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Mercury News: Bay Area cities struggle to balance housing mandates, wildfire risks

This article was originally published in the Mercury News

By: Katie Lauer

ORINDA — How can cities balance new state guidelines restricting development in high-risk wildfire zones with parallel — and often conflicting — mandates for aggressive housing construction?

In vulnerable areas like Orinda, where virtually the entire hillside city is subject to high fire risk, many local leaders say they are doing the best they can. But critics who think they aren’t doing enough to keep the city safe have reached out to the California Superior Court to weigh in on the conflict.

Orinda is home to nearly 20,000 residents living across roughly 13 square miles of rolling, dense hills and secluded valleys nestled in between Berkeley and Walnut Creek along Highway 24.

In January, the Orinda City Council adopted “Plan Orinda,” a roadmap to meet the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s lofty mandate to build 1,359 new units of housing by 2031. This looming need to boost residential housing development sparked rezoning efforts, including on Orinda’s wildfire-prone hillsides.

In addition to the housing plan, the city has also made headway on its own Downtown Precise Plan and Safety Element. Although wildfire risks connected to each of these three long-range planning efforts was analyzed with a single Environmental Impact Report, Orinda’s topography, low-density land use patterns and existing traffic infrastructure continue to fuel fears of wildfire hazards.

The community group Orindans for Safe Emergency Evacuation (OSEE) are concerned that the environmental plan failed to adequately analyze how much the proposed housing plan may hinder the ability of current and future residents to evacuate during a wildfire.

As most of the upcoming units will be developed near the city’s downtown BART station and along main arterial routes, group spokesperson Michele Jacobson said the biggest concern is how the city will alleviate several traffic “chokepoints” in close proximity to wildland-urban interfaces and very high fire hazard severity zones.

Jacobson — a former Orinda Planning Commissioner who worked in urban planning for more than 30 years — argues that while the city’s impact report acknowledges that housing could hinder evacuations, the planning documents do not follow through on California Environmental Quality Act requirements to develop location alternatives or plan mitigations to reduce those risks. She is disappointed that there isn’t more specific data available for elected officials and residents to pore over.

“If you just look at the Oakland Hills firestorm and flip it to the other side of the hill, that’s what Orindans are nervous about,” Jacobson said in an interview, referring to the fire that burned 18,000 acres, destroyed 3,500 homes and killed 25 people in 1991.

OSEE filed a petition on March 2 for the courts to intervene.

In October, State Attorney General Rob Bonta crafted suggestions to help cities navigate wildfire risks and state requirements while building new housing. Those guidelines advised developers to include road improvements to projects, install hydrants in areas that lack adequate access, avoid building on steep slopes in fire-prone areas, and the use of fire-resistant materials beyond the minimum code requirements. While those guidelines are voluntary, legal risks may arise if they are ignored.

Some cities have already started trying to find a compromise. In Saratoga, the city council opted to review housing development proposed for its South Bay hillside on a case-by-case basis, rather than require each proposal to include costly improvements like new roads and hydrants.

By creating new plans tailored to a community’s specific area, housing planners can simultaneously consider and bypass state guidelines in an attempt to make the process easier — and less expensive. Without the change, Saratoga’s city attorney said Bonta’s guidelines could have made several properties in the city “undevelopable.”

For now, the city of Orinda stands by its “Plan Orinda” roadmap. The city’s final impact statement contains a “Statement of Overriding Considerations” that explains how, even after fleshing out mitigation measures — mostly on par with Bonta’s guidelines — Orinda’s mandated development would still present “significant and unavoidable” impacts on local wildfire risks, despite efforts to alleviate the problems.

According to Planning Director Drummond Buckley, the city also continues to utilize Measure R tax funds to pay for wildfire improvements, and a separate evacuation analysis was completed months before the environmental plan was approved in January — two years ahead of schedule, prompted by community input.

The city’s “evaluation and consideration of wildfire, evacuation, and related issues” are included in environmental impact plan and the record, Buckley wrote in an email, adding that the city would not comment on the community group’s lawsuit.

Local housing advocates, meanwhile, say that while new housing will undoubtedly create wildfire risks, the very existence of Orinda does, as well.

“So many people in these communities oppose affordable housing that it can be hard to separate out the good faith concerns about wildfire evacuation from bad faith concerns about low-income housing, which are expressed as wildfire concerns,” said Kevin Burke, a local software developer who serves on the board of East Bay for Everyone. “But if that’s the case, then it sounds like a horribly dangerous situation, and we really shouldn’t be letting anyone live in (very high risk fire safety zones) where others might threaten their evacuation.”


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