Judge halts development over wildfire evacuation concerns


When Lake County approved plans for a sprawling luxury development in the Guenoc Valley wine region in the summer of 2020, officials hailed the project as an economic “game changer” that would create “amazing” jobs.

But almost a month later, when the lightning-triggered fire at the LNU Lightning Complex engulfed the settlement’s only evacuation route — a two-lane highway that winds through a steep ravine — critics said the plan was a potential disaster not only for future residents, but also for those who already lived nearby.

Had the project been completed, they said, thousands of evacuees could have spilled onto the streets, creating a bottleneck similar to the one that doomed Paradise residents at the 2018 bonfire.

Now a state court has sided with environmentalists and California’s Attorney General, ruling that the county must revoke its permits for the 16,000-acre mixed-use project, dubbed the Maha Guenoc Valley, because the county failed to provide the development to properly analyze evacuation routes during a wildfire.

It’s unclear what the ruling means for the future of the project, but the ruling is just the latest in a series of cases focused on the dangers posed by large-scale developments in areas with growing wildfire risk.

The development, which will require a mix of boutique hotels, residences and work communities, as well as retail and leisure facilities, would bring an estimated 4,070 new residents to the area — a respectable number given the census tracts, which have an estimated population of 10,163 in 2017. “The extra people competing for the same limited routes can cause congestion and delays in evacuation, resulting in an increased number of wildfire-related deaths,” wrote J. David Markham, Judge of the Lake County Superior Court, in its decision last week.

The project site, like much of Lake County, has seen its fair share of wildfires. In addition to the 2020 fire, the development’s footprint was scorched by wildfires in 1952, 1953, 1963, 1976, 1980, 1996, 2006, 2014, 2015 and 2018, according to the attorney general’s office, which joined a lawsuit against the project .

“It’s not a question of if this area needs to be evacuated, it’s a question of when,” said Peter Broderick, attorney for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the lawsuit.

“We are reviewing the Lake County Superior Court’s decision,” Chris Meredith, a partner in the project, which is being developed by Lotusland Investment Group, said in a statement. “We remain committed to working with the Lake County community and fire protection professionals to ensure this project is built in the right way to improve wildfire detection, prevention and response across the region.”

Lake County officials said the way forward depends on what can be achieved from a regulatory perspective and what steps the development team is willing to take.

“If the end result of this decision is that the project does not move forward, that will be a tremendous loss,” said a statement from County Supervisor Moke Simon, who represents the county where the project is located and is responsible for the vowed to provide much-needed economic benefits and new housing units for the rural county, which is among the poorest in the state. “We will continue to welcome any future opportunities to work with Lotusland and others to promote thoughtful development in Lake County.”

The decision comes months after judges, citing fire risk, denied permits for a 1,119-home development in a fire-prone area of ​​San Diego County and for a 19,300-home community on the southern flanks of Los Angeles County’s Tehachapi Mountains. The developers of the latter project later agreed with environmentalists to provide funds for fire protection and prevention and to build zero-emission homes.

The orders reflect a growing realization that developers simply cannot advance further into unoccupied areas without dramatically increasing the risk of fire, especially as climate change-induced warming and dehydration has prompted more land to burn more intensely, said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at the UCLA Institute for Environment and Sustainability.

“I think it shows that people are starting to understand that past land-use patterns are not ones that we can continue to practice,” said Pincetl, who studies climate change, sustainable cities and wildfires. About 95% of the state’s wildfires are man-made. So when they move into a previously undeveloped area, the risk of ignition skyrockets along with the danger to life and property, she said.

prosecutor. General Rob Bonta said local governments and developers have a responsibility to scrutinize such projects. “We cannot continue to make short-sighted land-use decisions that will have repercussions decades later,” he said in a statement.

Lotusland Investment acquired the property in 2016 and said its development would make Lake County a popular recreational area. Formerly the retreat of British actress Lillie Langtry, the ranch is filled with oak woodland, grasslands, vineyards and pastures. It was among the largest contiguous private lots in California, the group said at the time.

In addition to 1,400 homes and up to 850 hotel rooms and resort apartments, plans included an equestrian center, golf course, shops and restaurants. The developer estimated that the project would employ more than 500 full-time employees during the 10-year construction period and more than 300 full-time employees in hospitality, maintenance and administration after the completion of the first phase.

Lotusland also presented a 39-page wildfire prevention plan, which it says was created in cooperation with the county and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The plan called for a series of firebreaks, herds of goats, sheep and cattle to graze on dry grass, and an emergency system with high definition fire cameras, a fire station and a helipad.

County Supervisor Simon praised the proposed development as an example of preventing fires rather than starting them.

“In recent years, state policymakers have sought to restrict development in rural communities in response to wildfire concerns,” he said in a statement in March. “My position has long been that we need to build smarter in rural California rather than stop development altogether.”

He said wildfires have destroyed 5.5% of the county’s housing supply since 2015, compounding longstanding economic challenges. Developing more housing and attracting more businesses are necessary to boost the economy, he said.

“Neither of these will happen if we take a perspective that wildfire-prone areas of the state should halt all development,” he said.

However, some were skeptical that the project would house the residents who need it most.

“It’s basically a playground for the rich,” said attorney Broderick. “It’s an ultra-luxury resort — it has polo fields and golf courses. It does nothing to help California’s affordable housing crisis.”

Pincetl said such developments often don’t provide the kind of economic benefits that counties are hoping for by approving them.

“It’s very rare for these places to be busy for long periods of time due to the need to provide more services, including fire safety,” she said. Counties generally don’t account for the full amount of those costs because fire safety is partially subsidized by all state residents through Cal Fire, she said.

Such developments also inevitably drive up greenhouse gas emissions because they attract visitors and increase commuting, she said. The Center for Biological Diversity estimated that the Guenoc Valley project would result in more than 30,000 tons of new greenhouse gas emissions each year.

The wiser alternative is to build dense development in urban areas that can accommodate more people without increasing the risk of fire, Pincetl said. Entities responsible for green lights for land use should also foot the full cost of fighting the fire, she said.

“If the counties had to pay for their own fire protection, they would not allow such a development,” said Pincetl. “They couldn’t afford that.” Judge halts development over wildfire evacuation concerns

Tom Vazquez

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