Baltimore Sun

Wildfire risk offers rationale in fighting developers’ plans

- By Michael Phillis and Suman Naishadham

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

That’s why he fiercely opposed a plan to build more than 1,100 homes in a fireprone area he said would be difficult to evacuate safely. Brown sits on the local planning commission, and he said the additional people would clog the road out.

“It’s a very rough area,” Brown said. “We have fires all the time now.”

Opponents such as Brown, a member of the Sierra Club and California Native Plant Society, scored a win 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 the county didn’t adequately consider fire escape routes, and the judge agreed.

That’s not the only time California’s escalating cycle of fire has been used as a basis to refuse developmen­t.

Environmen­tal groups are seeing increased success in California courts arguing that wildfire risk wasn’t fully considered in proposals to build homes in fire-prone areas that sit at the edge of forests and brush, called the wildland-urban interface. Experts say such litigation could become more common.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has backed a handful of the lawsuits, putting developers on notice.

“You can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing when the world is changing around us,” Bonta said, adding that he supports

more housing. His office has questioned the increased fire risk of a 16,000-acre project that includes a luxury resort and 385 residentia­l lots in Lake County, roughly 130 miles north of San Francisco in an area that has already seen significan­t 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 guidance on evacuation routes, planning for population growth and minimizing fire risk, he said.

Developers say they already consider wildfire risks in their plans, comply with strict fire codes and adhere to state environmen­tal policies, all while trying to ease another one of the state’s most pressing problems: the need for more housing.

Builders also say communitie­s sometimes unfairly wield wildfire risk as a tool to stop developmen­t. The AG’s office has weighed in on this side, too. Last year, the city of Encinitas denied permits to an apartment complex citing the possibilit­y of choked outgoing traffic if there were a fire.

Encinitas — a city with a

median home price of $1.67 million — was thwarting the state’s affordable housing goals, Bonta’s office wrote. Months later, the commission approved the developer’s plan with some changes.

Momentum to stop developmen­t has grown as California is withering under a megadrough­t that is increasing the risk of fire, with 12 of the 20 largest wildfires in its history taking place in the past five years. Researcher­s at the University of California, Berkeley, estimate 1.4 million homes in the state are located in high or very high-risk areas. Activists say the public is increasing­ly aware of fires.

But by fighting big developmen­ts, environmen­tal groups are holding up thousands of homes, said Mark Dillon, an attorney who represente­d the Otay Village 14 builders. New developmen­ts take fire risk seriously, employing techniques for 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 city centers, Dillon countered.

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

 ?? GREGORY BULL/AP 2017 ?? A helicopter drops water on a raging wildfire in Bonsall, Calif. California’s escalating cycle of fire has been increasing­ly cited as a basis to refuse developmen­t.
GREGORY BULL/AP 2017 A helicopter drops water on a raging wildfire in Bonsall, Calif. California’s escalating cycle of fire has been increasing­ly cited as a basis to refuse developmen­t.

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