Preston Brown knows the dangers of wildfires that come with living in the hills of rural San Diego County. He lived there for 21 years and was evicted twice.
That’s why he strongly opposes plans to build more than 1,100 homes in a fire-prone area that he says would be difficult to safely evacuate. Brown sits on the local planning commission, and said more people would block the road.
“It’s a very difficult place,” Brown said. “Now we always have fire.”
Opponents like Brown, a member of the Sierra Club and California Native Plant Society, prevailed last year. A California court has sided with a coalition of environmental groups and blocked a developer’s plan for Otay Village 14, which would include single-family homes and commercial space. The groups argued that the district did not adequately consider fire escape routes, and the judge agreed.
That’s not the only time California’s increasing fire cycle has been used as a starting point to oppose development.
Environmental groups are seeing significant success in California courts against proposals to build homes in fire-prone areas that sit on the edge of forests and woodlands, arguing that wildfire risk has not been fully considered. Experts say that such a dispute can be very common.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta supported some of the lawsuits and put developers on notice.
“They can’t keep doing things the way we’re doing things,” Bonta said in an interview, adding that he supports more housing. His office, for example, has requested a fire hazard increase for a 16,000-acre project that includes 385 homes and a luxury resort 130 miles north of San Francisco. .
Ato Bonta said that his office is working on designing a policy that will help developers and local officials avoid opposition from their office in the future. It provides guidance on evacuation routes, population planning and fire mitigation, he said.
Developers factor wildfire risks into their plans, adhere to strict fire codes and adhere to the state’s environmental policies, all while trying to alleviate one of the state’s most pressing problems: more housing.
Developers say communities sometimes use wildfire risk as a tool to stop development. The AG’s office has weighed in on this. Last year, the city of Encinitas denied a permit for an apartment building, citing the potential for egress traffic to be blocked in the event of a fire.
Encinitas — a city with a median home price of $1.67 million — was falling short of the state’s affordable housing goals, Bonta’s office wrote. Months later, the commission approved the developer’s plan with some changes.
Fire and rules
California is reeling under a mega-drought that has increased fire danger, with 12 of the 20 largest wildfires in its history occurring in the past five years. UC Berkeley researchers estimate that 1.4 million homes in California are located in high or very high risk areas. Activists say the public is becoming more aware of fire.
The result is many lawsuits.
Opponents of the measures are making use of the often-hated California Environmental Quality Act against local governments. That law ensures that there is enough information about projects like Otai Village 14 so that officials can make informed decisions and solve problems. In the year In 2018, the state tightened requirements for wildfire hazard disclosures, making developers more vulnerable to such litigation.
Peter Broderick, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said environmental groups are trying to “worst the worst” with large projects in undeveloped and high-risk areas for wealthy buyers.
“We’re talking about expansion,” Broderick said.
Pro-housing advocates say the state’s policy encourages sprawl.
Main house demand
But environmental groups fighting big developments are seizing thousands of homes, said attorney Mark Dillon, who represents the 14 developers of Otay Village. New developments take fire risk seriously, use fire resistance methods and comply with building codes, he said. Otai Village 14 will build its own fire station.
California shouldn’t just focus on building urban centers, Dillon said.
“We shouldn’t be banning single-family homes,” he said.
Jennifer Hernandez leads the West Coast Land Use and Environment Group at Holland & Knight LLP. Developers are adjusting to changes in environmental assessment laws, but the attorney general’s office needs to make public policy, she said.
“The ad hoc nature of the AG’s office’s unanticipated interventions creates policy disaster for California’s housing needs,” she said.
Hernandez represents the industrial group that sued Calabasas, an affluent community of more than 20,000 northwest of Los Angeles.
“It’s on the main street of an existing community,” she said. “And why does that matter?”
Calabasas City Manager Kydon Meek said the project violates open space laws and is in a high-risk area that recently burned, and the city has plans to meet new housing needs.
California’s housing shortage cannot afford homes for many middle- and low-income residents. Researchers, housing policy experts and others say the boom in edge-of-the-woods development is due in part to punishing housing costs in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and the suburbs.
In recent years, the state has passed measures aimed at helping cities build enough new homes, but a recent statewide housing plan said 2.5 million new homes are still needed over the next eight years.
Greg Pierce, a professor of environmental policy in Los Angeles, California, says there is very little land in California that is undeveloped, cheap, and less prone to fire.
Meanwhile, activists have more projects on their radar.
Neysa Ely of Escondido has a list of items like medicine and dog supplies to grab the next time she has to flee a fire. In the year She had to leave in 2003 and 2007. She remembers driving her car for the first time and seeing flames in the rearview mirror.
“That’s when I started crying,” Ellie said.
Her house survived that fire, but the memory stuck. So when she heard about the Harvest Hills plan for a 550-home development about a mile from her home, she worked to block it, hoping that more residents and buildings in the area would block the roads and increase the chance of a fire. .
The project hasn’t been approved yet, but if it is, Ely said, “I think it’s going to be heavily litigated.”
The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation to cover water and environmental policy.