Climate-Change Lawsuit Nixes Huge California Development

The 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch is the state’s largest privately owned property.
Photo: Design Pics / Jack Goldfarb / Getty Images

As you drive north of Los Angeles, just before the 5 Freeway drops into the Central Valley, the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch property is clearly visible to the east, miles of rolling meadows that whiten a crisp golden blond in summer. For decades, the owners of this property that straddles Los Angeles and Kern counties have attempted to build a residential development 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles: a planned community of 6,000 acres and 20,000 homes named Centenary. Earlier this month, however, an LA County judge essentially blocked development after a lawsuit challenged the developer’s environmental impact report, claiming it failed to accurately account for fire risk or greenhouse gas emissions. While the decision doesn’t completely halt development, it will be much more difficult for the project to move forward without major changes, said Bryn Lindblad, deputy director of nonprofit Climate Resolve, which has filed a lawsuit. in justice. “It’s a chance for Tejon Ranch to take a break, take an existential introspection and decide which side of the story they want to be.

At first glance, a development like Centennial sounds like the perfect antidote to housing problems in California. Here’s a developer proposing to contribute 20,000 homes to the region’s deficit – 18% of which would be considered affordable – on what is currently California’s largest privately-owned property. But Tejon Ranch is a particularly glaring place to set up a brand new mini-town. Here in the foothills, the risk of forest fires is already very high and the addition of humans makes a spark more likely, meaning the state will be forced to put in place an expensive defense of people and people. goods. And then there’s the challenge of supporting 60,000 people basically in the middle of nowhere – at least 30 miles from major employment centers or public transportation – with all the cars needed to transport them and sustain their daily lives. These arguments in the Climate Resolve lawsuit – which successfully sued prevent the construction of a highway in the nearby High Desert – are the latest in a quarter-century saga of legal attempts to prevent the development of Tejon Ranch using a wide range of environmental arguments. In fact, ten years ago, anticipating such a battle for the centenary, the developers of Tejon Ranch had already negotiated an agreement with various environmental groups who agreed not to fight if the vast majority of the good remained intact. Yet despite all the red flags, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the centennial development in 2018.

While the potential disaster of a wildfire is reason enough to stop the development of Tejon Ranch, it is the daily idle disaster of the exurban lifestyle that is the real climate risk. And that part of the judge’s decision could set an even more important precedent. Reducing emissions from transportation – which account for one-third of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions – is, supposedly, one of California’s top climate priorities. The state has passed several laws intended to encourage developments that reduce vehicle movement, although a recent 13-year survey have shown that emissions have not decreased as a result of these policies and that the number of vehicle trips has in fact increased. The California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, triggers a environmental review of major projects where developers are required to show how greenhouse gases would be reduced, but in this case, the developer wrongly claimed that vehicle emissions would be covered by the state’s cap-and-trade program, this which is not the case. The Tejon Ranch decision demonstrates that developers can no longer ambiguously claim to reduce or offset transport emissions, but must make demonstrable concrete attempts to eliminate the source of these emissions. “If it went the other way, it would mean that CEQA’s requirement to mitigate the significant effects of greenhouse gases hardly makes sense,” says David Weiskopf, senior policy adviser at NextGen Policy, a non-profit organization focused on addressing environmental, social, racial and economic inequalities. in California. “It is therefore extremely important that the court rejects the developer’s argument.”

The judge’s decision comes as the state emerges from its third driest winter on record, following his the most destructive fire season in history. In fact, earlier this month, the governor’s office actually recognized that the “fire season” is no longer a season at all but just happens all year round. It is clear that urgent statewide policy is needed not only to prevent people from living in these high-risk areas, but also to relocate people who already live in the most dangerous places. That hasn’t happened yet, says Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “It’s infuriating,” he said. “After the various fires in Napa in recent years, they continue to build in the same old places. What are they thinking about? Miller can think of only two more examples in recent years where proposed residential developments in “high gravity” areas of California’s wilderness-urban interface have been halted – but only after state intervention. , when former California attorney general Xavier Becerra secretary of health and human services for the Biden administration), intervened to cancel them. “It tells you that the counties are not doing their job,” he says. “And it is the judiciary that is making a smarter decision than the county supervisors who decided to ignore this issue.”

Fortunately, the solutions for reducing both vehicle emissions and the risk of forest fires are essentially the same. They would include banning housing in the most severe fire zones and strengthening incentives to build denser developments near existing public transport – a bill, SB-55, would do exactly that – in addition to buying fire-prone land around cities to protect existing homes, Miller says. “This way we keep people out of harm’s way and get more free space, which is also a public good.” Both of these things may seem like more expensive investments right now, he says, but will end up saving money and lives in the long run. Now the ball is really in the court of the five LA County Supervisors, who have a remarkable opportunity before them to truly listen to the experts and change their approach to development in both the nation’s largest county and in California. . “I hope this decision will be the perfect time for developers,” says Lindblad. “The tide has turned. Irresponsible development can no longer be the norm. “

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