Harmony Grove Village
Homes in the Harmony Grove Village community in Escondido.(Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

One by one, developers sold local government officials in recent years on the promise of adding thousands of much needed homes to the San Diego region by placing them in the rural fringes of North and East County — including in areas where brush fires had recently burned down homes and clogged evacuation routes.

The environmental reviews, required by state law, repeatedly said they were safe. The projects got the ok from local fire officials and elected officials.

But in at least six major developments, critics say, there was a problem. All of these reviews were done by consultants hired by the very developers who want to build the homes. In six lawsuits brought in the last four years, challengers suing to block the developments said the reviews were flawed and incomplete, distinguished by a failure to fully analyze how new housing would clog evacuation routes or lead to more fires.

Now, those challenges are increasingly gaining traction, notching incremental victories in court and reshaping how local officials review development in fire-prone areas. 

In February, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors adopted a new policy that county leaders say will limit new development in rural high fire risk areas.

A San Diego County spokesperson told inewsource the county is also considering overhauling how it does the reviews, including the county’s reliance on developers to study projects — but nothing has changed so far.

In three recent cases, judges have ruled that local officials failed to fully analyze the wildfire risks of large-scale housing developments, resulting in those projects being blocked, some with more finality than others. 

  • In the Harmony Grove Village South project near Escondido, which promised 453 homes, a superior court blocked the project out of fire safety concerns. However, an appeals judge disagreed with the lower court, saying fire officials have discretion to deem projects safe, though the judge blocked the development on other grounds related to emissions. 
  • A court also blocked the Fanita Ranch development in Santee, where nearly 3,000 homes were promised. The developer is working with local officials to redo the review.
  • A project called Otay Ranch Village 14, promising 1,119 housing units east of Chula Vista, also was blocked in court. The decision has been appealed. But the project faces a powerful opponent: California Attorney General Rob Bonta has joined plaintiffs in arguing that local officials failed to fully analyze the wildfire risks of the project.

“As these mega-disasters become the norm, it is more critical than ever that we build responsibly,” Bonta said after the project was blocked, referring to fires fueled by climate change. “We can’t keep making the same mistakes.”

Read the full article on inewsource.org.

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Ellen Bullock