Gunnison County adopts urban wildland interface code

Taking effect in January

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

Gunnison County’s Land Use Resolution (LUR) now contains new building code adjustments in response to an increasing urban wildland interface, and the new codes will apply a higher standard of wildfire hazard mitigation to all new building permit applications beginning in 2023. 

Gunnison County commissioners held a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday, September 6 before voting unanimously in favor of both incorporating the 2021 International Wildland Urban Interface code also amending the LUR. The only suggestions came from two wildfire specialists who recommended further consideration of how vegetation management around homes is addressed and affects surrounding areas. The next steps are to get the word out about specifics and prepare for an increase in public participation.

County officials have worked with various regional and state level agencies and fire-related organizations since they received grant funding in 2019 for wildfire planning assistance. The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) program prepared a proposal and updated wildfire mapping throughout Gunnison County in collaboration with local fire professionals and stakeholders. The county’s building department presented the potential changes to the Gunnison County Planning Commission earlier this year, and the commission formally recommended adoption in July. 

County commissioners spent about an hour discussing it during a public hearing, and had no comments or correspondence from the public aside from Jamie Gomez with West Region Wildfire Council and Mike Tarantino with the Colorado State Forest Service Gunnison field office. Implementation/enforcement begins January 1, 2023, but Gunnison County community planner Crystal Lambert said they can certainly begin preparation immediately.  

Tarantino commented that the vegetation management plan included in the new code should allow the opportunity for homeowners taking measures to improve their defensible space from potential wildfires to work with private entities. “As demand increases for these plans, that service may increase,” he said. Overall, Tarantino said the Colorado state forestry is in support of the new code and Colorado might even adopt a similar code in the future.  

“We recognize that conditions do change…and likewise any plans drafted for this would probably change over time,” he concluded.

County attorney Matthew Hoyt responded that if the state adopts a statewide code, the county and even neighboring counties might want to consider adjusting for efficiency and clarity. Gunnison County assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano agreed that there might be opportunities to consider it on the state and national level. 

Several people emphasized the importance of education and outreach with the intent that builders, contractors, landscapers and others in the building industry will shift their practices over time. 

“We’re playing the long game here, and that’s always the case with codes,” said Pagano.

Gomez commended all the work that had gone into the planning, and suggested that on CPAW’s hazard ratings map, vegetation planning on a property shouldn’t change the overall hazard rating of the property. “It’s really driven by terrain and forest height,” he said, among other considerations that can’t be downgraded based on mulch or a wood pile. He also emphasized the difference between a vegetation management plan and defensible space. “My view is that if you’re in a high-altitude area you should do more defensible space.”

There were no other comments, but county officials said they would try to adjust their language and implementation to reflect the comments and direction from both specialists. 

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