Assessing the costs of a house in woods

The romantic picture of a cabin in the woods, surrounded by gorgeous trees and visited by attractive wildlife, has taken a beating in the West in recent years as massive wildfires have destroyed large swaths of mountain forests and thousands of homes within them.

Now, because of the fire danger, it could become more costly to own a house in the woods in Colorado, based on the recommendations released this week by a task force created last January by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

That’s not inappropriate. As wildfires have grown larger and more prevalent, the cost to state taxpayers of fighting the blazes has increased substantially. People have a right to build homes where they want, assuming they meet approved zoning rules. But if those homes are costing people statewide more money to protect, those who build in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface should contribute more for this protection than, say, a homeowner in downtown Grand Junction.

So, among the recommendations of the Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force is one to have the state Legislature establish a fee for homes located within the interface zone. As proposed by the task force, the fee would be collected by the state and apportioned to local governments to help fight and prevent wildfires.

The proposal will likely be controversial, but creating such a fee system could help fund amenities like the state-owned air tanker fleet Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction has sought.

Other important recommendations include the development of statewide building standards and fire-prevention requirements for constructing homes in areas prone to wildfires. The standards would be enforced by local government entities, and possibly amended to meet local needs.

Additionally, the state would develop a method for identifying and quantifying the risk to every property in the interface zones. The information about risk could then be shared with local governments, insurance companies and prospective buyers of the property.

Some groups, notably developers and real estate organizations, are already gearing up to fight the recommendations of the task force. It’s likely not all of the recommendations will be adopted by the Legislature, at least not exactly as proposed.

But doing nothing would be a mistake, especially since the problem is only expected to become more severe.

According to a Colorado State University study cited by the task force, there were about 715,500 acres of developed property in the wildlands-urban interface in 2000, but that figure is projected to roughly triple to 2.1 million acres by 2030. The cost to the state of fighting fires and protecting homes in the interface has increased from about $10 million annually a few years ago to $54 million this year, The Denver Post reported.

The state should not attempt to price people out of enjoying their mountain properties with exorbitant fees, but it needs to develop a reasonable assessment of what it costs the rest of the state’s taxpayers to protect homes on those properties.


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