of the plans in July, the P&Z determined that Johnson must install a ?non-combustible? roof, typically made of clay tiles, concrete tiles or certain types of metal.

Johnson, claiming his house is designed quite specifically to feature wood-shake shingles, appealed the P&Z decision to the City Council.

During the appeal Thursday, Community Development Director Jack Cloud told council members that the P&Z does have the authority to impose restric-tions on the design and materials of projects that come under its review.

As council members and city staff sought to clearly define what exactly composes a ?Class A? roof?the type originally permitted by the P&Z?Carnes said he believes the question should be moot.

?Why would they use anything other than a non-combustible roof?? he asked.

Johnson objected strongly, stating that he did not want to be ?a guinea pig? in the development of city policies.

?Who runs the show? The P&Z or the City Council?? he said. ?We want to be treated fairly and we want to know what the rules are.?

Carnes soon responded, stating that Sun Valley?because of its climate, topography and high property values?has been labeled by the Bureau of Land Management as Idaho?s most-vulnerable city for catastrophic loss from a raging wildfire.

The fire chief reminded the council that he and his assistant, Michael Echeita, are the only full-time members of the Fire Department staff. Meanwhile, Carnes said, volunteer firefighters are becoming harder to find.

?I look at this very strongly,? he said. ?What are you gonna do??

Council President Ann Agnew agreed that Johnson?s house would be at more of a risk if wooden shingles are installed. She noted that the lands adjacent to the house have suffered two fires in the last three years.

?I think you?re putting yourself in a pretty vulnerable position,? she told Johnson.

Councilman Blair Boand said he is ?a firm advocate of non-combustible roofs in these situations? but does not want the city to act arbitrarily.

?You?re damned if you do, damned if you don?t,? he said.

Despite their concerns, council members ultimately agreed that Johnson should be allowed to install a ?Class A? roof that could include treated wood-shake shingles. At the same time, they asked that the P&Z work to clarify the city?s policies on roofing materials.

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