An Update on the Marshall Fire Recovery Efforts

Signs announcing “We’re Rebuilding” are posted in front of rows of empty lots, indicating that the bustling construction activity is a result of the 2021 Marshall Fire Disaster rather than typical subdivision construction. Some sites have handmade numbers proclaiming the address of the house that once stood there, while one lot had park benches and an outdoor fireplace arranged on a bare slab that must have once been the living room. The fine line between a house taken by the fire and a house that remains is a sobering sight to witness while driving down the block.

On Thursday, March 2nd, the AIA Colorado Board of Directors heard from Kim Sanchez, Boulder County Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning, about the ongoing rebuilding efforts in Boulder County following the Marshall Fire of December 2021. Rebuilding efforts in unincorporated Boulder County have been slower than in neighboring municipalities due to many of the custom-built, higher-end homes that were lost, as well as the older demographic of residents, many of whom are retirees facing tough decisions on whether or not to rebuild.

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Ms. Sanchez shared an online tool that her office is using to track rebuilding progress: the Boulder County Marshall Fire Rebuilding Dashboard. The dashboard shows real-time information about the status of rebuilding efforts, including the number of lots that have been issued cleanup permits and how many building permits are in progress or have been issued. As of yet, no certificates of occupancy have been issued.

Ms. Sanchez emphasized that success following this disaster should not be measured solely in quantitative data. Her office is committed to meeting people where they are and understanding that not everyone will want or be able to rebuild. She recognizes that the challenge of underinsured properties and aging residents will prevent many homeowners from rebuilding. Her office is focused on quickly and efficiently guiding homeowners through the permitting process without pressuring them to apply before they are ready.

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After the fire, Boulder Planning and Zoning streamlined the permitting process for residents who lost their homes. Using their experience from previous disasters, Ms. Sanchez’s office was able to quickly respond to the tragedy. The Boulder County Land Use Code already had an amendment in place addressing disaster response, and the county was able to rapidly adopt Section 19-500, which is specific to the recovery efforts of the Marshall Fire. The amendment reduces building permit fees for homeowners wishing to rebuild and allows for minor modifications to the original floor plan without a full site plan review.

The Planning office is also focused on “Resilient Rebuild,” which seeks to meet the needs of the community and includes many available rebates and incentives for building to higher energy standards. Although they did not roll back energy code requirements, which was initially requested by residents, they are working to educate homeowners on the many tax credits and incentives available for building to higher energy standards. Now, they are finding that many residents are voluntarily choosing to build to higher standards than the county’s adopted BuildSmart codes. Additionally, they are experimenting with a pilot program to allow for “Disaster Recovery ADUs,” which would allow residents to build structures up to 900 SF and live on their property while their house is reconstructed. Under normal conditions, Boulder County code does not allow for ADUs.

Although her office has assigned rebuilding coordinators to each case, Ms. Sanchez stressed that the role of architects and builders will be to help guide clients through the permitting process and take full advantage of all available incentives. In June of 2022, Boulder County hosted a virtual town hall with local building professionals to educate them on the incentives available and to hear from the design community about the roadblocks they have encountered while working with homeowners on their rebuilding projects.

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After the presentation, board members expressed their appreciation for the County’s efforts to collaborate with the community and eliminate obstacles to rebuilding, recognizing that not all jurisdictions have been as responsive. The discussion shifted towards how other counties in Colorado could follow the lead of Boulder County in building resilience before a disaster strikes. To conclude the session, the board members were given a self-paced tour of several rebuilding sites in the burn area.

We extend our gratitude to Ms. Sanchez for sharing her insights and to Scott Rodwin, AIA Colorado North Director, for arranging the enlightening presentation and tour.

— Anna Friedrich, Assoc. AIA, Designer II, 505Design

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