California must accelerate housing construction to close the ever-widening gap between supply and demand and mitigate the high costs of shelter that are driving families into poverty and contributing to the state’s homelessness crisis.
However, given the seemingly continuous series of devastating wildfires that California has been experiencing, caution dictates that we should also avoid housing development in what is called the “wildland urban interface,” where wildfires are most likely to have cataclysmic impacts.
The friction between these two imperatives plays out in the political arena, where bureaucracy creates land use policy.
Case in point: Two years ago, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that would have required local governments to make fire safety a major factor in approving housing development in fire-prone areas by forcing developers to include safety features.
The measure was taken in response to a spate of deadly wildfires, including a campfire that destroyed the rural community of Paradise in 2018, killing 86 people.
Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, saying that while he supports its goals, it “creates a loophole for regions to not meet their housing requirements.”
“Wildfire resilience must become a more consistent part of land use and development decisions. However, it must be done while meeting our housing needs,” Newsom wrote.
In the absence of a clear policy from the Legislature and the governor to limit construction in fire-prone areas of the state, Attorney General Rob Bonta stepped in.
This year, he joined forces with environmental groups to stop a massive housing and golf resort project in Lake County, where wildfires are a constant threat. A Lake County judge said local authorities and the developer did not pay enough attention to the Guenoc Valley project’s vulnerability to wildfires.
The ruling “confirms a basic fact: Local governments and developers have a responsibility to take a hard look at projects that exacerbate wildfire risk and threaten our communities,” Bonta said. “We cannot make short-sighted land use decisions that will have impacts for decades. We have to build responsibly.”
This week, Bonta took the next step, issuing a set of guidelines for local authorities to follow when assessing the potential fire hazard of proposed developments.
It states that it is “imperative that local jurisdictions making decisions to approve new development carefully consider wildfire impacts as part of the environmental review process, plan where best to locate new development, and mitigate wildfire impacts to the extent practicable.”
Unveiling the policy in San Diego County, whose fast-growing inland communities are constantly threatened by wildfires, Bonta said, “This is the new normal. In terms of development, we cannot continue business as usual. We have to adapt. We have to change.”
Bont’s directives do not have the force of law, but contain an implicit threat that his office will intervene if they are ignored, as was the case in Guenoc Valley.
Avoiding living in areas with extreme fire danger would seem like common sense, but with the exception of a narrow strip of land along the Pacific Ocean, the flatlands of the Central Valley, and the deserts of Southern California, this state is mostly tinder.
In addition, Californians prefer to live in single-family homes in scenic locations when they can, so developers want to cater to those preferences and that’s why they’re designing projects like Guenoc Valley.
The issue requires something more definitive than a document from the Attorney General. As they increase the pressure for more housing development, Newsom and the Legislature should also delineate where it should — and should not — happen.
CalMatters is public interest journalism committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. More stories from Dan Walters can be found in the comments.