Environmentalists use wildfire danger as new weapon against housing development
J.K. Dineen Oct. 19, 2020 Updated: Oct. 19, 2020 4 a.m.
Cattle graze on a hillside above homes and adjacent to a proposed residential development in the hills southwest of Pittsburg, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. If approved, Seeno's Faria Project would add 1,500 homes on more than 600 acres adjacent to the San Marco community but several environmental groups are opposed to the plan, including Save Mount Diablo.Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
From steep terrain in Napa Valley to the windswept hills of Contra Costa County, California environmentalists opposed to development in semi-urbanized areas are increasingly fighting projects with a weapon that would have been rare a few years ago — the dangers of wildfire.
Over the past three years wildfires have wiped out tens of thousands of homes in areas known as Wildland Urban Interface zones, semirural hillsides just outside cities such as Santa Rosa, Chico, Santa Cruz and Redding. The areas, often referred to as WUIs, are home to 11.2 million Californians, and the widespread destruction and displacement from recent blazes is prompting questions about whether builders should continue adding housing in them.
The issue has come up in recent fights over proposed subdivisions in Pittsburg and Antioch, as well as in Napa County, where a proposed 20-year plan would allow some residential development in fire-prone WUI areas.
In Pittsburg, the Seeno family of developers is proposing a large subdivision on a hillside on the city’s southern edge, where San Marco Boulevard comes to a dead end with a chain barricade hanging between cement bollards. Below the fence is the subdivision San Marco Villas, a neighborhood of tract homes built out over the past decade. Above the fence is grassland where cattle can be spotted grazing in the distance.
It is there, on the windy ridge separating Pittsburg from Concord, that east Contra Costa’s most prolific developer would add 1,500 homes on more than 600 acres. The development, known as the Faria/Southwest Hills Annexation Project, would be built by Discovery Builders, part of the Seeno family’s group of companies.
While environmentalists have long opposed the project — it would back up onto land that is slated to become part of the East Bay Regional Park District eventually — opponents are increasingly making the argument that the housing will be vulnerable to wildfire carried by the hot, dry Diablo winds that blow from the northeast every spring and fall.
In a response to the project’s environmental impact study, Katrina Tomas and Tamara Galanter, attorneys for the park district, argued that the development “poses a severe, hazardous fire risk.” The East Bay Hills are especially vulnerable to catastrophic fire because of hot and dry fall seasons and steep, wind-conducive topography, they said.
The Diablo winds can “fan the flames of small sparks into wildfires that have been observed to move down from a ridgetop in 30 minutes, expand to 1 square mile in an hour, and consume hundreds of residences in one day,” they wrote in the response.
In an interview, Tomas said wildfire is “becoming a big concern with these subdivision projects.”
The Pittsburg Planning Commission approved the subdivision in June by a 4-3 vote. It was to go before the City Council in July, but that vote was delayed to allow more time for response to the environmental study.
Matt Regan, who heads up public policy for the Bay Area Council, said the same forces that are opposing WUI development often try to block infill housing in areas not prone to wildfire. Of the undeveloped land in the Bay Area, 75% is protected open space, Regan said, which allows little room for new housing.
“We have a small developable footprint in the Bay Area compared to the rest of the country,” Regan said. “We have done a very good job of preventing sprawl and a bad job of making it easy to build in areas where building is appropriate. The net result is that we push people to Tracy and Manteca and agricultural land in the Central Valley.”
Juan Pablo Galvan Martinez, senior land use manager with Save Mount Diablo, views the site of a proposed residential development in the hills southwest of Pittsburg.Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
He pointed to the Concord Naval Weapons Station project, which the Concord City Council recently rejected because the developer wouldn’t agree to sign a labor agreement. He said the rejection of the Concord project demonstrated “that if you stop good projects, you get less good projects.”
“It’s really hard to do infill develop in the city but easy to do subdivisions up on a hillside outside of Pittsburg,” he said. “You get the path of least resistance and the places that are easy to build are likely to be more prone to fire.”
Pittsburg is not the only place where wildfire danger has become a central issue in development fights.
In Antioch, environmentalists are pushing Measure T. It would protect open space and force a developer to scale back subdivisions in Deer Valley and Sand Creek, an area that has had several small wildfires in recent years. In Napa, residents are fighting a plan in Browns Valley to increase the zoning nearby from one home per 20 acres to as much as two houses per acre.
Andrew Healy and Sandina Bailo, who live in Browns Valley, a rural neighborhood on the edge of the city of Napa, said their neighborhood was spared by the 2017 Patrick Fire only because of the heroics of two contractors who bulldozed firebreaks for six days, keeping the flames at bay.
Had there been more density in the area, the fire would have spread much more quickly, Healy said.
“I run out of fingers when I count the friends who have lost their homes in the last four years” to fire, Healy said.
Beth Painter, a Napa planning commissioner who is running for City Council, said the pressure to build in the WUI zones will only increase as more people work from home because of the pandemic. She said that resistance to development in downtown Napa will continue to push developers into WUI areas.
“It makes no sense to zone WUI areas for housing but as soon as we propose something for the city core there is all kind of resistance,” she said.
Adam Millard-Ball, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Cruz, said local zoning control makes it tough to discourage WUI development.
“The challenge is how the state can promote housing but not promote it in dangerous places like WUIs,” he said. “The power to restrict development is held by cities and counties.”
Out of all Bay Area counties, Contra Costa has the most land at risk of being consumed by sprawl development, according to a 2017 report by the Greenbelt Alliance. There are 62,000 total acres available, including 20,000 acres that are likely to be developed in the next 10 years.
Sarah Cardona, deputy director of the Greenbelt Alliance, said the Bay Area needs housing, but “it must be climate-smart housing.”
“Building new development in the WUI is putting people in harm’s way at a time when we know climate impacts across the Bay Area, like wildfires, are only getting worse,” she said.
Standing in the grassy knoll above San Marco, Juan Pablo Galvan of Save Mount Diablo called the Faria/Southwest Hills land “one of the major wind tunnels in the entire state of California.”
“Wind is a driver of fire and it is a high fire danger area,” he said. “It is absolutely a major issue.”