Wildfires, CEQA, Climate Change & the Courts
Recent Court Decisions Halt Constructing Projects, Invalidate CEQA Reviews for Failing to Assess Wildfire Hazards
Environmental and conservation groups have for quite a few years attempted to persuade California courts of the necessity to integrate climate change considerations into environmental analyses prepared under the state’s most vital environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Nonetheless, the California judiciary has demonstrated little appetite for doing so. Until now.
Recently, courts at either end of the state issued remarkably similar rulings invalidating environmental impact reports two California counties prepared under CEQA in reference to large development projects. Consequently, those projects are currently on hold.
Each of those cases were filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Each drew the eye of the California Attorney General’s Office, which intervened in each lawsuits, aligning itself with CBD to argue successfully that the CEQA analyses for each projects were legally inadequate.
For residents of California and far of the American West, the only most alarming manifestation of climate change is the frequency, size and intensity of wildfires which have ravaged the region in recent times. It’s the increased risk to public health, safety and the environment posed by wildfires that’s at the guts of the brand new court decisions.
As reported within the Sacramento Bee, the proposed Guenoc Valley Resort is a $1 billion luxury housing and resort project proposed for a rural portion of Lake County, near the Napa County border. The project encompasses 16,000 acres and would bring over 4000 people to a currently sparsely populated area. Notably, a considerable portion of the project site burned in a 2020 wildfire.
CBD and other environmental groups oppose latest housing and business projects in distant areas posing extreme wildfire risks. That’s a legitimate concern: the Sacramento Bee article notes that as many as 1.2 million latest homes are projected to be in-built California between 2000-2050 in what the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CalFire) classifies because the state’s highest wildfire risk areas. And as Lake County Superior Court Judge J. David Markham noted in his decision within the Guenoc Valley Resort case, “a big variety of wildfire-related deaths occur during attempts to evacuate” during wildfires. Indeed, within the 2018 Camp Fire–the worst in California’s history–at the least eight people burned to death of their cars while attempting to escape from their homes, stuck in evacuation traffic on clogged country roads.
That was the important thing CEQA issue within the CBD v. County of Lake case: whether evaluation of public safety risk and community evacuation plans is required under CEQA, and if the Guenoc project would exacerbate existing environmental hazards. CBD and California Attorney General Rob Bonta asserted that the reply to each questions was yes, and Judge Markham agreed. As Markham wrote in his lengthy decision, the project EIR “doesn’t give attention to the problem that’s required to be addressed by CEQA: whether evacuation of the residents within the nearby area can be affected by evacuation of the project’s residents during a wildfire.” The judge observed:
[People drawn to the area by the Guenoc project] “will likely compete with residents in the encircling area for secure evacuation routes. The extra people competing for a similar limited routes may cause congestion and delay in evacuation, leading to increased wildfire related deaths. That is undoubtedly a situation where the Project, by bringing a big number of individuals into the world, may significantly exacerbate existing environmental hazards; specifically, wildfires and their associated risks.”
Attorney General Bonta commented on the Lake County ruling:
“It is a win for Lake County residents who can rest easier knowing that this project will only move forward if the developer takes proactive steps to make sure their secure evacuation if and when a wildfire occurs.”
Meanwhile, a quite similar CEQA lawsuit played out in San Diego County recently. There, a developer proposed constructing the Otay Ranch project on 23,000 acres in an unincorporated, rural area–the biggest development project in county history. The planned development includes nearly 2000 latest residential units, a resort, and business and office space. Together, the project is projected to bring 7850 latest everlasting residents and guests to the world on a day by day basis.
CalFire has designated the world by which the Otay Ranch project is proposed as a “very high fire hazard severity zone”–CalFire’s most dangerous classification. And with good reason: the project site was completely burned within the 2003 Mine Otay fire, and the vast majority of the location burned again in a 2007 wildfire.
CBD filed a CEQA lawsuit against San Diego County and the Otay Ranch developer, making the identical arguments on which it prevailed within the Lake County case. Again, the California Attorney General intervened on CBD’s behalf. Late last yr, the San Diego Superior Court ruled, consistent with the Lake County Superior Court, that the Otay Ranch EIR was legally deficient for its failure to evaluate the rise in wildfire danger and public safety posed by the Otay Ranch project.
(In a related development, opponents of the large Tejon Ranch Centennial Project, which proposed 19,300 latest homes be in-built a rural portion of northern Los Angeles County, successfully advanced the identical CEQA/wildfire/public safety argument before the Los Angeles County Superior Court. After the judge ruled of their favor, that case quickly settled.)
These recent decisions in Lake County, San Diego County and L.A. County reflect a very important CEQA trend. They represent the primary time California courts have acknowledged that at the least one key consequence of climate change–the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires–warrants evaluation under CEQA.
To be certain, opposition to large development projects in rural areas is offset by California’s acknowledged housing crisis and the necessity to expand dramatically the quantity of statewide housing stock. However it’s profoundly poor public policy to site major housing projects in distant, wildfire-prone areas with minimal road infrastructure and inadequate evacuation routes. A far safer and environmentally-superior housing strategy is to pay attention latest housing developments in existing urban areas of the state.
Finally, two wildfire-related postscripts: first, a coalition of reports organizations published a 2019 study concluding that only 22% of communities in California’s most fire-prone areas currently have adequate, publicly-available evacuation plans. That’s an alarming statistic.
Second, California Insurance Commissioner Richard Lara recently suggested that the State of California should discourage latest development in fire-prone areas by withholding state funds for infrastructure “where risk from climate disasters is just too high.” That is a wonderful proposal.