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Napa County to sue PG&E over wildfire losses

Napa County to sue PG&E over wildfire losses

Atlas Fire (copy) (copy)copy

These OES strike teams from Huntington Beach and Santa Fe Springs worked on ‘mop-up’ on the Atlas Fire at Green Valley Road in October. Napa County said it is suing PG&E to recoup some of its fire-related costs.

Napa County will sue PG&E in an attempt to recover county government costs associated with the October wildfires that will tally millions of dollars.

Various news reports and attorneys have speculated that downed and damaged power lines on the windy night of Oct. 8 sparked the multiple fires. Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties previously announced they will sue PG&E.

Acting Napa County Counsel Jeffrey Richard and County Executive Officer Minh Tran had little to say Tuesday about the yet-to-be-filed lawsuit. Tran said the county’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said nothing is more important to the utility than the safety and well-being of its customers. The utility will focus on doing everything it can to help Napa County rebuild and recover.

“Cal Fire has not determined the cause of the fires,” Contreras said.

Napa County has yet to release a definitive list of wildfire costs. A county report gave a rough estimate of about $6 million due to expenses such as fire-damaged tree removal and guard rail replacement along rural roads and revenue decreases such as property tax reductions for burned houses.

The county could recover some of its costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. PG&E is another possible avenue.

In addition, the lawsuit will seek ways to better protect citizens against future possible fires, a county report said without elaborating.

The Board of Supervisors took the first step toward the lawsuit on Dec. 19, when it voted in closed session to start litigation against an unnamed party. County officials at that time said the name would be revealed once the pleading had been finalized and filed with the court.

On Tuesday, the county announced the suit will be against PG&E. Supervisors without comment voted to hire the legal team that will represent the county.

That team is Baron & Budd, P.C.; the Singleton Law Firm; Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire; Dixon Diab & Chambers; Terry Singleton, Esq. and Bruce Bailey, Esq. The same team will represent Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties in their separate lawsuits, a county report said.

The attorneys will advance the costs for the lawsuit and be paid 18 percent of the recovery money they generate. Napa County will spend no general fund money. All four counties using the legal team have the same arrangement.

Lawsuits by the four counties will be part of coordinated proceedings involving hundreds of individual cases against PG&E, a county report said. The Judicial Council has assigned those proceedings to San Francisco Superior Court.

Also on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors looked at saving money for people rebuilding wildfire-destroyed homes. It will explore cutting county building permit fees by about 30 percent for fire victims who repair or rebuild structures.

“It’s the right thing to do for our community,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.

The move could save homeowners several thousand dollars if they rebuild a structure similar in size to the one they lost in the fire.

For example, a person building a 2,400-square-foot home worth $600,000 pays $12,806 in county building permit fees. The money covers such county costs as plan reviews and building inspections.

A 30 percent cut in county fees totals $3,800, leaving fees of $9,006. The building permit fees vary with the size of the home.

Morrison said the county’s building permit tasks are less complicated for someone rebuilding a home, as opposed to starting from scratch. He believes these efficiencies will save about 30 percent in county costs, allowing for the fee reductions without affecting the county budget.

Supervisors will vote on the fee reductions at a future meeting. The reductions would apply to all permits issued in the wake of the October wildfires, so the county would make refunds to people who had previously obtained permits.

Someone building that 2,400-square-foot home in ordinary cases would also pay a $25,800 affordable housing impact fee and $12,648 school fee. Morrison said the housing fee doesn’t apply to wildfire rebuilds of the same size and he believes that same is true of the school fee. People building homes bigger than the originals would pay some amounts of these fees.

County officials previously rejected the idea of reducing building permit fees. They feared doing so would jeopardize state and federal reimbursements of county costs related to the fires. FEMA officials in a Jan. 17 letter clarified that this is not the case, though the agency won’t reimburse the county for lost building fee income.


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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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