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Democrats abandon pursuit of wildfire building code as Colorado legislative session ends

Dozens of pending bills are held up by Republican stall tactics on last day of session
One of the homes spared in the Harper Lake neighborhood in Louisville from last month’s Marshall Fire is shown Jan. 9. Nearly every home in the development was destroy in the blaze. (Mike Sweeney/Special to The Colorado Sun file)

A contentious effort to set stiffer construction standards for homes built in wildfire-prone parts of Colorado is being abandoned as the 2022 lawmaking term comes to a close with too many other proposals on the Legislature’s to-do list.

Republicans in the Colorado Senate last week threatened to halt the entire legislative process in protest if the policy – which was backed by Gov. Jared Polis and was negotiated in private for weeks – was advanced. With dozens of bills still left to be debated, Democrats backed off the proposal that came in the wake of the 2021 Marshall fire, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

“We got close,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who was pushing for the policy. “Just didn’t get the right configuration.”

He plans to try again next legislative session, which begins in January 2023, after what officials say will be a dangerous summer for wildfire.

The Democratic majority in the Legislature is facing the prospect of having to leave a lot of legislation on the cutting room floor with so little time left in the session and Republicans stalling the legislative process. As of Tuesday morning there were still roughly 200 pending bills.

The “minority is using the only tool they have – which is obstruction,” said state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat.

The fire proposal would have created a board tasked with developing statewide building standards for the wildland-urban interface, the area where development and nature meet. It immediately prompted controversy when it was introduced Friday as a proposed amendment to House Bill 1012, a wildfire mitigation measure.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, threatened to halt the lawmaking process in protest by reading bills at length. A dozen senators clustered on the floor, had a tense exchange and then retreated to Senate President Steve Fenberg’s office to try to resolve the situation.

“To have that substantial of an amendment, it’s about twice the length of the bill itself,” Holbert said, after lawmakers emerged. “I just think it’s inappropriate that that be sprung on us at the last minute.”

The amendment was withdrawn.

Local or state control?

The idea behind the proposal was to ask people living in wildfire-prone parts of the state to help address Colorado’s fire vulnerability. The Legislature has spent tens of millions of dollars on fire mitigation, response and recovery in recent years, which some see as fiscally unsustainable.

The state has experienced its four largest and most destructive fires in the past two years and state officials recently warned that Colorado could be headed toward its worst wildfire summer in modern history.

“Improved building codes lead to less fire risk and ultimately less damage,” Hansen said. “They have the advantage of lowering insurance costs for homeowners. From the state budget perspective, the less damage that’s done, the better for the state budget.”

Adopting a statewide building code could also have given Colorado a leg up in applying for federal grant funding. The lack of a statewide building code cost Colorado 20 of 100 points in recent bids for $74 million in FEMA grant money.

Samaritan’s Purse volunteers sift through ashes to look for personal possessions of the Christensen family that remain after the Marshall Fire on Feb. 16 in Louisville. Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, provides disaster relief services nationwide. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)
Residential damage following the Marshall Fire is seen on Jan. 21 in Louisville. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)

But the amendment’s drafting and introduction quickly frustrated opponents of statewide building codes, who saw the proposal as a last-minute attempt to force a broad spectrum of communities to comply with a top-down policy. Particularly irksome to some critics is that Polis’ office pushed the amendment despite recently touting his preference for local-control over a statewide approach on other issues, including a failed proposed statewide ban of flavored tobacco and nicotine products.

“He’s mercurial when it comes to local control,” said House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican. “If it’s energy policy, they want state control. If it’s ... tobacco, for instance, then that’s a responsibility they don’t want to take on so then they shunt it to local control.”

The amendment would have created a 17-member board tasked with adopting by mid-2024 statewide standards to reduce fire risk for people and property in the state. The board would have then periodically updated the codes, issued rules on how to enforce them and set fees or other charges to defray the anticipated costs of enacting them.

It’s unclear what parts of the state the stricter standards would apply to. The new board would have determined what buildings and what “lands” were subject to the new code; cities or counties could have chosen to adopt stronger standards or petitioned the board for an exemption.

The proposal was based on recent recommendations from a Colorado Fire Commission subcommittee, which is made up of at least two county commissioners. Polis last year directed the group to look into building and land-use planning policies the state could adopt to ward off fire damage.

Polis and other proponents of the amendment believed they’d devised a statewide policy with enough flexibility to appease local-control advocates.

It was “designed specifically with Colorado’s local-control needs in mind,” Polis’ spokeswoman Melissa Dworkin said in a statement.

But despite the memory of the Marshall fire, and the backing of Polis and the state fire commission subcommittee, the proposal still crumbled – demonstrating how polarizing the issue of state building codes remains in Colorado, a home-rule state with a strong local control ethos.

While some local governments in Colorado have adopted their own wildfire mitigation programs, the state remains one of eight in the nation without some kind of minimum building code, nonpartisan Joint Budget Committee staff said in a 2021 budget briefing.

Added costs tied to the codes – whether for construction or enforcement – are a sticking point for opponents, especially amid supply chain woes, inflation and a statewide housing shortage.

Some local officials show support for statewide code following Marshall fire

Still, advocates for a building code hope that attitudes are changing as fire seasons grow longer and more destructive in the drought-stricken West.

Local officials whose communities were burned by the Marshall fire, for example, expressed support for a wildfire-prevention building code in recent hearings. The December 2021 fire burned more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County, many of them near open space.

Ashley Stolzmann, the mayor of Louisville, one of the cities hardest hit by the Marshall fire, said she thought the proposal was “wonderful.”

Underinsurance and lack of private-sector funding meant the state was acting as a backstop for rebuilding efforts, leaving them with a financial incentive to pass the proposal, she said.

Louisville resident Tawnya Somauroo, whose home burned in the Marshall fire, told lawmakers she was frustrated at the prospect that her neighborhood would rebuild only to end up as vulnerable to fire as before.

“It’s bad enough to lose your home in an urban-mega fire,” she said. “But knowing that you (are rebuilding) in a neighborhood that is going to be set up to burn again catastrophically and exactly the same way if another fire comes along – that keeps me up at night.”

Mike Morgan, director of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control and a member of the state Fire Commission, said that officials try not to “reinvent the wheel” – as other states have models that could be exported – but they wanted a solution that recognized the uniqueness of Colorado.

“While that is a break from the norm if you will – of the way we’ve done things in the past – we can’t keep doing the same things over and over and expecting different outcomes either,” he said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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