Guest ranch passes trial by fire

Tulare County Planning Commission has to vote twice to approve Sunshine Paradise Ranch in Three Rivers amid concerns of fire safety

By Reggie Ellis

THREE RIVERS – Just the thought of people getting trapped in a wildfire at a remote property was almost enough to brand a guest ranch in Three Rivers as a hazardous use. 

During an Oct. 30 public hearing, Tulare County Planning Commissioner Maria McElroy said her mind kept replaying a heart wrenching call from a fire engineer during the Camp Fire that burned the city of Paradise to the ground killing 85 people in the process. 

“I keep listening to an engineer saying ‘I can’t back up and I can’t help these people’ on this narrow road in Paradise and the panic in his voice,” McElroy said, referring to a recent meeting with fire chiefs for Tulare County Fire Department and CalFire Tulare Unit. “What is the best possible situation where we don’t put our neighbors or our firefighters at risk?” 

It didn’t help that the name of the project she was referring to was Sunshine Paradise Ranch, an extended-stay vacation rental on four acres of a 44-acre property at 49711 South Fork Drive in Three Rivers. The property owner is planning to construct two single-story cabins, a bathroom structure and five, fire-proof teepees, in addition to two single family residences. The single family residences will be occupied by the owner and ranch caretaker/lessee. Sunshine Paradise Ranch estimates six weekly trips by guests. The ranch will offer group shuttles to accommodate guests and to limit the amount of vehicular traffic on South Fork Drive, which turns into a single-lane road as guests have to travel 9.5 miles off Highway 198 to get to the ranch.

McElroy’s concerns about fire on the wildland property were echoed by community members who said just a few embers from a spark and a strong wind on the steep terrain could ignite a wildfire that would threaten their homes and their lives. Karen Vogner argued that the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) had done a good job of planning for what is “reasonable” on paper but that residents had to look at the reality of what was going throughout the state. 

“The reality is the Paradise Fire, Tuggs Fire, Kincade Fire, Los Angeles Fire, Brentwood Fire, and Simi Valley Fire,” Vogner said. “All of those places were built within regulations, but look what’s going on. It’s the unexpected that planners have to plan for. Most of us on South Fork pleading with you, please don’t let this happen.”

Another resident, Aster Hacker, said she was a member of the Three Rivers Fire Safe Council. She applauded RMA’s efforts to monitor defensible space and limit outdoor burning but was concerned with the project’s evacuation plan and what people will do if they can’t evacuate. 

“As a last resort, they may have to shelter in place,” she said. “Teepees are not shelter in place.”

Commission chair Wayne Millies didn’t buy into the panic. He said there are few similarities between Three Rivers and Paradise. He said there was too much fuel in the area because environmentalists didn’t allow the county to thin out dry brush that fueled the fire. He also noted that there are plenty of people vacationing on Mineral King Road, which is often a dirt road full of switchbacks for 25 miles.

“This is half the distance and I have not heard of any major injuries or any fires,” Millies said. “Seems like it’s within reasonable parameters of what can work properly.”

Jeanette Acosta, who said she was a member of the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tribe, asked the commission for tribal consultation on the land because it contains evidence of archaeological sites. She said Senate Bill 18 requires tribal consultation on any project known to have cultural sites and Assembly Bill 52 requires government officials to contact native tribes to consult them. 

Commissioner Maria McElroy asked if Acosta had evidence of the cultural significance of this area.

Acosta said she did as she was a tribal consultant with Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.

Aaron Bock, assistant director of Economic Development & Planning for Tulare County, said if approved, the applicant will have to do a cultural survey but at this time there was no evidence to support doing an analysis of Native American archaeology in the area. He also said SB18 only applies to general plan amendments and AB52 only applies when a project is given a negative declaration, neither of which applies to a special use permit. 

The applicant for the project, Michael Cannarozzi, said there many vacation rental properties from where the road becomes one lane and his house so he isn’t changing the character of the area. He said he only has two neighbors, one who supports the project and another who doesn’t. Like any mountain road, Cannarozzi said there are certain places where drivers can pass easily and other places where they someone must back up to the next turnout. Right of way is always given to the downhill traffic as reversing uphill makes it easier to see the road. 

Kathleen Selegman said that’s true for people who know the rule but tourists often don’t. She said a UPS driver recently told her that out of towners will not back up even when meeting a larger vehicle that is more difficult to maneuver.

Attorney Dennis Villavicencio, who is also a Three Rivers resident, said because of the steep terrain, the remote location and narrow road, and the applicant’s attempts to expand the number of people allowed even before approval, the project could be a devastating mistake.

“This is the poster child for bad development in the wrong place,” Villavicencio said. 

Commission John Elliott, also a Three Rivers resident, asked if there were any conditions that could be acceptable to the opposition? Villavicencio said he could not speak for all of Three Rivers or even his clients but did say he personally would feel better if the amount of people were limited to 15.

Cannarozzi reminded those in attendance that if the owner were to build two residences and rent them out as short-term rentals, there could be 36 people there during the day and 24 overnight. 

“We are proposing less than what is permitted in other parts of town,” Cannarozzi said.

In an effort to give find middle ground, Elliott motioned to limit it to 15 people and strike the property owner’s ability for home to do vacation rentals out of the two residences. The motion was seconded but ended up in a 3-3 tie, which is the equivalent to a denial. 

McElroy then made a separate motion that eliminated the owner’s ability for short term rentals, limiting visitors to 15 people, prohibit any minor modifications and mandated a detailed evacuation plan that is acceptable to the Tulare County Fire Department in addition to the nearly 50 conditions that were already part of the permit. Elliott seconded the motion and it passed 4-2.

The decision was appealed by both sides and will come before the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 17, 2019. The public hearing has been set for 9:30 a.m.

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