Luxury development too risky for California wildfire zone - judge

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REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci

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  • Ruling says development could result in "increased wildfire related deaths" by clogging evacuation routes
  • Judge rules county approval for Guenoc Valley Project must be set aside

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A California state judge has ruled that a $1 billion luxury resort and residential project west of Sacramento failed to adequately plan for the risks of wildfires to residents who may need to evacuate during a blaze.

Judge J. David Markham ordered Lake County to set aside its approval of the Guenoc Valley Project, developed by real estate company Lotusland Investment Holdings Inc on a 16,000-acre property.

Representatives for Lake County did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Lotusland, which had intervened in the lawsuit as a defendant.

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The county approved the project, sited mostly on undeveloped open space, in 2020. But the decision soon drew a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which alleged the location was "extremely susceptible to wildfire" and unsuitable. The area has seen at least 12 wildfires since the 1950s, its complaint said.

The group claimed that the county improperly certified an environmental-impact report during its approval process, arguing the report failed to consider how the project's 4,000 residents and others living nearby would evacuate should a wildfire erupt.

Oak woodland covers some of the property, which the complaint says is largely designated as a high or very-high fire-hazard zone.

California's Attorney General Rob Bonta joined the lawsuit in December and welcomed the ruling in a statement Thursday. "Local governments and developers have a responsibility to take a hard look at projects that exacerbate wildfire risk and endanger our communities," he said.

Peter Broderick, a CBD attorney, said in a statement that "building in California's fire-prone wildlands is dangerous for people."

Lotusland in a February 2021 statement defended the project's environmental report as "comprehensive." The Guenoc Valley Project had been "designed to exceed the required standards," it said.

Markham, however, concluded in his Tuesday ruling that the environmental-impact report had failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act because evidence pointed to the development exacerbating the risks of wildfires to community residents.

With Lake County's population standing at about 10,000 people, the judge said that 4,000 additional residents would mean more people "competing for the same limited routes" during an evacuation and could result "in increased wildfire related deaths."

The Guenoc Valley Project says it would develop 10 percent of its 16,000 acres. Local media put its value at $1 billion.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity v. County of Lake, Board of Supervisors of the County of Lake et al., Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Lake, No. CV421152.

For Center for Biological Diversity: Peter Broderick with the Center for Biological Diversity

For People of the State of California: Andrew Contreiras with the Office of the Attorney General of California

For County of Lake, Board of Supervisors of the County of Lake et al.: Arthur Coon of Miller Starr Regalia

For Lotusland Investment Holdings Inc: Jon Bass of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass

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Thomson Reuters

New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.