California Continues to Approve Sprawl in Wildfire Country

Public Domain. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Perhaps it is time for a rethink about what and where we build.

Recently (December 10) the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors approved a 20,000 home community on Tejon Ranch, an "uninhabited" vast 270,000 acre plot of land 60 miles north of the city that was first assembled in the 1850s and is now controlled by Daniel Tisch and a pile of institutions like The Vanguard Group, Third Avenue Management, Royce & Associates and Blackrock. Big money for a big project.

Tejon Ranch

Wikipedia/ Beenaroundawhile/CC BY 2.0The project has been in the works for 20 years, and had the support of some environmental groups because of an agreement in 2008 to leave almost 90 percent of it in its natural state. It is now finally getting approval, evidently because of concern about "a housing shortage in Southern California reaching crisis proportions." Others think this is a scam; according to The Real Deal,

The developer, Tejon Ranch Co., “has spun Centennial as a way to solve the L.A. housing shortage, but building 60 miles away is like a doctor attempting to cure a patient of the flu by amputating her leg,” said J.P. Rose, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Centennial deserves to be in a museum as an excellent example of 20th century sprawl development.”
land use plan

© Tejon Ranch Centennial Land Use Plan

It's what's known as "leapfrog urban sprawl"- mostly low and very low residential development separated by a long distance from the city and homes costing, in today's prices, between $425,000 to $550,000. Eighteen percent of the project is being set aside for "affordable" housing, but nobody says exactly what that means.

The project was approved on a 4 to 1 vote. The one supervisor who voted against it said she was concerned about wildfires, affordable housing, and urban sprawl. Activist lawyer J. P. Rose is back, noting:

“Centennial will pave over thousands of acres of irreplaceable wildlands, put residents at extreme wildfire risk, and clog our already congested freeways,” said J.P. Rose, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. ”Our county needs housing near existing job centers, not isolated developments in remote wildlands.”

In fact, it is a crazy place to build. Ken Pimlott, the outgoing director of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection tells the Associated Press that developments like this, at high fire risk, have to be reconsidered.

California already has the nation’s most robust building requirement programs for new homes in fire-prone areas, but recent fire seasons underscore more is needed. Officials must consider prohibiting construction in particularly vulnerable areas, said Pimlott. He said it’s uncertain if those decisions should be made by local land managers or at the state level as legislative leaders have suggested. But Pimlott said “we owe it” to homeowners, firefighters and communities, “so that they don’t have to keep going through what we’re going through. We’ve got to continue to raise the bar on what we’re doing and local land-use planning decisions have to be part of that discussion."

Tejon Ranch is being designed with fire in mind, with "anti-ember construction and buffers around homes. It would include four new fire stations and roads wide enough to help people evacuate from an area the state has designated as a 'high' and 'very high' fire hazard zone."

So we get lower density and wider roads to accommodate more traffic. It's one of those crazy tradeoffs. The fire risk gets higher because of climate change; as Pimlott says, “Folks can say what they want to say, but firefighters are living climate change. It’s staring them in the face every day.” In the meantime, we keep building sprawl that just makes it worse, right in the middle of a high fire hazard zone.

And this is all in California, where they actually appear to care about climate change.