By Frank Landis, Chairperson Conservation Committee
Yes, I’m aware that the worst San Diego heat-waves are typically in June and July, and hopefully we’re done with that. All we have to worry about are the fall fires. And politics. And the politics and science of fires.
By the time you read this, I suspect that the County Supervisors will have approved their first General Plan Amendment Bundle (GPA), since they’re hearing it on July 25. This one bundles Harmony Grove Village South, Valiano, and Otay Village 250. The first two appear to be the most controversial, primarily because of fire issues.
Unfortunately, the County seems hell-bent on ignoring its general plan and bargains made with communities about where to put dense growth and where not to grow. Instead, they appear to be following the old political aphorism that you shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste when it comes to making money.
The current crisis is a lack of affordable housing. There are arguments about the causes, but they include (in no order) gentrification replacing affordable apartments with condominiums, short-term systems like AirBnB displacing rentals with investment properties, out-of-town investors buying properties and pushing up property values, community activists campaigning against high density housing for various reasons, middle-class and higher economic migrants from other parts of the U.S. moving here for jobs and pushing up housing prices, and, perhaps, CEQA and the whole complex process of getting developments started.
The County response (and to some degree the Cities of San Diego and Escondido responses) have been to push for more developments, projects like Valiano, Harmony Grove Village South, Lilac Hills Ranch, Safari Highlands, and so on. While this superficially sounds like the solution, when you actually look at the projects, there is precious little affordable housing in any of them. Most of them are devoted to high-end homes, priced above a half million dollars and out of the reach of median income families in San Diego.
Why do developers do this? If you believe them (a questionable choice), it’s all they can afford to build, unless (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) California gets rid of CEQA. Others in the real estate industry sharply dispute this analysis, saying that it’s simply a rationalization of prejudices, partly for the goal of making money, but more because it’s what they know how to do, never mind that the high-end market is becoming saturated. Perhaps there’s a bubble blowing in the high-end market, perhaps not.
As for the other causes, they’re all true, except that bit about CEQA. It’s not the law itself that is the problem, it’s the games people play with it.
Some communities do try to do the right thing by allowing denser and affordable housing to be built in them. That’s what Elfin Forest did. Years ago, their planning group was told by the County that, despite their rural lifestyle, they needed to take more homes because the County’s population was going to grow. Their local planning group decided that Harmony Grove Village was where they would put the high density development, and they let it get built. They thought they had an agreement with the County, but the County is now pushing for two more high density developments (Valliano and Harmony Grove Village South) that would add thousands of people to the Elfin Forest fire evacuation route without widening the road. The planning group bitterly opposes these additional developments, and they feel that the County betrayed them. Perhaps Elfin Forest will seek to become their own city, as Encinitas and others have done, simply to be done with County planning. The warning is there, unfortunately—if the County cannot be trusted to keep the faith in deals it makes, what can you do with them? This poisons planning efforts, like the North County MSCP, which seek to create long term programs to guide growth into less dangerous areas.
This political mess combines with fire dangers. As you know, we’re getting to the climate-changed norm of year-round fires, with threats especially on the“shoulders of the season” which used to be in November but have moved into December. As we all know, the problem is that anything flammable will burn if it’s dry enough, and heavy rains one winter are no guarantee that the rest of the year won’t turn them into tinder for the following December, as happened in 2017.
But that’s only half the story. Santa Ana winds may be capricious, but only in timing, not in location. There’s increasing evidence, from historical fire maps, that California is composed of different fire landscapes. Some burn frequently, some do not. The 2017 Tubbs fire up in the Wine Country burned almost exactly the same area that had burned in the 1950s. It was so much more damaging than the older fire because there were so many more homes in the area. Areas that have burned in the past will burn in the future, but when they burn is up to the weather.
This is a problem for many of the new developments. The land under Valiano and part of Harmony Grove Village South burned in 2015, Lilac Hills Ranch is across the road from the 2017 Lilac Fire, Safari Highlands Ranch has burned four times in the last 100 years, and Otay Ranch Village 14 is no better. It’s easy to guess that every single one of these will burn again.
Why do the Supervisors allow these houses to be built? It’s complicated and somewhat cringeworthy. For one thing, they won’t pick up the tab, or likely even the blame (due to term limits) for approving houses that later burn. Insurance companies and the federal government typically handle disaster relief, while the state may help with the firefighting costs. This is a problem throughout the state, as communities permit people to live in harm’s way. The people doing the permitting are not held responsible for their actions, even when the results are predictable. For example, supposedly they’re busy rebuilding homes in the footprint of the Tubbs fire. These homes will aspire to be more fireproof, but we’ll see what happens next time.
There is a backlash to this problem from insurancecompanies. Their business model doesn’t allow them to lose billions of dollars in other people’s predictable disasters, so they’re starting to work on what they can do to stop the disasters from happening. One thing they are considering is rating municipalities based on howmany people they are putting in harm’s way to thingslike fire, with the goal of lowering their municipal bond ratings and charging them more money to build infrastructure. This will take years to take effect, but the result would be that the County couldn’t afford to borrow as much money for infrastructure repair, so roads would fall apart, even as housing in fire areas increased. If the charges are not wisely applied, the County may be perversely incentivized to approve more homes, just to charge the fees to pay for maintaining existing roads, if they can no longer afford to borrowmoney for repairs. While I’m glad the investors are stepping up, I hope their efforts work as intended.
It’s not easy to make politicians responsible for putting people in harm’s way, even when they’re still in office.The NPR radio show Reveal had a piece on how Houston allowed homes to be built inside the normally-dry flood control reservoir that had been built to protect Houston. Those homes were destroyed by hurricane Harvey, yet the officials who signed the permits on those buildings deny wrongdoing (https://www.revealnews.org/episodes/the-tide-is-high). We have similar problems in fire country, and they are exacerbated by fires taking decades to cause their predictable destruction.
The only solution we’ve got is to try to persuadepoliticians to not build homes in dangerous areas, and for groups affected to sue to stop the projects. It would be nice if there was a governmental mechanism to stop this kind of development, but so far there is not.
Speaking of which, Lilac Hills Ranch is headed to theBoard of Supervisors. If you haven’t called your supervisor yet to ask them to vote against it, here’s what you need to do:
2. Click on the link to your supervisor, and when you get to their homepage, click on the "Contact" link.
3. Either call or email and tell them politely that you are one of their constituents, that you are troubled by the new proposed Lilac Hills Ranch Project, that this is effectively the same project that was rejected 64%-36% by a bipartisan majority of the County voters in 2016, and that you expect them to respect the will of the voters and to not approve this project when it comes before them. Ask for updates from their office on this project and thank them for their attention to this issue and the time they've spent on it.
Thank you for helping!