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News + PoliticsCan SF even do basic fire safety without state bills getting in...

Can SF even do basic fire safety without state bills getting in the way?

A basic, simple rule to protect lives faced a challenge because it might slow the production of more market-rate housing.

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This is how strange the world of housing development is under state Sen. Scott Wiener’s new laws:

On Tuesday, the Board of Supes had a long debate over a really basic fire-safety rule, because two board members said it might violate one of Wiener’s moves to force San Francisco to make it easier for developers to build housing.

It’s kind of hard to get through narrow alley if you are trying to put out a fire. Images from sfgovtv.org

The legislation, sponsored by Sup Connie Chan, would require property owners who sell off part of their back yards—so-called “split lots”—to allow new housing units in the rear of an existing building to make sure there’s at least a narrow alley to allow firefighters to access those new homes.

The fire marshal, Ken Cofflin, told the supes that state law allows two independent structures of 800 square feet each in a split lot—but current rules don’t give firefighters enough access to put out the flames and save lives in those back units.

“Potentially we are going to have a neighborhood behind a neighborhood,” Cofflin said.

This would seem to be pretty simple.

But Sups. Matt Dorsey and Catherine Stefani argued that the proposal, which had already been heard and approved in committee, should be continued. They argued that the requirements might run afoul of SB 9, which streamlines the process for lot splits. Stefani suggested the supes should wait for an opinion from the city attorney on possible conflicts with the new state law.

But as Sup. Connie Chan and Board President Aaron Peskin noted, the City Attorney’s Office had already approved the language of the bill—and would not have done that if it wasn’t consistent with state law and couldn’t be defended.

Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner confirmed that Chan’s proposal had received the normal due diligence.

Eventually, Stefani and Dorsey backed down, and Chan’s measure won approval on first reading.

But this should be a wake-up call: If the city can’t even address critical fire safety without fears that it will be an “obstacle” to more market-rate housing production, we have a serious problem.

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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