Wildfire threat becomes tool to fight homebuilders

Preston Brown knows the risk of wildfires associated with life in the rural, chaparral hills of San Diego County. He has lived there for 21 years and has been evacuated twice.

Therefore, he vehemently opposed a plan to build more than 1,100 homes in a fire-hazardous area, which he said would be difficult to evacuate safely. Brown sits on the local planning commission, and he said the additional people will block the road.

“It’s a very rough area,” Brown said. “We have fires all the time now.”

Opponents like Brown, a member of the Sierra Club and California Native Plant Society, won last year. A California court has sided with a coalition of environmental groups and blocked a developer’s plan called Otay Village 14 that included single-family homes and commercial space. The groups argued that the country had not adequately considered fire escape routes, and the judge agreed.

This is not the only time that California’s escalating fire cycle has been used as a basis for refusing development.

Environmental groups see greater success in California courts, arguing that the risk of wildfires has not been fully considered in proposals to build homes in fire-prone areas that sit on the edge of forests and brush, called the wildland urban interface . Experts say such litigation could become more common.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has backed a handful of lawsuits that have notified developers.

“You can not continue to do things as we did when the world around us changed,” Bonta said in an interview, adding that he supports more housing. For example, his office questioned the increased fire risk of a 16,000-acre (6,475-acre) project that includes a luxury resort and 385 residential lots in Lake County, about 130 miles (209 kilometers) north of San Francisco in an area that already seen significant fire.

Bonta said his office is working on a policy that will help developers and local officials avoid future opposition from his office. It will provide guidance on evacuation routes, planning for population growth and reducing fire risk, he said.

Developers say they are already considering wildfire risks in their plans, complying with strict fire codes and complying with state environmental policies, all while trying to alleviate another of the state’s most pressing problems: the need for more housing.

Builders also say that communities sometimes unfairly use veldfire risk as a tool to stop development. The AG’s office also weighed in on this side. Last year, the city of Encinitas denied permits for an apartment complex, citing the possibility of suffocating outgoing traffic if there was a fire.

Encinitas – a city with a median house price of $ 1.67 million – has thwarted the state’s affordable housing goals, Bonta’s office wrote. Months later, the commission approved the developer’s plan with some changes.

Fire and litigation

California is languishing under a mega-drought that increases the risk of fire, with 12 of the 20 largest wildfires in its history occurring in the past five years. UC Berkeley researchers estimate 1.4 million homes in California are located in high or very high risk areas. Activists say the public is increasingly aware of fires.

The result is more lawsuits.

Opponents of the developments use the often hated California Environmental Quality Act against local governments in these lawsuits. That law ensures that there is enough information about projects like Otay Village 14 so that officials can make informed decisions and address issues. In 2018, the state stepped up requirements for disclosure of wildfire risk, leaving developers more vulnerable to this type of litigation.

Peter Broderick, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, said environmental groups are challenging “the worst of the worst”, large-scale projects in undeveloped, highly flammable areas that cater to affluent buyers.

“We’re talking about sprawl,” Broderick said.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

Great Housing Need

But by fighting major developments, environmental groups are holding up thousands of homes, says Mark Dillon, a lawyer who represented the Otay Village 14 builders. New developments take fire risk seriously by using fire resistance techniques and complying with building codes, he said. Otay Village 14 would build its own fire station.

California should not just focus on downtown construction, Dillon opposed.

“We should not ban the single-family home,” he said.

Jennifer Hernandez is Head of the West Coast Land Use and Environmental Group at Holland & Knight LLP. She said developers are adapting to changes in the environmental review law, but that the attorney general’s office should issue a public policy.

“The ad hoc nature of unexpected interventions by the AG’s office is doing a policy disservice to California’s housing needs,” she said.

Hernandez represents an industry group that has sued Calabasas, an affluent community of more than 20,000 northwest of Los Angeles, arguing that it improperly called it a wildfire risk to deny a 180-unit development.

“It’s in the main street of an existing community,” she said. “And why is that a problem?”

Kindon Meik, city manager of Calabasas, said the project would violate open space rules and is in a high-risk area that burned recently, adding the city has plans to meet its new housing needs.

California’s housing shortage has made homes unaffordable for many moderate and low-income residents. Researchers, housing policy experts and others say development on the edge of the forest has been driven in part by these punitive housing costs in cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and their suburbs.

In recent years, the state has adopted measures aimed at ensuring cities build enough new homes, but a recent nationwide housing plan said 2.5 million new homes are still needed over the next eight years.

Greg Pierce, a professor of urban environmental policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said there is very little land in California left that is undeveloped, inexpensive and at low risk of fire.

Meanwhile, activists have more projects in their sights.

NeySa Ely from Escondido has a list of items like medicine and dog supplies to grab when she has to flee a fire. She had to evacuate in 2003 and 2007. The first time she remembers driving away and seeing flames in the rearview mirror.

“At that point, I was just starting to sob,” Ely said.

Her house survived that fire, but the memory stuck. So when she heard about plans for Harvest Hills, a development of about 550 homes that were proposed about a mile from her home, she worked to block it, worrying that more residents and buildings in the area would block the roads. and would increase the chance of fire.

The project has not yet been approved, but if it is, Ely said: “I think it will be heavily litigated.”


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for water and environmental policy coverage. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment

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