California ultra-luxury project halted on wildfire risk

Judge rules mass evacuation must be considered before development moves forward

(Lotusland Investment Holdings)
(Lotusland Investment Holdings)

Plans for 1,400 luxury homes in a wildfire hotspot about 90 miles north of San Francisco have been put on hold over concerns about how residents would be evacuated when the next blaze hits.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a Lake County Superior Court judge ruled this week that the so-called Guenoc Valley Project can’t move forward until planners figure out what would happen should a mass evacuation sends thousands of residents fleeing down the small country roads that lead to the community.

The development, proposed by Lotusland Investment Group of San Francisco, features the homes along with a golf course, culinary school and five boutique hotels on 25 square miles of rolling hills snuggled between Sonoma and Napa counties — but on land that has been hit by fires four times in the last 10 years, and 11 times since 1952, according to the suit.

Lake County’s Board of Supervisors approved the project two years ago, according to the newspaper, but a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity — and later joined by the state attorney general’s office — claimed developers didn’t do enough to address the risk of fire.

Planners did include fire safety measures such as designated areas to flee to, fire cameras, and fire breaks, and the judge’s ruling conceded many risks were dealt with, but the prospect of a mass evacuations was not — and that was enough to hit the pause button.

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Critics of the project praised the decision, according to the publication, calling it a step in the right direction when it comes to land management in an area prone to dangerous conditions.

“This has statewide implications,” said Peter Broderick, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Developers need to start looking at the impact of development to the surrounding communities in fire-prone areas.”

But Lake County officials said that developers had done more than their fair share, including proposing a new fire station and helipad, and that if the ruling ultimately kills the project, it will be a “tremendous loss” to the community.

The project is one of a number being challenged by the state’s attorney general in a crackdown that hopes to reduce California’s wildfire danger. It comes in the aftermath of the devastating fires in Redding, Santa Rosa and other cities that the AG says proves housing sprawl can be additional kindling for wildfires, according to the publication.

“Local governments and developers have a responsibility to take a hard look at projects that exacerbate wildfire risk and endanger our communities,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. “We can’t keep making shortsighted land use decisions that will have impacts decades down the line. We must build responsibly.”

[San Francisco Chronicle] — Vince DiMiceli

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