California Sues San Diego Over Its High Fire-Risk Housing

The state has filed two lawsuits against San Diego County over two large housing projects that will put residents at extraordinary fire danger. There have been 68 fires within 5 miles of one of the planned sites.

(TNS) — The California Attorney General's Office joined two lawsuits against San Diego County on Wednesday, alleging leaders there are moving forward with a pair of giant housing projects that will pose extraordinary fire danger to residents.

The suits, which target two separate expansions of the Otay Ranch Resort Village in the dry scrublands outside of Chula Vista, are the latest show of force in the state's crackdown on development in fire-prone places.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra has taken issue with a handful of proposed developments recently, saying he doesn't want to see a repeat of what happened in Paradise and Wine Country, where suburban sprawl helped fuel catastrophic blazes.

In Wednesday's motions filed in San Diego Superior Court, the state joins two existing lawsuits claiming that the county Board of Supervisors did not meet its obligation under the California Environmental Quality Act to evaluate and reduce fire risk before approving the Otay Ranch additions. The suits suggest the supervisors need to redo their analysis of how the projects could cause more fires and increase the threat to residents, and reassess if and how the plans should move forward. While state law has long required impacts of new development to be addressed, the act, known as CEQA, was updated in 2018 to put greater attention on wildfire.

"Devastating wildfires have become the norm in recent years, with dozens of deaths and whole towns forced to evacuate," Becerra said in a prepared statement. "That's why local governments must address the wildfire risks associated with new developments at the front end. It is imperative for public safety — and required by the law."

The projects in San Diego County are part of the 23,000-acre Otay Ranch Resort Village, a new and sprawling community of tidy homes, shopping centers, schools, offices and manicured parks and lakes, built on former ranchland beneath the Jamul Mountains.

The planned developments at issue include 1,881 single-family homes, a 200-room resort and 20,000 square feet of commercial space in an area called the Proctor Valley Parcel, or Village 13, and 1,119 residences and 10,000 square feet of commercial space in an area called Village 14.

County officials have said they've worked to make sure the developers, including Baldwin and Sons of Newport Beach and the Jackson Pendo Development Co., addressed fire safety, including shrinking the footprint of the original proposal and widening roads to allow for quicker emergency departures. The proposal also calls for fire-resistant home-building materials, extensive fuel breaks and a new fire station.

Officials did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.

Supporters of the project also note the dire need for housing, particularly outside of expensive urban areas where many people have been priced out of the market. Concerns about affordability have pushed much of California's new development to the outskirts of cities and towns, to the "wildland-urban interface" where fires regularly burn.

In San Diego County, 68 fires have been recorded within 5 miles of the planned Village 14 project, according to the litigation. One was the 90,000-acre Harris Fire in 2007, which burned much of the Village 14 site as well as the planned Village 13 site.

The lawsuit challenging the Village 14 plan was originally filed by the Sierra Club. The suit challenging the Village 13 plan was filed by a group of environmental organizations that includes the Sierra Club as well as the Center for Biological Diversity. In addition to fire risk, the organizations take issue with the impact of the development on wildlife and increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Last month, the Attorney General's Office similarly intervened in a lawsuit against Lake County, claiming that plans for 1,400 luxury homes there, known as the Guenoc Valley Project, were moving forward without adequate review of fire danger.

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