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Judge halts development due to forest fire evacuation issues

When Lake County approved plans for sprawling and luxurious development in the Guenoc Valley wine region in the summer of 2020, officials hailed the project as an economic ‘game changer’ that would create ‘mind boggling’ jobs. “.

But nearly a month later, as the LNU Lightning Complex blaze enveloped the development’s only escape route – a two-lane highway that winds through a steep canyon – critics said the plan was a potential disaster not only for future residents, but for those who already lived nearby.

Had the project been completed, they said, thousands of evacuees could have spilled onto the road and created a bottleneck similar to the one that doomed residents of Paradise in the 2018 camp fire. .

Now, a state court has sided with environmentalists and the California attorney general, and ruled that the county must revoke its approvals of the 16,000-acre mixed-use project, dubbed Maha Guenoc Valley, because the county had not properly analyzed how development would affect escape routes during a wildfire.

It is not known what the decision means for the future of the project, but the decision is only the latest in a number of cases which focus on the dangers posed by large developments in areas at increasing risk of Forest fire.

The development, which requires a mix of boutique hotels, residences and cohabitation units for the workforce as well as retail and leisure facilities, would attract approximately 4,070 new residents to the area, which is important given the census tracts where the population is estimated at 10,163 in 2017. “Additional people competing for the same limited routes can lead to traffic jams and evacuation delays, leading to an increase in related deaths. to wildfires, ”Lake County Superior Court Judge J. David Markham wrote in his ruling last week.

The project site, like much of Lake County, has experienced its share of wildfires. In addition to the 2020 blaze, the development footprint was burned by forest fires in 1952, 1953, 1963, 1976, 1980, 1996, 2006, 2014, 2015 and 2018, according to the attorney general’s office, who joined a lawsuit challenging the project.

“It is not a question of whether this area should be evacuated, it is a question of when,” said Peter Broderick, lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, who lodged the complaint.

Developer Lotusland Investment Group did not respond to requests for comment. Lake County officials said the way forward will depend on what can be accomplished from a regulatory standpoint and what actions the development team is prepared to take.

“If the end result of this decision is that the project does not move forward, it will be a huge loss,” said a statement from county supervisor Moke Simon, who represents the district where the project is located and congratulated him. for providing much needed economic benefits. and new housing units in the rural county which ranks among the poorest in the state. “We will continue to welcome any future opportunity to partner with Lotusland and others to promote thoughtful development in Lake County.”

The decision comes months after judges, citing the risk of fire, quashed approvals for a 1,119-home development in a fire-prone area of ​​San Diego County and a community of 19,300 homes on the southern flanks of the Tehachapi Mountains in Los Angeles County. The developers of the latter project then struck a deal with environmentalists to spend money on fire protection and prevention and building zero-emission homes.

The controls reflect a growing awareness that developers simply cannot continue to grow in unoccupied areas without dramatically increasing the risk of fire, especially as the warming and drying caused by climate change has prompted more of land to burn more intensely, said Stephanie Pincetl, a professor at UCLA. Institute of Environment and Sustainability.

“I think it shows people are starting to understand that the land use patterns of the past are not the ones we can continue to practice,” said Pincetl, who studies climate change, sustainable cities and fires. forest. Humans start about 95% of forest fires in the state, so when they move through a previously undeveloped area, the risk of inflammation skyrockets along with the risk to life and property, has t she declared.

State atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said local governments and developers have a responsibility to carefully review such projects. “We cannot continue to make short-sighted land use decisions that will have impacts decades from now,” he said in a statement.

Lotusland Investment acquired the property in 2016 and said its development will make Lake County a destination resort area. Formerly the retirement of British actress Lillie Langtry, the ranch is filled with oak forests, meadows, vineyards and pastures. It was one of the largest contiguous private properties in California, the group said at the time.

In addition to 1,400 residences and up to 850 hotel rooms and resort apartments, plans included a horseback riding center, golf course, shops and restaurants. The developer estimated that the project would employ more than 500 full-time people during 10 years of construction and more than 300 full-time staff for hospitality, maintenance and administration after its first phase.

Lotusland also submitted a 39-page wildfire prevention plan that it says was created in conjunction with the county and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The plan called for a series of fire breaks, herds of goats, sheep and cattle to graze the dry grasses and an emergency response system including high definition fire detection cameras, a fire station on place and a helipad.

County supervisor Simon hailed the proposed development as an example of one that would prevent fires rather than create them.

“In recent years, state policymakers have attempted to limit development in rural communities, in response to concerns about forest fires,” he said in a statement in March. “My position has long been that we need to build smarter in rural California, rather than halt development altogether. “

He said wildfires had destroyed 5.5% of the county’s housing supply since 2015, exacerbating long-standing economic challenges. Developing more housing and attracting more businesses was necessary to strengthen the economy, he said.

“None of these problems will happen if we take a perspective that areas of the state prone to forest fires should cease development,” he said.

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

“It’s basically a playground for the rich,” said Broderick, the lawyer. “It’s an ultra-luxurious resort – there are polo fields and golf courses. It does nothing to help California’s affordable housing crisis.

Pincetl said such developments often fail to deliver the kinds of economic benefits counties hope for when they approve them.

“It’s very rare for these places to go missing in the longer term due to the increased amount of services that need to be provided, including fire protection,” she said. Counties typically do not factor in the full amount of that cost, as fire protection is partially subsidized by all state residents through Cal Fire, she said.

Such developments also invariably increase greenhouse gas emissions, as they attract visitors and increase travel, she said. The Center for Biological Diversity estimated that the Guenoc Valley project would result in more than 30,000 tonnes of new greenhouse gas emissions each year.

The smarter alternative is to build dense infill development in urban areas where more people can be accommodated without increasing the risk of fire, Pincetl said. Entities responsible for giving the green light to land use would also have to bear the full amount of the firefighting costs, she said.

“If counties were to pay for their own fire protection, they wouldn’t allow this kind of development,” Pincetl said. “They couldn’t afford it. “




Los Angeles Times

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