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Home    |   Print Edition   |   Building to Burn? Permitting Exurban Housing Development in High Fire Hazard Zones

Building to Burn? Permitting Exurban Housing Development in High Fire Hazard Zones

Jun 29, 2022

Eric Biber & Moira O’Neill

Volume 48 (2021) - Issue 4

California has endured devastating fire seasons over the past few years, with billions of dollars of damages, thousands of homes lost, and dozens dead. A key driver of the state’s fire crisis is the increase in development of housing in the wildland-urban interface, where ecosystems and landscapes are more likely to burn. Wildland-urban interface development can put people and property in harm’s way and can increase the risk of ignitions of fires. Wildland-urban interface development can also make it harder to restore fire to the landscape, a critical step to reducing fire hazards in California. But current law in California appears to do little to deter development in these high fire hazard areas. Direct regulation of land-use is generally undertaken by local governments that may have incentives to allow greater wildland-urban interface development. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires review and mitigation of the environmental impacts of new development projects, may not provide an adequate response to wildland-urban interface development. In particular, a recent California Supreme Court case limited the scope of CEQA review to the impacts caused by a project on the environment, rather than the impacts of the environment on a project––much of the potential harm posed by fire to wildland-urban interface development falls in the latter category. To understand how well CEQA is addressing wildland-urban interface development, we analyzed data on environmental review for housing projects in three large exurban counties and additional cities with substantial wildland-urban interface areas. We found that in San Diego County, significant amounts of development are being approved using streamlined CEQA review processes, and that most of the housing development in the County is occurring in the wildland-urban interface. Our results indicate that CEQA and local land-use regulation may not be adequately addressing wildland-urban interface
development in California. However, any policy response must also recognize the dire housing shortage in the state. Balancing the goals of reducing fire risk and increasing housing production suggests that increased housing development in low fire hazard urban infill areas, and a regional-level planning structure to properly plan for fire hazards, may be appropriate policy responses.