Office Review Poway Development Services

Eric

Administrator
Staff member
Apr 16, 2023
698
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Location
Poway, California, United States
Review for the City of Poway Building Department: 2/5 stars. The city of Poway suffers from numerous permitting issues for homeowners, including but not limited to:

1. Access issues. This can be a problem anywhere, but any time there is a dispute between a city and homeowners in an area about whether a road should be privately owned or city maintained, the city will try to use this dispute to deny land buyers a building permit on the pretext that they don't have access. This starts the dispute all over again.

My city basically abandoned a lot of roads that they were required to maintain when the city incorporated out of the county area. The city wants the neighbors to maintain the roads leading to my house by signing a road maintence agreement. The neighbors point out that the roads leading up to my house were county maintained roads before the city was incorporated, and thus the city needs to maintain the road. The city points out that the road is not up to the city standards for a city maintained road and thus would cost millions of dollars to upgrade it. Nobody maintains the road.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/sdut-500000-claim-filed-in-poway-easement-case-2016mar21-story.html - this story talks about a developer that made a minor improvement to the situation by making sure we all had easements to access our land across the so-called private road.

This problem is not unique to our area, and our city has received other lawsuits for its practice of attempting to abandon roads.

2. Fire regulations. California is prone to wildfires, so we have all kinds of fire regulations. When my dad was developing our parcel, which had a house on it that had previously burned down, we were required to have a "100 foot bubble" around our house for fire defense. Some of the regulations made sense - we had to clear away a bunch of dead pine trees from the last fire and haul them away, and chop and kill a bunch of eucalyptus trees that "go up like Roman candles" in the event of a fire.

Some of the regulations did NOT make sense. Basically, we were required to install an expensive irrigation system and plant a bunch of "fire resistant" plants to contain the soil erosion, since our property has steep slopes. Since we couldn't afford to run the irrigation system, most of the plants died after we moved into our house. We ended up getting some rocks for free from a building site that wasn't using them in town and putting them on the slope to stop it from eroding away. More water to stop erosion? Uh no.

Other fire regulations we had to comply with include putting a wall on our eastern property line, since there is less than 100 feet between our house and the property line, to stop embers from flying over from our neighbor's property onto our house. We have a fire bell, a fire spinkler system, but no fires have arrived for over a decade. Funny how that works.

3. Environmental Regulations - My dad was fortunate that our house was viewed as a rebuild of a house that had burned down and not a new construction. Building a new house in Poway means that you have to set aside parts of your land as "Environmental Impact Zones". This means that a section of your property is rezoned as "Outdoor Recreation" and you cannot develop it for any reason. No landscaping, no building, nothing. You pay taxes on land you can't use.

According to Poway GIS, a close neighbor's zoning near ours looks like this:

1697562801411.png


[Source: https://powaygis.poway.org/websites/PowGIS/]

Code for OS-RM: https://www.codepublishing.com/CA/Poway/#!/Poway17/Poway1724.html#17.24 (RR-A is a residential development code.)

But that's not even the worst case. Sometimes the environmental and fire regulations overlap so you can't even build on your land. A neighbor of ours bought a million dollar lot, that looks like this:

1697562833604.png


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[Source: https://powaygis.poway.org/websites/PowGIS/]

The outdoor recreation zoning comes so close to any potential house, there isn't enough room to landscape out a 100 foot fire defense bubble. So the only option is to build what amounts to a tiny fortress surrounded by firewalls. Obviously the owner doesn't want that - they wanted a mansion - so they have given up and basically use that property to store trailers and other things. They tried to sell it for awhile, but nobody else was going to bail them out because then they would be in the same predicament. Who wants a firewall blocking their million dollar view?

I would have tried to develop it using creative architecture, but I didn't have the money to do so back then, and right now he isn't selling. It goes to show how adverse the city is to development and how snooty they are.

Never mind the required LED light bulbs and motion sensors in the bathrooms to supposedly save on electricity. The latter actually burns MORE electricity, because the light always turns on in the bathroom when you go in regardless of whether it is day, night, or you wanted it on. Stupid bureaucrats. They are also a pain to take out after the house is built.

Even worse, the city has allowed the local golf course to overdraw our water table and the supposedly protected California Live Oak Trees on the property are suffering. I see a new fallen tree limb every few months now, even with record rain. It just goes to show that the city doesn't really care about the environment as much as their own pocketbooks and making hassles for homeowners.

4. Adverse to development - Two local elections had to be called in order to develop pieces of property in the city, and the opposition was quite fierce. The two developments did eventually go through, but one of them required TWO attempts at the ballot box. Not in my backyard seems to trump logic.

Another neighbor of ours wanted to subdivide his 20-acre property, a proposal that the city rejected.

5. Two building permits required for many projects - According to the Building Permit Frequently Asked Questions, a permit for a house or any expansion to one requires a separate Minor Development Review Application which can take 14 - 28 days to get approved and requires an extensive amount of detail. See: https://poway.org/DocumentCenter/View/589/Minor-Development-Review-Application-MDRA-PDF?bidId=

So, 2/5 stars for the City of Poway building department. It took 6 months for my dad and his contractor and architect to get a building permit for our house, which basically says it all. They didn't tell my dad or his contractor all of the problems they had. So proposal --> problem --> resubmit --> another problem, and so on, until they ran out of problems. Since the city has a two week processing period for each new submission, it takes forever for anything to get done. [Source: https://poway.org/259/Building-Permit-Process] While some of this may be attributed to the fact that this was the first time my dad tried to build a house and him being a cheap control freak, some of this is just the building department being onerous and annoying.

They also supervise you and check on you regularly to make sure you are following the plans to the letter, and the city inspects your property to ensure you have met all of the requirements before they will turn the utilities on and let you use your house. Our gas turn on got delayed because my dad didn't plant one tree in the landscape plan.

Because of all of the things mentioned above, I really can't recommend buying property in this area without extensive due diligence.

1. Check the zoning for your property to make sure it is zoned residential.
2. Understand the fire and environmental regulations that apply to you.
3. Check the property history in the San Diego Law Library. We discovered a set of easements had been quitclaimed without our knowledge - the deed didn't include information about the quitclaim.
4. Use LED bulbs when building to avoid using motion sensors in the bathrooms, if you can.

And be prepared to hire a surveyor and a lawyer to uncover any more nasty surprises. You'll be responsible for dealing with all of them.
 
I really enjoyed reading this review. Thanks so much for providing it! I have one comment regarding Poway's fire regulations. My in-laws live in the Green Valley neighborhood and their lot is likewise heavily vegetated. I know one issue they've encountered, like a lot of SoCal homeowners living in fire-prone areas, is getting and maintaining homeowners insurance (a big problem in recent years). In fact, their insurer dropped them a couple years ago because the risk was too high, though they were fortunately able to find insurance through a different company without too much trouble.

What I'm wondering is the extent to which having robust fire regulations, i.e., the buffers, fire-resistant plants, walls, sprinklers, etc., provides a benefit in terms of the actuarial math of insurance companies (who we desperately need to keep doing business here), regardless of their specific utility for any one homeowner. In other words, I imagine that an insurance company would be more likely to agree to insure a house in a fire-prone area, including potentially agreeing to insurance the house at a lower cost, if they knew that house was subject to comprehensive fire regulations. To the extent this is true, I think I'd tend to view the regulations favorably even if some of the requirements didn't appear to have much utility in my specific case.

You obviously have much more direct experience with this than I do, so feel free to advise on whether there's any merit to what I'm speculated about here. Was your dad able to get insurance, or get it at a lower rate, at least in part because he was able to provide the insurance company with info on all the fire regulations he's subject to?
 
What I'm wondering is the extent to which having robust fire regulations, i.e., the buffers, fire-resistant plants, walls, sprinklers, etc., provides a benefit in terms of the actuarial math of insurance companies (who we desperately need to keep doing business here), regardless of their specific utility for any one homeowner. In other words, I imagine that an insurance company would be more likely to agree to insure a house in a fire-prone area, including potentially agreeing to insurance the house at a lower cost, if they knew that house was subject to comprehensive fire regulations. To the extent this is true, I think I'd tend to view the regulations favorably even if some of the requirements didn't appear to have much utility in my specific case.
What to seems to matter more to an insurance company is years since the last fire. Our typical insurance company, USAA, refused to insure us when we first moved in, so we had to find a different insurance company. I think we used Farmers Insurance for about 5-6 years.

Now USAA has come back to us and said they will insure us now, and we have taken their offer. I don’t think the fire regulations came up anywhere in the conversation.

Those regulations aren’t really designed to reduce property damage as much as save our lives, and the lives of our neighbors. The fire sprinklers in our house aren’t going to reduce the amount of property damage we experience in the event of a fire - a waterlogged structure is just as useless as burned to the ground and will cost about the same to replace, give or take a few bucks. What it does, is if we have a house fire, stop us starting a wildfire along with it. It also may save our lives if a wildfire starts on our neighbors’ property in the middle of the night.

Also, maintaining the 100 foot fire defense bubble is voluntary by the homeowner after construction, and it needs maintenance to be effective. We try to maintain ours, because we like to live, but we also have lives. The tree limbs that keep falling are a constant fight, the spiders that snag dead grass in their webs near the house, the weeds, and so on - we’re not perfect. The insurance company doesn’t know that we bother to maintain it - for all they know the bubble is neglected and falling apart. And all it takes it a fire at the wrong moment before we’ve had a chance to strim each season, and we would still be in trouble. The coast oaks are fire resistant, but their limbs reach toward the ground and have to be trimmed away or the tops of the trees could go up.

The only thing that may help is building a concrete block house with a steel frame and installing steel fire shutters. You might get an insurance discount for that. I don’t know.
 
The only thing that may help is building a concrete block house with a steel frame and installing steel fire shutters. You might get an insurance discount for that. I don’t know.

Lol. That or a doomsday bunker. I'd think you could get a competitive insurance quote on one of those.

To your point, my in-laws house is totally surrounded by vegetation with zero buffer. The whole neighborhood is. There are no walls for fire protection that I can think of either. I think most of it was built in the 70s and 80s before there were fire regulations like there are today, or that was even much of a design consideration. Like I mentioned, they were dropped by their previous insurance but didn't have trouble getting picked up by another carrier, so I agree companies probably aren't tracking measures customers are taking to protect their property against fire damage, especially if we're talking about voluntary measures. Great point also about the fire regulations being more about life than property. Even with a 100-foot buffer and wall, if a wildfire rages through your area then I think your house will still probably experience serious/expensive damage due to all the embers flying everywhere.
 
To your point, my in-laws house is totally surrounded by vegetation with zero buffer. The whole neighborhood is. There are no walls for fire protection that I can think of either. I think most of it was built in the 70s and 80s before there were fire regulations like there are today, or that was even much of a design consideration.
Not all of Poway may be in a high fire zone. The "Very High Fire Hazard Area" on the Poway GIS indicates the areas subject to intense fire regulations, and typing your in-laws' address into that system will tell you if they are in one or not.

Houses built before the Witch Creek Fire "surprise" probably didn't have these regulations or requirements for permitting. Obviously we weren't getting out of the fire regulations since the land's previous house burned to the ground in a wildfire.
That or a doomsday bunker. I'd think you could get a competitive insurance quote on one of those.
That also depends on the soil and water table. On this lot, the soil is decomposed granite, which means it percolates moisture readily. This is good for septic systems and wells, but it will give you a perpetual moisture problem in your soon-to-be-leaky underground bunker. Rain drainage into your bunker would also be a serious problem your architects would have to fix. (Not to mention the expense of having to jackhammer through solid rock to make it.)

With the water, will come the huge local earwig population, who like anywhere that is dark, wet, and has wood to eat, namely your furniture. After the earwigs die, you have to get rid of every dead corpse or the ants come to eat the earwig corpses, and all of your carefully prepared doomsday rations along with them. Whether an insurance company will realize this, I have no idea, but I do, and I'm telling you it's probably not worth what insurance money you will save.
Even with a 100-foot buffer and wall, if a wildfire rages through your area then I think your house will still probably experience serious/expensive damage due to all the embers flying everywhere.
The idea with the 100 foot buffer and wall is reducing the height of the flying embers so they don't hit the roof. Ember hits roof eaves, eaves catch on fire, heat sensors in the roof trigger the fire sprinkler system, house is totaled. Stucco, glass, steel screen door doesn't burn and you can put gravel and rocks around the base. Turn on the irrigation and draw down all of the blinds in case you lose a window from impact. (The most unavoidable thing is smoke damage.)

Ironically, the bunker would be even WORSE for fire danger in that respect because all of the embers hit the ground eventually and could end up gutting the bunker of any flammable items inside - you'd have to seal it very carefully. There's also no riding out the fire inside because of the smoke inhalation issue. You'd run out of air. Putting your house close to the ground, where the fire is the fiercest and most certain, also does not strike me as a good plan for escape in the event of a sudden blaze.
 
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Not all of Poway may be in a high fire zone. The "Very High Fire Hazard Area" on the Poway GIS indicates the areas subject to intense fire regulations, and typing your in-laws' address into that system will tell you if they are in one or not.

Thanks, great point. I just checked and looks like they're outside of it, though only by about 1000 feet or so. But I'm noticing other houses right down the road from them are within the hazard area. Not sure how they draw that line since the whole neighborhood seems uniformly tree covered. Regardless, I'm pretty sure the eastern parts of the neighborhood that are in the hazard zone are still not complying with the strict fire regulations, since they're relatively old construction and weren't hit by the 2007 fires. Next time I'm there I'll be interested to take a look around and see if I can spot any differences between houses in the hazard area and those outside of it.

The idea with the 100 foot buffer and wall is reducing the height of the flying embers so they don't hit the roof. Ember hits roof eaves, eaves catch on fire, heat sensors in the roof trigger the fire sprinkler system, house is totaled. Stucco, glass, steel screen door doesn't burn and you can put gravel and rocks around the base. Turn on the irrigation and draw down all of the blinds in case you lose a window from impact. (The most unavoidable thing is smoke damage.)

Got it, makes sense. So the buffer/wall do serve a real minimization function as far as potential property damage goes, i.e., by helping avoid the flying-ember-hits-roof-and-totals-house scenario you described.

That also depends on the soil and water table. On this lot, the soil is decomposed granite, which means it percolates moisture readily. This is good for septic systems and wells, but it will give you a perpetual moisture problem in your soon-to-be-leaky underground bunker. Rain drainage into your bunker would also be a serious problem your architects would have to fix. (Not to mention the expense of having to jackhammer through solid rock to make it.)

With the water, will come the huge local earwig population, who like anywhere that is dark, wet, and has wood to eat, namely your furniture. After the earwigs die, you have to get rid of every dead corpse or the ants come to eat the earwig corpses, and all of your carefully prepared doomsday rations along with them. Whether an insurance company will realize this, I have no idea, but I do, and I'm telling you it's probably not worth what insurance money you will save.

Ironically, the bunker would be even WORSE for fire danger in that respect because all of the embers hit the ground eventually and could end up gutting the bunker of any flammable items inside - you'd have to seal it very carefully. There's also no riding out the fire inside because of the smoke inhalation issue. You'd run out of air. Putting your house close to the ground, where the fire is the fiercest and most certain, also does not strike me as a good plan for escape in the event of a sudden blaze.

To be clear, I was being totally tongue-in-cheek with the whole doomsday bunkers reference :). But I appreciate the perspective on the earwig and oxygen deprivation/smoke inhalation issues nonetheless. Agreed, there's nowhere to really hide when you're talking about fires in fire country. That said, I imagine there are some preppers in east county who have figured this out (lol).
 
Next time I'm there I'll be interested to take a look around and see if I can spot any differences between houses in the hazard area and those outside of it.
Telltale signs the house was under fire regulations during construction would be a fire bell and an outlet on the side of the house to relieve pressure from the sprinkler system on a seasonal basis.

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Not sure how they draw that line since the whole neighborhood seems uniformly tree covered.
It’s what is, or is not, under the trees. Look for signs of strimming.
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(Coast live oak tree dead ahead, like on the City of Poway sign.) Also which trees. Pine and Eucalyptus trees indicate that building never had contact with fire regulations. Strimming usually looks more like this though, which is probably what you expected:
IMG_2924.jpeg

So the buffer/wall do serve a real minimization function as far as potential property damage goes, i.e., by helping avoid the flying-ember-hits-roof-and-totals-house scenario you described.
I suppose sending pictures to the insurance company of fire control measures and asking for a discount could be a viable course of action.

Anyway, I wish the preppers in east county well on dealing with the gophers ha ha.
 
Thanks for all the visuals! I'll keep an eye out for some of those features, particularly the 100-foot buffer-style yard you described. I actually had to look up that term, "strimming" ("string trimming"). If I wasn't able to see the sides of a house well enough to take note of any alarm bells/outlets, sounds like I could get a good sense of "Very High Fire Hazard Area" construction based on the presence of coast live oak (high fire resistance) and grasses maintained commensurate with the homeowner's sense of self-preservation.

BTW, I came across this defensible space flyer by ReadySanDiego that appears to go into more detail about some of the maintenance requirements you mentioned. Except upon further inspection it looks like these are state-level/Cal Fire requirements that only apply if you're in a State Responsibility Area / unincorporated area of San Diego County. So not sure how much overlap this has with Poway or how much this relates to City of Poway's "Very High Fire Hazard Area" requirements, but I noted these are legal requirements (you described yours as voluntary in your post above).

Anyways, all the fire hazards notwithstanding, your photos of fire country do make it look like a really nice place to live in!
 

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