For decades, it’s been a truism of California life and politics: The more development pushes out into formerly wild lands, the more damaging the forest and brush fires that follow.
This has played out to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in damage and more than 100 lives lost over the last five years, with fire after fire destroying homes and cutting off escape routes.
But still, development continued virtually unabated. Until early this year, when a judge in sparsely populated Lake County said no to a 16,000-acre luxury mixed use project on land partly singed by past fires and partly deemed likely to flare up in future ones.
Most seriously, Lake County Superior Court Judge J. David Markham wrote in his landmark ruling, the development could close off or overcrowd fire evacuation routes, dooming many to death, as happened during the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County.
Markham also noted that parts of the land involved in the putative Maha Guenoc Valley project have burned in 1952, 1953, 1963, 1976, 1980, 1996, 2006, 2014, 2015 and 2018.
It’s hardly surprising that such a landmark ruling comes in Lake County, which since 2012 has been victimized by the Cache Fire, the Clearlake Fire, the Ranch Fire portion of the Mendocino Complex, the Jerusalem Fire, the Pawnee Fire, the Valley Fire, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire and the August Complex Fire, which covered 1.032 million acres by itself in Lake, Glenn, Mendocino, Tehama, Trinity and Shasta counties after originating as 38 separate blazes.
The judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by state Attorney General Rob Bonta and several environmental groups claiming the project could prove disastrous to both its own future residents and guests but also to present area residents.
So Lake County and the developer are back to square one. This project won’t happen unless it is reduced, with major design changes and perhaps more roads.
Other judges had previously struck down smaller developments in both San Diego and Los Angeles counties due to fire risks, but the likelihood is that they will ultimately proceed, with a few changes. The fate of the Lake County project is less certain.
What is certain is that every time a major fire burns hundreds or thousands of homes, California’s serious housing shortage gets worse.
But state legislators don’t even try to be innovative or forward looking about this. Their steady answer for housing problems: more new development.
That was the thinking behind last year’s SB 9 and SB 10, which all but eliminated single-family zoning. They are now law, allowing virtually every current one-house lot to be split, with six new units replacing today’s one.
But those new laws require no new parking, no new water supplies, no new school buildings, no traffic mitigation — none of the measures developers of new tracts have had to provide over the last few decades.
The only way to keep these laws allowing massive amounts of piecemeal new housing from becoming permanent is to qualify a currently circulating ballot initiative for the November ballot and pass it, thus returning local land use decisions to locally elected city councils and county supervisors.
State lawmakers, many of whose campaigns are funded in large part by developers, assiduously ignore the fast-expanding vacancies in office buildings all around the state.
These are created when white collar workers at law firms, insurance companies, stock brokerages and many other concerns shift to working at home, as happened en masse when the coronavirus pandemic began two years ago.
Now a huge part of California’s work force says it will continue working at home indefinitely, and major companies from Google to Twitter to Hulu are saying OK. Meetings and conversations happen virtually, and employers say efficiency has not suffered much, if at all.
Some conversion of the office space left vacant by all this has already begun. But it needs to happen on a much larger scale if it’s to put a real dent in the housing problem.
Maybe, just maybe, the increasing difficulty of building near the convergence of wildland and urban sprawl will force legislators to make OKs automatic for the much less expensive conversions, even if that mean less profit for their developer patrons.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].