California’s government is taking a more hands-on approach to prevent the construction of housing units in fire-prone scrublands by joining the Otay Ranch Lawsuit. The Attorney General’s office under Xavier Becerra has decided to take to the courts to halt work on a number of housing development projects across California that have already been approved by local county officials. These include a mega 23,000-acre Otay Ranch mixed-residential master planned community near Chula Vista. The Attorney General’s office claims that the Environmental Impact Reports of the Otay Ranch project underplays the severity of the wildfire risk and doesn’t take into account the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.
The project sites under dispute are Otay Ranch Village 13 and Otay Ranch Village 14. Village 13 is a planned community that would take up 692.5 acres and feature 1,881 single-family homes, 57 multi-family units, 20,000 square feet of commercial and office space, and a 200-room resort. It would also contain parks and managed open space, an elementary school site, and a fire station. Village 14 is even larger at 1,284 acres and would have 1,119 single-family residences, 10,000 square feet mixed-use commercial space, plus parks and a community fire station.
According to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office, “…Otay Ranch Village 13 project site has experienced numerous fires, including the October 2003 Mine/Otay Fire, which burned the entire Project area and nearly 40,000 acres overall. Sixty-eight fires have been recorded within 5 miles of the Otay Ranch Village 14 project site, 17 of which exceeded 50 acres. These include the 2007 Harris Fire, which burned 90,440 acres, including the majority of both Otay Ranch project sites.”
In April of this year, Governor Gavin Newsom announced $536 million in state spending for 2021 on fire prevention. The measures include doing prescribed burns in backwoods forests to clear excessive brush, and creating a fund to help the owners of older homes in fire-prone areas make them more fireproof. In the aftermath of some of the worst fires in California’s recent history, state lawmakers changed the California Environmental Quality Act in 2018, forcing developers to take wildfire risks into account in building plans. These changes to the Act is one of the justifications cited by the Attorney General’s office to take a more pro-active role in stopping such developments.
Why Could The Otay Ranch Lawsuit Backfire?
Like the rest of California, San Diego has been experiencing major housing shortage for quite some time. Demand for new homes is at an all time high and inventory is tight, causing prices to skyrocket. The two disputed Otay Mesa projects (Village 13 and 14) would have added almost 3,000 new homes to the housing market, levelling off sky-high house prices and cooling down a red-hot real estate market, making it easier for thousands of new homeowners to get on the property ladder. Developers with experience building planned communities in San Diego County are confident they can mitigate the risks of wildfires, stating that “… these types of subdivisions usually have several hundred feet of cleared brush around homes to prevent against fires.”
In an effort to combat the never-ending housing crisis in the state, Governor Gavin Newsom has set a goal to add at least 500,000 new homes to California annually. His own Attorney General’s efforts to challenge local county-level control over land-use decisions at a time when housing inventory is already at historic lows will do nothing to meet Newson’s lofty goal of half a million new homes each year. It will, in fact, exacerbate California’s on-going housing crisis.