Nonrural residents charged state's rural fire fee

Nonrural residents charged state's rural fire fee »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Neighbors in an area north of Bakersfield are furious over word they'll have to pay a new state fee for fire prevention.

They just got notice they're in a so-called "State Responsibility Area," where residents will pay $150 a year to help fund efforts to fight wildfires. These neighbors say they're not at risk of wildfires.

"We're an established neighborhood, we're not out in the middle of the boonies," Dan told Eyewitness News. "We have fire hydrants. There's one 25 feet away, another one 50 feet away."

He didn't want to reveal his last name while he fights with the state. But, Dan and his neighbors just got notices that they'll be billed for the new fee.

Dan immediately got on the website set up by the state Forestry Board which allows property owners to put in their address and see if it's included in a State Responsibility Area, or SRA.

Dan lives in the North Hills neighborhood, which is in the county north of Bakersfield. His address pops up on the Forestry website in a yellow area, and that's how the SRA's are marked. That bothers Dan, especially when he looks at the areas around his neighborhood.

"If you pull out even further, we're the only neighborhood in metro Bakersfield that's subject to this stupid tax," Dan complained.

The map shows his area, which is a subdivision of homes on typical residential streets. Just below him, south of East Petrol Road, the map shows a very similar neighborhood, but it's not marked in yellow. It's not included in an SRA.

"I know there will be that appearance," Forestry Board executive officer George Gentry said. "A lot of people will feel that way, and certainly I'm sympathetic to it."

Eyewitness News reached Gentry by phone in Sacramento. Gentry said the issue with paying the fire fee is only whether a piece of property is in an SRA.

"It isn't necessarily whether you're in a neighborhood, or whether you're rural or not," Gentry said.

It's estimated annually the new fee will bring in $80 million to $100 million statewide, Gentry said. That money will add to the funds for Cal Fire's fire prevention work.

"That can take any number of shapes and forms," Gentry explained. "Including inspections and homeowner assistance."

But, Dan says that's not appropriate for his neighborhood. He thinks the state's using outdated maps. Way back when, his area was open, dirt fields, but it's been developed now for a couple decades. He'll dispute his area's classification in the SRA.

Gentry said the SRA website uses mapping done "two or three years ago," and said the state reviews the SRA maps every five years.
But he said they'll will move faster with a system to let property owners dispute whether they should be included in an SRA.

"I know that as we look at it in the coming year we'll be examining issues like this really closely," Gentry said.

Dan wasn't happy to hear the challenge process won't be ready until next year.

Gentry said there's already a system in place to challenge an error in the bill. After getting a bill, property-owners can file for a petition of "re-determination." If that's approved the resident would get a refund.

It's estimated some 40,000 Kern County residents will pay the new fire fee. It affects people living in areas around Tehachapi, Lake Isabella, and Frazier Park, for example.

In July, Gentry told Eyewitness News most property owners would get a discount because they live in an area already served by local fire services. They will see a bill of only $115 a year. The fee's being charged per "habitable structure" on the affected properties.

But, Dan is convinced he and his neighbors shouldn't pay the fee at all because they should not be considered within a state responsibility area. He says there are 92 homes in his neighborhood.

"We're all up in arms about it," Dan said. "I think as a neighborhood up here, we should fight it."