Environmentalists Halt Fanita Ranch Development Over Fire Evacuation Concerns

Fanita Ranch
Fanita Ranch in Santee. REUTERS / Mike Blake

The view from up high Fanita Ranch is almost 360 degree sloping hills and gorges covered with courtyards, with only a few houses visible in the far southwest.

The idyllic setting, with a sage scent popping up in the wind, has long made Fanita Ranch an object of desire for property builders. There is also a very high risk of fires.

Van Collinsworth remembers when in 2003 the Cedar Fire roared on the same hills just above his home in the San Diego suburb of Santee. At the time it was the largest fire in the history of Californiadestroying 2,820 buildings and killing 15 people, and climate change has only intensified since.

“The fire was moving like a freight train,” said Collinsworth, a 63-year-old former wildfire firefighter, on a recent afternoon at 97 Fahrenheit, pointing to his unexplored bush northeast of Sandy, his childhood home.

Local subsidiary of New York Investment Bank Jefferies Financial Group wants to build nearly 3,000 homes on Fanita Ranch, increasing Santee’s 60,000 population by perhaps another 10,000. But Jefferies is facing a new legal practice based on firefighting that has stopped growing and others like it up and down California.

The non-profit Biodiversity Center successfully sued to stop Fanita Ranch, largely on the grounds that evacuation plans were inadequate. As part of its ruling on April 6, the judge found that one of the project’s alleged escape routes to a state highway was a dead end. Collinsworth is a member of the team Wild Santee Conservation who was among the plaintiffs.

In response, developers are reviewing evacuation plans, said Jeff O’Connor, vice president of community development for Jefferies HomeFed Corporation. They expect to re-submit plans to the city council by July.

“We offer a place for people to sleep at night. “And they’re trying to stop us,” O’Connor said.

At stake is the future housing plan in California, where the population of 40 million has nearly doubled in the last 40 years as developers meet growing demand by building further in dry, windswept canyons. Meanwhile, the state’s fires are more and more destructive. The eight fires that have since surpassed Cedar in size have all burned since 2017, with five of the top seven in 2020.

The effects could extend beyond state borders. California is closely monitored for both its leadership in environmental issues and the lessons that other states can learn as they deal with fire and housing issues.

The Center for Biodiversity Center’s legal line of attack, which has its roots in California environmental quality law, has become increasingly effective since the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed 11,000 homes in Paradise. of California. Some of the 85 people were killed they were engulfed in flames as they got stuck in traffic trying to escape.

The center has played a key role in halting four proposals for a total of more than 25,000 homes in recent years.

In addition to Fanita Ranch, the center’s lawsuits have halted plans for 1,800 luxury units in the Guenoc Valley in northern California pending further evacuation safety review. another 1,119 homes in San Diego County Otay Ranch Village 14 project for fire hazard. and 19,300 homes near the Tehachapi Mountains in Los Angeles County, again at risk of fire.

The center has also filed lawsuits that have not yet been heard challenging two other San Diego County projects.

“Paradise was definitely a moment of reckoning,” said Peter Broderick, a senior lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, who believes the growing size and intensity of the fires has contributed to public skepticism about building in areas prone to fires and prolonged drought has only added concern.

In the Guenoc Valley case and two others in San Diego County, the California Attorney General has joined to challenge the adequacy of the environmental reviews.

“Every year, tens of thousands of Californians are forced to flee their homes as a result of fires. “Dozens have died – often as a result of inadequate evacuation planning,” California Attorney General Rob Boda told Reuters.

As they watch the lawsuits gain momentum, builders say they are planning fire-resistant houses, wider evacuation routes and larger fires.

“There is no perfect place to build in California. And so we mitigate, we build according to the risk, “said Nick Cammarota, senior vice president and general counsel for the Building Industry Association of California.

The union also supports a bill that would require fire protection, including long evacuation routes to future communities planned by the original plan, and would give local fire authorities more responsibility for determining if the projects meet safety requirements. Such an arrangement could prevent interference from outside interests, say representatives of the construction industry.

In addition to the lawsuit, Preserve Wild Santee hopes voters will reject the move once and for all in a referendum set for the November polls.

The city of Santee said it would abide by the judge’s mandate for the time being and would later “consider taking action on the referendum,” Arliss Cates, the city council secretary and city manager, said in an email to Reuters.

Modern information technology has improved the efficiency and accuracy of large-scale evacuations, said Santee’s fire chief John Garlow, who said he believed officials could safely evacuate a fully developed Fanita Ranch.

Governor Gavin Newsom has launched a strategy to curb the spread of wildfires and promote more construction in densely populated urban neighborhoods through grants and tax breaks to help offset higher downtown land values.

But builders say that is not what home buyers are asking for.

“We are trying to design and build communities where people want to live,” said O’Connor, vice president of HomeFed. “Some people want to live in high-rise buildings in the city center. “But not everyone wants to do that.”

Environmentalists Halt Fanita Ranch Development Over Fire Evacuation Concerns Source link Environmentalists Halt Fanita Ranch Development Over Fire Evacuation Concerns

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