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Threat of Wildfires Should Influence Planning Decisions, Report Says

CP&DR Staff on
May 1, 2005

A recent Legislative Analyst's Office report regarding the cost of fighting wildfires received a great deal of attention for its study and recommendations regarding personnel costs, labor agreements and potential new taxes. Largely overlooked, though, were suggestions that the state should influence planning decisions in areas with wildfire threats.

The state has about 8 million acres in the “wildland-urban interface,” nearly three-quarters of which are at high risk for wildfire. The coastal and interior mountain ranges of Southern California, the hills ringing the San Francisco Bay Area and the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada contain most of the wildland-urban interface, where homes and businesses intermingle with undeveloped areas. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) estimates that the number of homes in the wildland-urban interface increased by 20% from 1990 to 2000. Most of the new homes are in areas served by local fire departments, and are not in the CDF's “state responsibility area.” Still, as the LAO noted, “State resources are often called upon as part of the state's integrated wildland fire protection system.” Additionally, CDF reported that its calls for non-fire emergencies, such as medical aid requests, in the Sierra foothills increased by 150% in only seven years.

The LAO did not call for a decrease in development in these areas. Rather, the state should “encourage” local governments to make fire-safe planning decisions on where to locate new development, on fuel management plans and on building codes and designs, the LAO recommended.

Furthermore, because the law does not specify who is responsible for funding firefighting in state responsibility areas, the LAO recommended the Legislature clarify the law to say that the state will not be fiscally liable.

“First, if local agencies are clear that the state is not fiscally responsible for life and structure protection, this should encourage local land use decisions that attempt to minimize the risk to structures and people from wildfire. Second, a clear statement that the state is not responsible … could encourage local governments to budget an appropriate level of local resources for this purpose,” the LAO report says.

The state's firefighting budget is about $500 million annually. The LAO recommends imposing a fee on landowners in state responsibility areas to cover half of that cost.

The report is available on the LAO's website, www.lao.ca.gov.

VOTERS IN SANTA ANA supported what would be the tallest building in Orange County during a special election in April. Nearly 57% of voters approved a referendum on the proposed One Broadway Plaza project in downtown Santa Ana.

After five years of study, negotiation and contentious debate, the Santa Ana City Council in August 2004 approved a special development district and amended a specific plan to permit the project, which is in an area that otherwise has a 35-foot height limit. Project opponents contended at the time and during the campaign that the office tower would be out of place and cause traffic problems. The opponents qualified a referendum for the ballot and filed a still-pending lawsuit over the project's environmental impact report.

Under an agreement with the city, developer Michael Harrah, who has developed and purchased dozens of buildings in downtown Santa Ana, must lease 50% of the proposed tower before beginning construction.

THE PRIVATE INVESTORS IN A SANTA CRUZ redevelopment hotel and convention center project have withdrawn their support. Western Hotel Properties of Idaho backed away from the plan after project opponents submitted an overwhelming number of signatures on referendum petitions.

In February, the City Council voted 4-3 to approve the project. It called for demolition of the former Dream Inn, now called the Coast Santa Cruz Hotel. Many locals and environmentalists have long considered the hotel - an 11-story structure that looms over the beach - to be an eyesore. Under the proposal, the hotel would have been replaced with a larger, 270-room oceanfront hotel connected to a six-story parking garage and a 23,000-square-foot conference center. Santa Cruz's redevelopment agency would have provided $30 million for the parking structure and conference center, which the city would have leased to the hotel owner.

Complaining about the size of the project and the city's subsidy, opponents submitted 8,400 signatures on referendum petitions for the three ordinances approving the project. Only 3,892 valid signatures were required to get the referendum on the ballot. Before the county Elections Department could verify the signatures, Western Hotel Properties announced it was dropping the project.

THE BATTLE OVER BOLSA CHICA in Huntington Beach just might have ended. In mid-April, the Coastal Commission approved Hearthside Homes' plans for 349 houses on a 105-acre site above Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. The Commission's approval of the project also clears the way for Hearthside to sell 103 acres to the state for an addition to the conservation project.

The Bolsa Chica saga extends back to the 1970s. At various times, as many as 5,700 housing units were proposed for the site, a degraded wetlands and former oil field. Led by the group Amigos de Bolsa Chica, environmentalists fought every step of the way. Over the years, the state has acquired most of the site, or nearly 2,000 acres (seeCP&DR Environment Watch, January 2002; CP&DR, November 1989). Amigos protested the latest development proposal, too, but the Coastal Commission approved it 11-1.

With the Coastal Commission's approval of the Hearthside subdivision and the likely sale of the remainder of mesa to the state, virtually all of Bolsa Chica either is entitled for development or designated for conservation.

THE CASE REGARDING DISPUTED WETLANDS near the unincorporated Santa Barbara County town of Orcutt has taken another turn. The property owner, Adams Brothers Farming, has agreed to pay $1.15 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In late 2004, a Santa Barbara County jury awarded Adams Brothers $5.6 million in damages - including $130,000 to be paid by three county planners and a consultant - after concluding the county had wrongly designated one-third of Adams Brothers 286-acre farm as wetlands (see CP&DR In Brief, January 2005). The jury award is on appeal.

In 1999, the county commenced enforcement proceedings against Adams Brothers because the company graded and planted grain crops on 95 acres of county-designated wetlands without a grading or land use permit. Adams Brothers then sued the county. However, the EPA sued Adams Brothers, alleging that the company illegally graded 70 acres of wetlands without a federal permit.

Under the EPA settlement, Adams Brothers will pay a $200,000 fine and contribute $915,000 to the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County for wetlands restoration elsewhere. The settlement also allows the company to resume farming on all of its land, according to the EPA.

THE ENVIORNMENTAL IMPACT REPORT for the Transbay Terminal project in San Francisco has failed to survive judicial scrutiny. In April, San Francisco Judge Ronald Quidachay sided with developer Jack Myers, who contended the study was inadequate partly because it failed to account a project he planned to build.

The new multi-modal station would bring together a number of bus lines, BART and Caltrain, and would replace an existing, dilapidated depot (see CP&DR, Public Development, August 2004). However, Myers had begun construction of a condominium tower across the street from the terminal site when San Francisco shut down his project one year ago. After deciding that the two projects could not co-exist (rail lines are proposed right under Myers' property), San Francisco supervisors began eminent domain proceedings.

The developer and other terminal opponents have continued to fight. After the judge's ruling, city officials vowed to persist.

THE CITY OF INDUSTRY WON another round in an ongoing struggle with the City of Brea regarding land in the Chino Hills between the two cities.

The latest battle is over Industry's purchase of 525 acres along Tonner Canyon Road. Industry purchased the land last year, but Brea sued, arguing that Industry had to make public its plans for the property and complete an environmental impact report before completing the purchase.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Stephen Cunnison ruled that environmental analysis could wait until development was proposed. In April, Brea voted to appeal Cunnison's decision.

Four years ago, Industry purchased a 2,400-acre Boy Scout camp in Tonner Canyon, next to 2,800 acres that the city already owned (see CP&DR Local Watch, December 2001). That acquisition drew protests and litigation, but Industry has maintained ownership.

During the late 1970s, Industry proposed building a reservoir in the area, but the city eventually dropped the project. Officials from Brea and other agencies, and environmentalists contend that Industry still plans to fill Tonner Canyon with water, and that the latest purchase of 525 acres is another step in the reservoir project.

But Industry City Manager Phil Iriarte told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “I think after the appeal period is over, then the council will start thinking about what they might do with the property.”

RIVERSIDE COUNTY AND THE CITY OF TEMECULA have settled a lawsuit that the city filed regarding the impacts of unincorporated area development on the city. The settlement essentially calls for funding to be in place before major developments may proceed in the French Valley and Menifee areas.

The city sued the county two years ago over the county's new general plan, which calls for extensive development in unincorporated areas outside Temecula. Roads, freeways and freeway interchanges in the area are already congested, and Temecula demanded that the county provide improvements.

The settlement calls for the city and county to fund a study to determine a development impact fee that would pay for additional lanes on Interstates 15 and 215. The study, by the Riverside County Transportation Commission, is scheduled to be completed later this year. The settlement also calls for the city and county to form assessment districts to pay for about $300 million of road and freeway interchange projects over the next 20 years.

Last year, Temecula and the county settled a lawsuit over development near Hemet when the country agreed to restrict development based on the completion of road improvements.

A DRAFT REPORT ON THE PROPOSED SPLIT of Santa Barbara County concludes that the new county would not be economically viable - and that the remainder of Santa Barbara County would be better off fiscally.

The draft report by the governor-appointed Mission County Formation Review Commission states that Santa Barbara County now spends $30 million more for general fund services within the territory of the proposed new county than the same area generates in tax revenue.

“Without an increase in taxes, significant reductions in current service deliveries would be necessary in those areas funded by general discretionary revenues (primarily sheriff, probation, district attorney, public defender and support services) for the proposed county to achieve a balanced budget,” the Commission reported.

Mission County proponents assailed the report, partly because the Commission relied on information provided by the county.

The report is available at www.missioncountyformation.org.