Photos by Melina Mara / The Washington Post and Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post
GUENOC VALLEY, Calif. — This land burns.
It has for centuries, flames sweeping over the oak-covered hillsides, lighting up grasslands studded with ancient basaltic rock. Now the valley, remote and groomed only by vineyards, is a test for how California will grow its economy and inadequate housing supply in the age of the year-round wildfire.
In February, the state attorney general’s office weighed in for the first time to support a lawsuit that would block an approved housing and resort development across 16,000 acres here, citing the risk of wildfire as the central reason. The move adds to a strong current of legislative and legal activity underway over how and where to build, as California heads into fire season with much of the state, including this northern county, facing severe drought conditions after a dry winter.
Those efforts stand to exacerbate the state’s chronic housing shortage by stopping projects, from here all the way south through San Diego County, in the name of fire safety. The state’s twin crises of too little housing and too much fire, as the climate shifts to one of extremes, have become knotted so tightly that state lawmakers are considering a wider variety of ways to challenge local governments’ authority over land-use decisions.
Here in Lake County, the less glamorous but equally beautiful neighbor of Napa and Sonoma, the frozen Guenoc Valley project has left area leaders without a key part of their plan to build a strong local economy. Blessed by proximity to Sacramento and the Bay Area, southern Lake County is primarily an economy of commuters. Local leaders would like to change that for the next generations who may want to live and work here.
Although not considered affordable housing, the 1,400 planned homes here, along with hotels and vacation residences, a golf course, polo fields and a fire station, would inject tens of millions of dollars in property tax revenue into the local government, which is now confronting overcrowded schools and underfunded roadwork.
“This is all an issue of climate change and our actions as stewards of the land that we have,” said Bruno Sabatier, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, which approved the project last year. “But there’s nothing in my mind that says we can’t move forward with development. … It’s a matter of finding that right balance.”
The trauma of recent years
More than 4 million acres of California land burned last year, making it the worst in the state’s long history of wildfires. One cluster, known as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, scorched parts of southern Lake County, including within the Guenoc Valley.
It was a year that was both historically peculiar and increasingly common: Of California’s 10 largest fires, seven have burned since 2017, and five of the six largest fires ever started last year. Those 2020 fires burned more than 10,500 homes and buildings and killed 31 people.
This year would be the second consecutive dry year for the state, and no fire official believes conditions are pointing to a less intensive season ahead. Several hundred small fires have already started and been extinguished, and a pronounced drought hangs over much of the state.
“Let’s be realistic,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said earlier this month. “Fire season has already started.”
The occasion was Newsom’s announcement of $536 million in state spending this year on fire prevention, including on prescribed burns in backwoods forests and a fund to help the owners of older homes in fire-prone areas to make them more fireproof.
It is against this backdrop that the state attorney general’s office intervened to stop the Guenoc Valley project, one of a handful of examples of how the courts and state lawmakers are seeking to override a local government’s authority to make its own land-use decisions.
Earlier this month, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge blocked an already approved housing development known as the Tejon Ranch, planned for the edge of commuting range some 70 miles north of Los Angeles near the windblown Tehachapi Mountains.
The county’s Board of Supervisors approved the 19,300-home development, which would rise densely on 6,700 acres, two years ago after a decade-long debate over its merits. It will now head to court and, to some degree, back to the drawing board.
The state attorney general’s office, then run by Xavier Becerra as he awaited confirmation to be President Biden’s secretary of health and human services, joined two more lawsuits last month after filing the motion to block the Guenoc Valley project.
The intervention, which the agency says is the result of the 2018 change in the California Environmental Quality Act that now forces developers to take wildfire risks into account in building plans, strengthened the legal challenge against two developments on scrub and brushland at the edge of the city of Chula Vista in San Diego County.
Like many California cities, San Diego is experiencing a major homelessness crisis, and the projects east of the city would have added nearly 3,000 homes, some of them qualifying as affordable, in two fire-prone areas that have burned before.
“Beauty and risk ride right alongside each other with climate change,” said state Sen. Henry Stern (D-Calabasas), whose own home was one of more than 1,600 buildings burned in the 2018 Woolsey Fire north of Los Angeles. “It’s a strange relationship.”
Stern is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit future building in areas deemed “very high fire hazard severity zones,” a designation that would likely cover much of southern Lake County. The bill states that “the creation or approval of a new development within a zone of high fire danger as specified in this act is a matter of statewide concern and is not a municipal affair.”
The legislative analysis says nearly 3 million Californians live in areas deemed “very high fire hazard severity zones” now — and the designation is an expanding red blotch on fire maps as the threat reaches into many more dry places.
As the bill is written, it would prohibit even those seeking to rebuild in a high-risk zone from doing so, although Stern said he expected a push to soften that to allow a home-for-home replacement exception. He believes passage is unlikely — at least in this session — but points to the message behind it.
“We wanted the bill to be a wake-up call,” Stern said. “It’s intentionally aggressive to help, hopefully, get people’s attention that we can’t keep building deeper into the fire zone and have no requirements in law that are firm enough to ensure the costs of defending those new developments from fire won’t be passed on to everyone else.”
Stern’s bill is a twist on recent state efforts to challenge local control over land-use decisions, many of which urge housing construction at a time when the state falls short every year of Newsom’s goal to add at least 500,000 new homes to the market annually.
While Stern’s measure seeks to limit building of new housing in high fire-prone areas, other proposals in recent years have tried to force home building in cities, in part to prevent the kind of metastasizing suburban growth that has reached deep into fire country.
The most prominent effort has been led by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who has tried and failed repeatedly to pass a bill that would allow the state to overrule local decisions against housing development near transit hubs.
Stern and Wiener agree that their bills, while different in approach, would provide political cover for local officials perhaps afraid to approve thicker development in already busy urban neighborhoods or to reject much-needed housing albeit in dangerous places.
Stern, who calls himself “typically a local control advocate,” said that “sometimes local officials may need to have their hands cuffed on these issues.” He said he’s willing to play “the bad guy” in those cases.
“This is about the future of housing development across the state, and whether it’s going to be in fire sprawl or in the city’s infill areas. I think that’s what’s at stake here,” Stern said.
More defensible or less?
From Native American ancestral homes through centuries of new-arrival agriculture, the Guenoc Valley has recently been used as grazing land and vineyards, mostly for future Cabernet grapes harvested by the Langtry Estate and Vineyards. It has also been viewed for decades as the possible site for a housing and hotel resort project.
Fire has clouded that vision.
In 2015, the Valley Fire blew over the hills from the northwest, spreading at a pace that shocked firefighters. Many date California’s current age of the mega-fire to this one, which, before it was through, razed 2,000 homes in and around Middletown, a city of about 1,300 people in southern Lake County.
In recent years, every member of the county Board of Supervisors has been evacuated from their home due to fire. And the Valley Fire plus a handful of other smaller ones since then have burned nearly 6 percent of the county’s housing stock, according to county officials.
“There’s a lot of PTSD in the community whenever we see smoke,” said Sabatier, the board chairman, who left his job as a college outreach officer to work full-time as a supervisor. “But dealing with fires is part of our lifestyle and part of our blood.”
Only one supervisor opposed the Guenoc Valley project in the July 2020 vote approving it. In a county that, despite rich neighbors, has a poverty rate twice the national average, the construction jobs, wealthy population of home buyers, and hospitality work tied to the 850 or so planned hotel rooms offered an economic opportunity too good to pass up.
But Sabatier and other county supervisors say the project was more than simply about economics. To them, the design itself made sense and took into account the region’s traditions in ways that appealed to the community.
“We decided to undertake this project out of the emotional connection that we felt with the land itself within 24 hours of stepping foot onto the property,” said Alex Xu, the chief executive of Lotusland Investment Holdings, which owns the land. “We were just blown away by its natural beauty.”
This is Lotusland’s first development in California, a notoriously difficult place to navigate for developers even before fire protection became a priority. So far, the company has invested between $275 million and $300 million in the project, including the purchase of the land.
Unlike the Tejon Ranch project to the south, the Guenoc Valley development would be far less densely built on the land, less than a tenth the number of homes on more than twice the acreage. That does not include the hotel and vacation residences associated with it but, taken together, much of the valley and its sheer hillsides would remain as is.
“We had unprecedented earthquakes in the 1960s that ended up creating new building codes for schools and houses and any other type of building,” said Thomas Azwell, an environmental scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who received a donation from Lotusland to expand his data-collection efforts around fire behavior and works with state fire officials on early detection technologies and programs. “I think that we can do the same thing today for fire.”
Native plants are tended to on land set aside for the mixed-use Guenoc Valley project in California’s wine country.
Hundreds of acres of land are planned for use in the Guenoc Valley project.
Construction equipment sits on land slated for development as part of the Guenoc Valley project. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
TOP: Native plants are tended to on land set aside for the mixed-use Guenoc Valley project in California’s wine country. BOTTOM LEFT: Hundreds of acres of land are planned for use in the Guenoc Valley project. BOTTOM RIGHT: Construction equipment sits on land slated for development as part of the Guenoc Valley project. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Xu, who acknowledged in the project’s proposal brochure that the area is prone to wildfire, emphasizes the fire-resistance measures the project will include. He sees some of it as a proving ground to test what might be possible in other developments in the future.
There will be early-warning cameras placed around the property, artificial intelligence programming designed to provide early alerts to California fire officials, and a CalFire station on the grounds itself, financed by the developers, that will also serve the surrounding communities.
The homes will be built with fire-safety materials in mind, including sprinkler systems. Cows and sheep, already dotting the brown-green valley floor and munching between the rows of 2,000 acres of vineyards, will help keep some open spaces defensible.
So too, Xu and others say, will an 18-hole golf course, whose ninth hole looks east toward the hills of Colusa County and falls away 300 feet. A funicular would lower golf carts down the 300-foot cliff from the tee-box, now surrounded by blue and live oak. There will also be polo fields.
Xu, who consulted with CalFire officials and climate scientists in designing the project, said the proof of how safe his company can make the project will to some degree be determined by the demand for the properties.
Will people buy one of the Guenoc Valley homes? Will they use its hotel for a spa weekend? Will insurance companies insure the properties?
“If we weren’t confident in our plan, in how safe are development will be, we would not be investing the kind of money that we will be investing into this project,” Xu said.
Last year, as rare lightning strikes ignited fires across several counties, including Lake County, about 3,100 acres of the property planned for the Guenoc Valley project burned. Charred oaks and chaparral-covered hillsides are visible from the valley floor.
But 2,200 acres of that burn were set intentionally by CalFire, which received permission from Xu to light up some of the canyons to block the advance of flames from the south.
“Obviously, a developed area is going to give you more opportunities for defense than an undeveloped area,” said supervisor Jose Simon, who goes by the nickname “Moke,” a Lake County native whose district includes the project site. “It’s just too easy to say no when it’s difficult to figure out all the right answers on how this should go.”
An undeniable history
In a state of rapidly shifting climates, Lake County is also an extreme when it comes to its history of fire.
In announcing its motion to block the Guenoc Valley project, the state attorney general’s office noted that the site planned for the development has been affected by wildfire 11 times since 1953. The most recent was last year.
The largest was the 2015 Valley Fire. Flaring up in the afternoon, the fire blew up over the valley walls from the northwest, sweeping down toward Middletown, with its single main street and just a few stoplights. The fire wrought nearly a billion dollars’ worth of property damage in a county with an annual budget a quarter that size.
“This project represents an extreme case and it may be one of the reasons the attorney general decided to get involved,” said Peter Broderick, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the initial suit blocking the Guenoc Valley project and those freezing the San Diego County housing projects also now on hold.
“We can’t just continue to allow local governments to approve risky development in wildfire-prone areas at the clip that they have been for the last 10 years,” he added. “Otherwise, things are going to get worse and worse.”
Broderick argues that development in high fire-risk areas does not make them more “defensible,” as several Lake County officials and some scientists said. He points to what he believes is undeniable evidence: More than 90 percent of California’s wildfires are caused by human action — a car spark, a downed power line, a tossed cigarette, a gender-reveal party that used fireworks.
“What we need in California is safe, affordable housing,” Broderick said. “Building in a wildfire zone is simply not safe housing.”
Twin Pine Casino & Hotel in Middletown is southern Lake County’s largest private employer, with 300 people working there.
A misty view of the Guenoc Valley area.
Red-winged blackbirds, wood ducks and eagles lives in the midst of Lake County’s wine country. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
TOP: Twin Pine Casino & Hotel in Middletown is southern Lake County’s largest private employer, with 300 people working there. BOTTOM LEFT: A misty view of the Guenoc Valley area. BOTTOM RIGHT: Red-winged blackbirds, wood ducks and eagles lives in the midst of Lake County’s wine country. (Photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Something new on something ancient
Mankind has been here forever.
Moke Simon, the county supervisor and leader of the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians tribe, traces his family connection to the land back thousands of years. His great-grandfather once lived on the site now planned for the Guenoc Valley development.
The history, ancient and recent, is embedded in the land and in the clusters of trees around it.
The drive east from Santa Rosa, whose eastern edge burned in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, winds up through neighborhoods that burned then, some only just coming back. Along miles of Petrified Forest Road near Calistoga, the trunks of oaks and redwoods remain charred in places.
Signs hang on fences along the twisting, climbing highway, which rises over Mount St. Helena, shifting from lush forest to a more parched hilly plain on the other side. They thank firefighters for their work last year and just a few years before.
There are many “For Sale” signs, too. This land burns.
As the road flattens into Middletown, it is plain to see how shallow the local economy is here.
The Twin Pine Casino & Hotel stands along the main route into town, owned by the Middletown Rancheria, a federally recognized tribe of fewer than 100 members. The hotel-casino is southern Lake County’s largest private employer, with 300 people working there.
More than 50 percent of the region’s residents get into cars each day to drive to jobs in Santa Rosa, Sacramento and the Bay Area.
Simon confirmed the estimate provided by Lotusland that the first phase of the project’s construction alone would provide the county with $25 million to $30 million in annual property tax revenue. It is needed — to build and improve the roads to bring in new businesses, to turn the trailers behind Middletown High, home of the Mustangs, into permanent classrooms.
“When we finally have the demand, now we’re being told you can’t build,” said Sabatier, whose wife is the Middletown Middle School principal.
Simon, a still-massive former professional football player who now coaches the high school team, said part of the principle of growth, even out here in the distant valleys, is to show a community’s children a future. He wants more of them to stay, as he has.
“We need to just adapt to what’s happening here on Mother Earth and make some changes,” Simon said. “But Mother Nature always throws you a challenge.”