Concerns about destructive wildfires in California derail another major housing project

TOPSHOT - A Pacific Gas and Electric firefighter walks down a road as flames approach in Fairfield, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. - Thousands of people fled their homes in northern California on August 19 as hun

A judge has ordered the Southern California city of Santee to throw out the approval of a long-planned housing project, the latest major development in the state to be sidetracked over concerns about destructive wildfires.

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The Santee City Council in late 2020 approved the Fanita Ranch project, giving the green light to 3,000 new homes in hills northeast of San Diego.

Image of residential units as part of the Fanita Ranch Project in Santee, Calif. A judge ruled that the city must throw out its approval of the development, saying it hadn’t adequately considered how the new homes could affect potential wildfire evac (Santee staff report, September 23, 2020/Fanita Ranch)

In her decision, Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal wrote that Fanita Ranch developers hadn’t adequately considered how the new homes could affect potential wildfire evacuations. The judge said that eight resolutions and ordinances giving approval must be overturned, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday.

The newspaper said the judge expressed concern that the plan didn’t fully address whether thousands of new residents would have time to flee during an emergency like a wildfire.

The decision was celebrated by environmental groups that sued to stop the project, arguing that more homes would only increase the risk of fire.

The Fanita Ranch Project was the third California housing development to be blocked amid ever-increasing wildfire activity in the state. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years, leading to larger and deadlier wildfires. 

In February 2021, the attorney general’s office backed Northern California court challenges contending Lake County officials did not account for increased wildfire risk from approving 1,400 homes, 850 hotel rooms and resort apartments at the Guenoc Valley Ranch property.

Last October, a judge halted parts of the 1,100-home Otay Ranch project, also in San Diego County, after state Attorney General Rob Bonta and others objected that it would be too prone to wildfires.

Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney ruled that the county’s environmental impact report for portions of the Otay project failed to properly account for the increased risks from housing thousands of people in a fire hazard zone.

As for the Santee project, developers said they would revise the environmental impact report to address the judge’s concerns.

Messages left by the Union-Tribune with the city’s manager and attorney were not immediately returned.

SEE ALSO: Oakland, San Francisco awarded grants to convert hotels into housing for homeless residents

The recent challenges to large development projects 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.

KTVU contributed to this story.