HomeTechnologyWildfire threat becomes tool to fight homebuilders

Wildfire threat becomes tool to fight homebuilders


Preston Brown knows the wildfire risk that comes with living in the chaparral-fringed rural hills of San Diego County. He has lived there for 21 years and has evacuated twice.

That’s why he fiercely opposed a plan to build more than 1,100 homes in a fire-prone area that he said would be difficult to evacuate safely. Brown is on the local planning commission and said the extra people would block the road.

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

Opponents like Brown, a member of the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society, scored a victory 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 county did not adequately consider fire escape routes, and the judge agreed.

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That’s not the only time California’s growing cycle of fires has been used as a basis for rejecting development.

Environmental groups are having greater success in California courts arguing that wildfire risk was not fully considered in proposals to build homes in fire-prone areas that sit on the edge of forests and brush, known as the wildland-urban interface. Experts say such litigation could become more common.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has backed a handful of lawsuits, putting developers on notice.

“You can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them when the world is changing around us,” Bonta said in an interview, adding that he supports more housing. His office, for example, questioned the increased fire risk of a 16,000-acre (6,475-hectare) 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 has already seen significant fire.

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

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

Builders also say communities sometimes unfairly use wildfire risk as a tool to stop development. The attorney general’s office has also weighed in on this side. Last year, the city of Encinitas denied permits to an apartment complex citing the possibility of outbound traffic being obstructed if there was a fire.

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

California is withering under a megadrought that is increasing fire risk, 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 the fires.

The result is more lawsuits.

Opponents of the developments are using the oft-hated California Environmental Quality Act against local governments in these lawsuits. That law ensures there is enough information about projects like Otay Village 14 for officials to make informed decisions and address issues. In 2018, the state tightened wildfire risk disclosure requirements, leaving developers more vulnerable to wildfire litigation.

Peter Broderick, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said environmental groups are challenging “the worst of the worst,” big projects in highly fire-prone, underdeveloped areas catering to wealthy buyers.

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

Housing advocates have said the state’s policies encourage sprawl.

But by fighting big developments, environmental groups are blocking thousands of homes, said Mark Dillon, an attorney who represented the builders of Otay Village 14. New developments take fire risk seriously, employing fire-resistance techniques and complying with building codes, he said. Otay Village 14 would build its own fire station.

California shouldn’t just focus on building in city centers, Dillon responded.

“We shouldn’t ban single-family homes,” he said.

Jennifer Hernandez leads the West Coast Land Use and Environment Group at Holland & Knight LLP. She said developers are adjusting to changes in the environmental review law, but the attorney general’s office should issue public policy.

“The ad hoc nature of unexpected interventions by the attorney general’s office hurts the policy of California’s housing needs,” he said.

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

“It’s on the main street of an existing community,” he said. “And why is this a problem?”

Calabasas City Manager Kindon Meik said the project would violate open space rules and was in a high-risk area that had recently burned, adding that the city has plans to meet its new housing needs. living place.

The housing shortage in California has made housing unaffordable for many low- and moderate-income residents. Researchers, housing policy experts and others say that forest edge development has been fueled in part by these punitive housing costs in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and their suburbs.

In recent years, the state has passed measures intended to ensure cities build enough new homes, but a recent state housing plan indicated that 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 left in California that is undeveloped, cheap and has low fire risk.

Meanwhile, activists have more projects in their sights.

NeySa Ely of Escondido has a list of items like medicine and dog supplies to grab the next time you need 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 started sobbing,” Ely said.

His house survived that fire, but the memory stayed. So when she learned of the plans for Harvest Hills, a proposed development of about 550 homes a mile from her home, she worked to block it, worried that more residents and buildings in the area would clog roads and 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 coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/environment

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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