Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last week that specifies the state’s fire prevention fee will be applied to “habitable structures.” The current law simply says the fee applies to structures.

The new language makes it clear that habitable structures are for residential use and exclude “commercial, industrial, or incidental buildings such as detached garages, barns, outdoor sanitation facilities, and sheds.”

The changes also exempt the fee if the State Board of Equalization may exempt any habitable structure that is subsequently deemed uninhabitable as a result of a natural disaster during the year for which the fee is due, as well as one subsequent year if the habitable structure has not been repaired or rebuilt.

To qualify for the exemption, the owner of the habitable structure must certify that the structure is not habitable as a result of a natural disaster and document that the habitable structure passed a defensible space inspection conducted by Cal Fire or by one of its agents within one year of the date the structure was damaged or destroyed.

Northstate District 1 Assemblyman Brian Dahle of Bieber in Lassen County sponsored the bill. His district includes Shasta, Lassen, Nevada, Siskiyou, Modoc, Plumas and Sierra counties, and portions of Butte and Placer counties.

“Like most North State residents, I’d rather see the fee simply repealed,” Dahle said in a press release. “In the meantime, this bill reforms some of the worst aspects of the fee. In particular, it was egregious that the law taxed homeowners who’d lost their homes to fire.”

Other amendments include removing the requirement that the fee be adjusted for inflation annually. That is now a discretionary decision of Cal Fire.

AB 2048 also eliminates the 20-percent penalty for each 30-day period in which the fee remains unpaid after becoming final and replaces it with the state’s general 10-percent penalty that applies to late payments of fees.

Another amendment addresses the possibility that the current litigation over the constitutionality of the fee may succeed. It authorizes the state to refund past fee payments even if the property owner did not file an official petition for redetermination with the appropriate fiscal year.

The amendment states, “The untimely petition may be treated as an administrative protest or claim for refund if the department determines that the facts presented indicate that the fire prevention fee originally determined may have been excessive or that the amount or the application of the fee may have been the result of an error by the department, its agent, or the State Board of Equalization.”

In 2011, the legislature passed AB 29X1 requiring the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to adopt emergency regulations to establish a fire prevention fee. In January 2012, the board issued regulations, establishing a fee of $150 per structure on a parcel located within SRA, with a $35 reduction for each structure that is also within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency. A structure was “defined as a building used or intended to be used for human habitation, on a parcel that is within a state responsibility area.”

Currently, the fee was adjusted for inflation and is $152.33 per habitable structure outside a fire protection district and $117.33 for habitable structures within a fire protection district.

Revenues from the fee are to be used exclusively for fire protection.