California Senate OKs Bills Expanding Firebreaks and Insurance Rights

May 20, 2004

Bills to expand firebreaks around some rural homes and give homeowners greater insurance rights were approved recently by the state Senate.

The four measures were introduced in response to the fires that ravaged large parts of Southern California last year.

Lawmakers voted 25-12 to send the Assembly a bill that would require firebreaks of at least 100 feet around homes in areas where the state has firefighting responsibilities and in high-fire-risk areas patrolled by local firefighters.

Insurers could require even wider breaks around certain homes under the measure by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica.

Currently state law requires homeowners to clear at least a 30-foot firebreak in those areas, but Kuehl said some local governments require breaks of up to 200 feet.

Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-La Mesa, called Kuehl’s legislation “sham reform” because it would leave in place environmental rules that could block brush clearance.

But Kuehl said her legislation followed the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission and would not “run roughshod over” the Endangered Species Act, the California Environmental Quality Act and other environmental protections.

A bill by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, that would bar an insurer from refusing to issue or renew a homeowner’s insurance policy because the homeowner made one claim in three years. Claims resulting from natural causes and fires that started elsewhere wouldn’t be counted toward that threshold. Additionally, no surcharge on a homeowner’s premium can be levied unless there are two or more claims in three years. This bill should protect consumers by prohibiting insurance companies’ “use it and lose it” practices while also providing insurers with the opportunity to re-evaluate policies for consumers filing multiple claims, according to the California Department of Insurance.

Legislation by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, that would bar homeowners’ insurers from using customers’ credit ratings in their underwriting decisions. The bill also would bar insurers from including in their databases whether a homeowner inquired about his or her policy. Bill supporters say that even asking questions about a policy can make it tougher to get insurance.

A measure by Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, that would require insurers to give homeowners additional information about the extent of their coverage or be forced to pay full replacement value if the home was destroyed. The costs shown would represent the additional premium that the consumer would be charged for the additional coverage, if the consumer were to opt for that category of coverage. Also amends the Petris disclosure language from “Extended Replacement Cost Coverage” to “Limited Replacement Cost Coverage with Additional Percentage Allowable” and “Replacement Cost Coverage” to “Limited Replacement Cost Coverage,” according to the California Department of Insurance.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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