Judge blocks big Otay Ranch development over wildfire danger
Speaker 1: (00:00)
A huge housing development plan for OTI ranch has been struck down in court. A San Diego judge agreed with environmental groups and California's attorney general in a lawsuit against the, uh, Darra at OTI ranch project. Judge Richard Whitney said the plan community east of Chula Vista posed a high wildfire risk and would cause environmental damage including increased greenhouse gas emissions. The former county board of supervisors approved the development in 2019. Joining me is San Diego union Tribune reporter Joshua Emerson Smith, and Joshua welcome. Yeah. Good
Speaker 2: (00:37)
To be here.
Speaker 1: (00:38)
What was the Undara oh, oh, ranch development supposed to include,
Speaker 2: (00:43)
Oh, it included everything from over a thousand upscale homes to a new fire station and elementary school commercial storefronts. It was going to be a pretty big master plan community east of Chula Vista.
Speaker 1: (01:00)
So the judge apparently had more than one reason to rule against the project, but was wildfire risk. His biggest reason
Speaker 2: (01:08)
Wildfire risk is one of the biggest issues. That's come to the forefront on these types of projects. We have to remember that this is one of half a dozen of these projects that were challenged by the Sierra club over the last couple of years. And so, yes, the judge definitely focused on that. And what
Speaker 1: (01:30)
Were the other reasons that he ruled against the project?
Speaker 2: (01:33)
Well, one of the other big things was that these projects like new and Sierra and Bali Onno, and this a shadow Ty ranch, we're going to mitigate their, uh, tailpipe emissions. So all the new driving that would happen as people left their homes to commute, to jobs, wherever they may be, they were going to mitigate the greenhouse gases from those tailpipe emissions with carbon offsets. And that's been a really controversial topic. And the judge said, you know, there's really no oversight of the type of carbon offset program that the county and the developer was proposing for this project and others.
Speaker 1: (02:13)
So the carbon offset plan is also one of the reasons that the county's climate action plan has been been dismissed by the courts. Isn't it?
Speaker 2: (02:22)
Absolutely. You know, the county is redrafting its climate plan after an appellate court throughout the blueprint. Uh, back in 2019, I believe, um, say stating just that, that this carbon offset program really just didn't have any kind of oversight. No one was going to be able to say whether or not these carbon offsets were following through on the promises to reduce greenhouse gases other than some bureaucratic the development services department. So there was really no kind of public oversight of what they were proposing. And the courts agreed with the environmental groups on that.
Speaker 1: (03:08)
So carbon offsets, the judge says is one reason, but the wildfire risk is also another, as you were saying now, when the board of supervisors was discussing this project back in 2019, wasn't the fire chief in support of the Adar at OTI ranch project.
Speaker 2: (03:24)
Yeah, absolutely. Uh, chief Meacham was in support of this. Um, it's we shouldn't say that, you know, they were also going to build a fire station there and they felt that that was enough to mitigate the concerns. Uh, Cal fire in San Diego has been in supportive. A lot of these projects that have been proposed for these high fire areas. Uh, the environmental groups have said that that really doesn't make any sense. Cause not only are you putting people in harms way, but the more people you put in the back country, the more people there are to start fires back there. And so there's been a pretty stark divide on what is the level of safety of building these new homes.
Speaker 1: (04:06)
Now this coalition of environmental groups, as you mentioned, a wrecking up quite a list of victories against back country developments, but how in this case did California's attorney general get involved?
Speaker 2: (04:16)
Well, the California attorney general got involved because they've been seeing these kinds of projects across the state. This has been a hot button topic when we've seen so much destruction from wildfires, should we be building in these areas that routinely burned? And so the AGS office got involved and said, Hey, these are the types of program projects. We really don't need to be seeing going forward. If we want to protect people from large blazes, will
Speaker 1: (04:46)
The developer appeal this ruling?
Speaker 2: (04:48)
Do you think? I mean, that really is the major question. Now we don't know, especially since there's been such a shakeup at the board of supervisors, uh, when this was first approved, the folks that were serving on the pat on that panel were much more in support of these types of projects. I think the current board takes a more skeptical view of this. Like we said, they've chosen to redo the climate plan. And so it's unclear whether the developer feels like it has the full support, it would need to really go back and appeal this.
Speaker 1: (05:23)
Well, that brings me to this question. You know, San Diego is still in a housing crisis. We don't have enough homes affordable or otherwise. So our rural developments like these unlikely to move forward.
Speaker 2: (05:38)
I mean, that's what we're seeing, right? We're having a hard time building in the urban environment because people don't want to see their neighborhoods change. And we're having a hard time building in the rural environment because we're losing so many houses to wildfire. So yeah, we're in a tough spot for sure.
Speaker 1: (05:58)
I've been speaking with San Diego union Tribune, reporter Joshua Emerson Smith, Joshua. Thank you.
Speaker 2: (06:04)
While we, the pleasure.
A California judge on Thursday blocked portions of the largest proposed residential housing development in San Diego County’s history after the state attorney general and others objected that it would be too prone to wildfires.
That and a similar recent challenge in Northern California are the first known times in the nation where a state has intervened to argue that its interests in preventing wildfires overrides a county’s interest in building more housing.
“California is on track for yet another record-breaking, climate-fueled wildfire season. As these mega-disasters become the norm, it is more critical than ever that we build responsibly. We can’t keep making the same mistakes,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney ruled that San Diego County's environmental impact report for portions of the expansive Otay Ranch residential development failed to properly account for the increased wildfire risks from housing thousands of people in what has been designated a very high wildfire hazard zone southeast of San Diego.
That violated the California Environmental Quality Act, he ruled, and ordered the county to vacate its permits that would fill highly flammable grassland, chaparral and sage with thousands of homes, parks and other amenities.
One of the enforcement provisions related to greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, “is essentially the fox guarding the hen house,” Whitney ruled. Moreover, the environmental review “does not acknowledge or analyze the impact of adding more than 1,100 new homes to the area as to humans being an ignition cause of wildfires.”
Spokesmen for the county and for Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher did not immediately comment. Fletcher had been the only supervisor to vote against portions of a 36 square mile (93 square kilometers) development, nearly the size of San Francisco.
In February, the attorney general's office similarly backed Northern California court challenges contending that Lake County officials did not properly account for the increased wildfire risk from approving 1,400 homes, 850 hotel rooms and resort apartments and other resort amenities on the 25-square mile ( 65 square kilometer) Guenoc Valley Ranch property.
California Building Industry Association president and CEO Dan Dunmoyer previously said that the attorney general is overstepping his authority by challenging local officials’ extensive wildfire safety precautions.
The challenges come at a time when California is struggling with a persistent affordable housing and homelessness problem, though critics said the proposed upscale developments would do little to help.
The attorney general intervened under a 2018 update to the state's sweeping environmental law and new standards for local officials to analyze whether development projects will increase wildfire risks.