Calif. Attorney General challenges new development in fire zones
Seeking to intervene on the side of EHL in two court cases in San Diego, Attorney General Becerra took a strong step toward reigning in reckless development by developer-controlled local governments.
Endangered Habitats League conduced expert analyses of the Otay Ranch Village 13 and 14 projects, both of which leapfrog into wildlands east of Chula Vista which have burned repeatedly in recent decades. They also shatter habitat for the endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly and the golden eagle. Neither project can be safely evacuated during a wind-driven fire. Self-serving EIRs rubberstamped by the County of San Diego and its fire authorities ignored the risk of fire ignitions and even said that if people couldn’t get out, they could just “shelter in place.” Studies show that homes burn even when built to new construction codes. EHL and other groups have filed CEQA lawsuits against both projects.
In a statement, the Attorney General argued that the EIRs do not adequately analyze the impacts of increased wildfire risk created by bringing thousands of new people and significant development to an undeveloped area. The motions to intervene also stress the inadequacy of greenhouse gas mitigation.
Local governments have buried their heads in the sand and continued to expand development into high risk fire zones despite escalating loss of life and property. State Senator Henry Stern has addressed the issue in legislation but local government opposition is expected. Local government is able to transfer the huge financial cost of firefighting onto the taxpayer-at-large.
EHL commends Attorney General Becerra (now Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Biden administration) for his leadership. Indeed, according to Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about wildfires, “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.”
The story was covered by the San Diego Union Tribute (“AG Becerra joins lawsuits against San Diego housing projects, citing wildfire risks,” March 17, 2020), the Associated Press (“California AG Challenges Housing Plans in Wildfire Areas,” March 17, 2020), and local TV stations. The AP quoted EHL:
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.
Besides litigating these cases, EHL will work with a new Board of Supervisors on better land use planning that puts housing in the right places as well as on on-the-ground solutions for the Otay Ranch sites.