The threat of forest fires becomes a tool to fight home builders

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

Because of this, he staunchly opposed a plan to build more than 1,100 homes in a fire-prone area, which he said would be difficult to evacuate safely. Brown sits on the local planning commission and said the extra people would clog 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, achieved a win last year. A California court sided with a coalition of environmental groups and blocked a developer’s plan called Otay Village 14, which included single-family homes and commercial space. The groups argued the district failed to adequately account for escape routes, and the judge agreed.

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


Environmental groups are seeing increasing success in California courts, which argue that wildfire risk has not been fully addressed in proposals to build homes in fire-prone areas that sit at the edge of forests and bushes, known as the wildland-city interface. Experts say such litigation could become more common.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has supported a handful of the lawsuits and notified the developers.

“You can’t keep doing things the way you have been when the world around us is changing,” Bonta said in an interview, adding that he advocates more housing. His office, for example, has questioned the increased fire risk of a 6,475-acre project that includes a luxury resort and 385 residential lots in Lake County, about 209 kilometers north of San Francisco, in an area that has already seen significant fires.

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 minimizing fire risk, he said.


Developers say they are already factoring wildfire risks into their plans, adhering to strict fire codes and adhering to state environmental guidelines, all while trying to solve one 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 halt development. The AG office has also become involved on this page. Last year, the City of Encinitas refused a permit for a condominium complex on the grounds that outbound traffic could be disrupted in the event of a fire.

Encinitas — a city with an average home price of $1.67 million — is thwarting the state’s affordable housing goals, Bonta’s office wrote. Months later, the commission approved the developer’s plan with some modifications.


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


The result is more lawsuits.

Opponents of the developments use the much-hated California Environmental Quality Act against local governments in these lawsuits. This law ensures that there is enough information about projects like Otay Village 14 to allow officials to make informed decisions and address issues. In 2018, the state tightened wildfire risk disclosure requirements, making developers more vulnerable to this type of litigation.

Peter Broderick, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said environmental groups are challenging “the worst of the worst,” large projects in undeveloped, high-fire-prone areas that appeal to wealthy buyers.

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

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


But by fighting big developments, environmental groups are holding up thousands of homes, said Mark Dillon, an attorney representing the developers of Otay Village 14. New developments take fire risk seriously, employ fire resistance techniques and comply with building codes, he said. Otay Village 14 would build its own fire station.


California shouldn’t just focus on inner-city construction, countered Dillon.

“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 would adapt to changes in the environmental assessment law, but the attorney general’s office should issue a public policy.

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

Hernandez is representing an industry group that has sued Calabasas, an affluent community of over 20,000 residents northwest of Los Angeles, arguing that it miscited wildfire risk to deny a 180-unit development.

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

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


The housing shortage in California has made housing unaffordable for many middle- and low-income residents. Researchers, housing policy experts and others say development at the edge of the woods has been driven in part by these punitive home ownership costs in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and their suburbs.

In recent years, the state has passed measures to ensure cities build enough new homes, but a recently released statewide housing plan says 2.5 million new homes are 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 of low fire risk.

Meanwhile, activists have other projects in their sights.

Escondido’s NeySa Ely has a list of items like medicine and dog accessories to take with her the next time she has to flee a fire. She had to evacuate in 2003 and 2007. The first time, she recalls driving away and seeing flames in the rearview mirror.


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

Her house survived the fire, but the memory remained. When she heard about plans for Harvest Hills, a 550-unit development about a mile from her home, she worked to block it, fearing more residents and buildings in the area would clog roads and increase the risk of fire would increase .

The project hasn’t been approved yet, but if it does, Ely said, “I think there’s going to be some serious litigation.”


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Sarah Y. Kim

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