California's attorney general is challenging some of the state's largest suburban development projects as local officials weigh the risk of increasingly devastating wildfires against the state's dire need for more housing.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Wednesday backed lawsuits opposing San Diego County's approval of environmental reviews for two projects in a very high wildfire hazard zone southeast of San Diego.
Last month Becerra backed Northern California court challenges alleging that Lake County officials failed to properly take into account the increased wildfire risk from approving 1,400 homes, 850 hotel rooms and resort apartments and other resort amenities on the 16,000-acre Guenoc Valley Ranch property.
A wildfire mitigation expert said it's past time for the state's top law enforcement official to step in, while the president of the state's building association said Becerra is overstepping by questioning local officials' safety precautions.
The Southern California projects are part of a 36 square miles (93 square kilometers) Otay Ranch residential development — the largest in San Diego County's history and nearly the size of San Francisco — that would cover highly flammable grassland, chaparral and sage with thousands of homes, parks and other amenities.
“The intervention of the attorney general is a fascinating escalation of power, effectively to force counties to do what they’ve rarely done — which is to rethink their greenlighting of any development at any place,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires.
Becerra's intervention in the Lake County lawsuits was the first time Miller knows of anywhere in the nation where the state has stepped in to argue that its interests in preventing wildfires trumps the county's interest in building more housing. That project neighboring Napa County encompasses 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) in a high wildfire risk zone that has burned repeatedly in recent years as California endured its worst wildfire seasons in history.
Becerra is acting under a 2018 update to the expansive California Environmental Quality Act. The state's Natural Resources Agency, at the Legislature's direction, created new standards for officials to analyze whether development projects will increase wildfire risks. A bill now pending in the state Legislature would bar new development in very high fire hazard severity zones.
“Devastating wildfires have become the norm in recent years, with dozens of deaths and whole towns forced to evacuate,” Becerra said in a statement. “That’s why local governments must address the wildfire risks associated with new developments at the front end.” He is awaiting Senate confirmation for secretary of health and human services in the Biden administration.
His filing Wednesday contends the environmental reviews for the San Diego County projects violated state law by not adequately evaluating the increased wildfire risk and by not taking proper steps to avoid or adjust for those risks.
“Not only would this project put new and existing residents at risk, it would destroy the habitat of the county’s most sensitive species and worsen the climate crisis" by increasing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, said Peter Broderick, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity that filed the suits.
Wildfires completely burned one of the two project sites in 2003, and a fire in 2007 burned most of both sites. Sixty-eight fires have been sparked within five miles of one of the projects. Becerra cited an analysis that found one of the projects is in the worst 1% of California zip codes in number of evacuation routes for the size of the population.
The proposed Otay Ranch Village 13 and Otay Ranch Village 14 projects would together develop nearly 2,000 acres with 3,000 homes — none set aside for affordable housing — along with 57 multifamily units, a resort with 200 guest rooms, plus commercial and office space, parks and open space, and two fire stations.
"We think (Becerra) is stepping over the line, primarily because you can’t build in these areas without putting together a very sophisticated plan fully approved by the local fire chief, fully approved by all the fire officials,” said California Building Industry Association president and CEO Dan Dunmoyer.
Aside from California's strict building codes in wildfire areas, “we are building parks, we’re building entire infrastructure systems that don’t burn and can protect these communities from fires," he said.
It's often unrealistic to rebuild in urban areas, as Miller and advocates including Gov. Gavin Newsom suggest, because of community opposition and the high costs compared to rural single family homes, particularly once structures climb above three stories, Dunmoyer said.
The state's Department of Housing and Community Development estimated that California needs to build another 100,000 housing units per year above its recent annual averages of 80,000 units to meet the projected housing need.
But Endangered Habitats League executive director Dan Silver opposed the upscale San Diego County developments that he said are far from jobs and transit and won't help with the state's deficit in low- to moderate-income housing.
“In truth what they’re really saying is let’s put houses in places we know will burn because we need to solve a housing problem," said Miller. "That’s not really good public policy.”
Becerra said his goal is to make sure San Diego County does all it can to ease the wildfire risks before building more homes in a dangerous area.
County Supervisor Jim Desmond, one of four supervisors who supported the project, declined comment.
“California is a gorgeous state, but it has mudslides, it has fire, it has flooding, it has earthquakes," said Dunmoyer. "You plan accordingly. And you mitigate it, you protect it, you use tough codes, and that’s what we’ve done.”