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The threat of wildfires becomes a tool to fight against homebuilders

Fire crews prepare to defend a home as a wildfire progresses near Bonsall, California. Environmental groups have argued in California courts that developers did not fully consider wildfire risks and choked escape routes when planning subdivisions near fire-prone areas. (AP File Photo/Gregory Bull)

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

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

“It’s a very tough 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 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 sufficiently consider escape routes in the event of a fire, and the judge agreed.

This isn’t the only time California’s growing fire cycle has been used as a basis for denying development.

Environmental groups are seeing increased success in California courts arguing that wildfire risk has not been fully considered in proposals to build homes in fire-prone areas at the edge of forests and scrub, called the wilderness-urban interface. Experts say such disputes could become more common.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has backed a handful of lawsuits, warning the developers.

“You can’t keep doing things the way we do 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 project that includes a luxury resort and 385 residential lots in Lake County, about 130 miles north of San Francisco in an area that has already experienced a major 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 advice on evacuation routes, planning for population growth and minimizing fire risk, he said.

Developers say they already factor wildfire risk into their plans, adhere to strict fire codes and adhere to state environmental policies, while trying to address another of the most pressing issues. of the state: the need for more housing.

Builders also say communities sometimes unfairly use wildfire risk as a tool to stop development. The office of the AG also weighed on this side. Last year, the city of Encinitas denied permits to an apartment complex citing the possibility of choked outbound traffic in the event of 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 modifications.

Fires and lawsuits

California is languishing under a mega-drought that is increasing fire risk, with 12 of the 20 largest wildfires in its history 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 increasingly aware of the fires.

The result is more lawsuits.

Opponents of the developments are using California’s oft-hated Environmental Quality Act against local governments in these lawsuits. This law ensures that there is enough information about projects like Otay Village 14 for officials to make informed decisions and resolve issues. In 2018, the state tightened wildfire hazard disclosure requirements, 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 projects in undeveloped, fire-prone areas that are aimed at wealthy buyers.

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

Housing advocates said state policies encourage sprawl.

Major housing need

But in battling large developments, environmental groups are blocking thousands of homes, said Mark Dillon, a lawyer who represented the builders of Otay Village 14. The new developments take the risk of fire seriously, using techniques fire resistance and complying with building codes, he said. Otay Village 14 would build its own fire station.

California shouldn’t just focus on building in inner cities, Dillon countered.

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

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

“The ad hoc nature of the AG’s office’s unexpected interventions does a political disservice to housing needs in California,” she said.

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

“It’s on the main street of an existing community,” she 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 plans to meet its new building needs. lodging.

California’s housing shortage has made housing unaffordable for many middle- and low-income residents. Researchers, housing policy experts and others say the development at the edge of the forest has been driven in part by these painful real estate costs in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and their suburbs.

In recent years, the state has taken steps to ensure 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 urban environmental policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said there was very little land left in California that was undeveloped, cheap and 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 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 rear view mirror.

“At that point, I just started sobbing,” Ely said.

His house survived this fire, but the memory remained. So when she heard of plans for Harvest Hills, a proposed development of around 550 homes about a mile from her home, she worked to block it, fearing that more residents and buildings in the area would obstruct roads and increase the risk of fire. .

The project hasn’t been approved yet, but if it is, Ely said, “I think it will be highly contentious.”