Blueprint for new homes in Agoura


The Acorn | May 10, 2024

By John Loesing
[email protected]

Now that the City of Agoura Hills has completed its latest progress report on the status of housing development across town, some groups are alleging that the new construction required by state law will endanger the city’s already crowded evacuation routes used in emergencies.

Litigation against the city & its housing plan is working its way through the court.

Each city in the state was required to submit an April 1 report to the California Department of Housing and Community Development outlining the previous year’s housing unit applications, approvals and completions to see if they are meeting their Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals outlined by Sacramento.

Agoura Hills must satisfy the state’s latest RHNA demand that 318 new dwellings be available in the city by the end of the decade. A portion of the units must be affordable to low-income occupants. That doesn’t mean all the units will be built, only that the city must adjust its development plans to allow for the units.

In 2022, over objections from city residents as well as people in Oak Park, the Agoura Hills City Council approved new development standards that cleared a path for hundreds of multi-unit residential dwellings at three shopping center sites along Kanan Road, a major evacuation route for residents.

To date, the city has identified 20 housing “opportunity sites” across the city, including the Kanan shopping centers.

In a subsequent lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the activist group Protect Our Emergency Evacuation Routes (PEER) alleged the environmental study upon which the city’s latest housing update represents “a failure to conduct any meaningful analysis of the project’s impacts and its current ability to respond to large-scale emergencies, such as a wildfire.”

The case will be heard June 25 at Superior Court in Alhambra. PEER wants a judge to set aside Agoura Hills’ 2022 housing certification and to find the city in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“What the PEER lawsuit would have us do is remove sites and density, but (the state) is going to make us find those sites and that density elsewhere, and our council was aware of that, so they said we believe it’s appropriate where we identified it and we believe it’s going to be safe to evacuate the people in that location,” said Denice Thomas, Agoura Hills community development director.

Although developer interest in the shopping centers has yet to materialize, the sites remain problematic because of the stress that the new traffic would place on the Kanan Road evacuation route. Other sites, the opponents say, seem better suited to accommodate the state’s urgent call for new housing.

“There are alternatives where housing fits,” said Mary Wiesbrock, founder of Save Open Space and a supporter of the PEER lawsuit.

“Agoura Hills has alternative sites where the placement of higher density per acre of state-mandated housing would not congest our vital Kanan evacuation route,” said Rae Graelich from PRISMM (Protectors and Residents in the Santa Monica Mountains), another group seeking to limit the scope of new housing in the city, in a letter sent last year to the Agoura Hills City Council.

Graelich and Wiesbrock recommend placement of homes, many of them affordable, on a 2.6-acre parcel at Dorothy Drive where Colorful Garden Center, a plant nursery and one of the city’s oldest businesses, is located.

“The noncontroversial two-acre nursery site is on a bus route and has easy access to the freeway,” Graelich said. “Evacuation here would not affect the Kanan evacuation route.”

The nursery parcel has the potential for up to 65 units, but Graelich says the site could safely host more.

“It is possible to increase the number of affordable units on this site by increasing the percentage of affordable and number of units per acre, as neighboring cities have done,” Graelich said.

Agoura Hills is being more restrictive with its per-parcel density projections than its neighbors, she said.

“Neighboring cities have found creative ways to increase the number of allowable low-income residences. Agoura Hills seems to be holding to 25 units per acre, yet, Calabasas has sites that are 42 units per acre, and Westlake Village has several locations at 32 units per acre,” Greulich told the Agoura council.

Things aren’t that simple, however.

“Every community has to jump through different hurdles, Thomas said. “It’s not like it’s a one-size-fits-all kind of approach.

“(The state) had a very restrictive and stringent set of criteria that we had to meet in order for them to support and certify our housing element” she said.

Of Agoura Hills’ 20 designated sites, only nine have drawn developer interest.

Of those nine, five property owners have submitted preliminary applications and two have submitted formal plans, including the Regency Theatres center on Agoura Road, a 7-acre parcel built as the Mann 8 Theatres, the city’s first movie house in 1990, where a developer has proposed repurposing the existing buildings and putting in some 275 apartments. The Regency redevelopment can start pulling its permits, the city said.

Another developer, Northern California-based Edri Construction, has an application under review targeting two vacant lots across Agoura Road from the theater that would contribute an additional 33 units to the city’s housing stock.

Both housing applications are considered exempt from environmental review, giving the builder fewer hoops to have to jump through before his first shovel hits the ground.

But this “by right” entitlement loophole is what rankles opponents.

“The fact that the overlay is intended to create a ‘by right’ approval process—thus eliminating all future (environmental) review for these future housing projects—is significant because it means the city will not have any future opportunities to evaluate the projects’ direct, indirect or cumulative impacts on emergency response or evacuation, or to require any mitigation measures if the impacts are significant,” the PEER lawsuit says.

Although the clock is running on the city’s effort to move ahead with its new housing, it will take time before homes are built and results start to show.

Bharat Shah, owner of the Colorful Garden Center, said his landlord told him he probably wouldn’t have to vacate for at least another three years because it will take that long to obtain government funding to build the affordable housing being considered for the nursery location.

Still, Wiesbrock is pleased.

“This could be 100% affordable (housing),” she said. “It’s perfect.”

The 80-year-old Shah, who’s operated nurseries in Agoura Hills for more than half his life, said he won’t be sad to leave his business when the time comes.

“I’m ready to retire,” Shah said. “I don’t care.”

City of Agoura sued over housing plan

Group says EIR didn’t account for evacuation routes

Thousand Oaks Acorn | October 07, 2022 

By Scott Steepleton
[email protected]

A group representing homeowners in Los Angeles and Ventura counties is asking a judge to block the City of Agoura Hills’ recently updated general plan, which they say puts residents in harm’s way.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the group, Protect Our Emergency Evacuation Routes, alleges that the environmental study which the update and a new affordable housing overlay are based on “failed to adequately disclose or discuss the potentially significant impacts . . . on fire safety and evacuation routes.”

The group represents residents of Agoura Hills and neighboring communities “who would likely be required to depend on the Kanan Road and Driver Avenue evacuation routes,” according to the lawsuit.

California housing law requires periodic updating of the housing element of local general plans and quantifies for each jurisdiction the housing need across income levels during a specified planning period.

The sixth cycle Regional Housing Needs Allocation covers October 2021-29, and Agoura Hills received a need of 318 housing units.

That doesn’t mean all those units will be built; rather, the jurisdiction must change its development plans to allow for the units.

The need in Calabasas is 354 units, in Westlake Village 142. Hidden Hills’ allocation is 40, while Malibu’s is 79.

Much of Agoura Hills, whose population is slightly more than 20,000, is within what the state deems a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. The city is in the area damaged by the Woolsey fire in 2018.

In August, over objections from city residents as well as people in Oak Park and elsewhere, the City Council voted 4-1 to approve new development standards that, among other things, allow hundreds of multiunit residential dwellings at three shopping center sites along Kanan Road, a major evacuation route.

The update also put standards for the Ladyface Mountain Specific Plan and Agoura Village Specific Plan in line with the new affordable housing overlay.

The council heard from Old Agoura residents concerned about how new housing allowances near Driver Avenue their sole evacuation route.

Urged to take more time on the issue, the council majority seemed most focused on meeting what it said was a state deadline.

Agoura Hills resident Cindy Larson slammed the action being considered.

“How can a city council not care about its city, its reputation, its people? This council doesn’t care that thousands of voters signed petitions against building on the shopping centers.”

Mayor Deborah Klein Lopez said, “We are protecting our character while still staying in compliance with the state.”

Councilmember Chris Anstead, who voted “no” that night, told the Acorn at the time, “I prioritized safety and the concerns of our residents over meeting an arbitrary state deadline to submit our housing plan.”

PEER’s San Luis Obiso-based attorney Babak Naficy said that while the environmental report acknowledges the plan update “would result in additional residential population and corresponding traffic . . . which could increase emergency response times and impede emergency evacuation,” the report “goes on to admit that despite the added risk . . . the city has not adopted any emergency evacuation plans.”

The report, Naficy said, “does not contain any meaningful analysis of existing conditions as they relate to emergency response and evacuation in the event of catastrophic wildfires or floods.”

The city had not yet filed a response. City Manager Nathan Hamburger said the city received a copy of the petition and there would be no comment.

Lopez said there’s been much fear mongering over the plan and the shopping centers, but there are no projects in the works for the Kanan shopping centers, which are at or near Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

The centers, said the mayor, “have been zoned for mixed-use for nearly 15 years” and there’s been no move by the owners to tear down any stores and add residential units.

PEER wants a judge to block any action based on the environmental report, to set aside its certification, to invalidate the August vote and to find the city in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“PEER’s members share the common belief that the city can and should meet its new housing needs without compromising public safety,” said member Ellie Hawkinson. “There are feasible alternatives that our sister cities have used.”

Attorney General Bonta Issues Guidance to Local Governments to Mitigate Wildfire Risk from Proposed Developments in Fire-Prone Areas

Press Release
Attorney General Bonta Issues Guidance to Local Governments …

Monday, October 10, 2022

Contact: (916) 210-6000, [email protected]

SAN DIEGO – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today issued guidance with best practices and mitigation measures for local governments considering approval of development projects in fire-prone areas. Wildfires are part of California’s present, and as a result of climate change, increasingly part of California’s future. Eight of the 10 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in the past decade. As local governments consider new development projects, it is imperative that they carefully analyze and mitigate wildfire impacts as part of the environmental review process required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Attorney General’s guidance is intended to help local governments design development projects in a way that minimizes impacts to wildfire ignition, emergency access, and evacuation, and protect California's residents and the environment.

“Local governments have a responsibility to address wildfire risks associated with new development projects early in the planning process when changes to these projects can still be made,” said Attorney General Bonta. “The climate crisis is here, and with it comes increasingly frequent and severe wildfires that force mass evacuations, destroy homes, and lead to tragic loss of life. We must build in a way that recognizes this reality. This guidance is intended to provide local governments with concrete considerations and specific mitigation measures for new developments in wildfire prone areas so that five, 10, or 20 years down the line, we aren’t faced with a catastrophe that could have been avoided.”

Recent changes in fire frequency, intensity, and location are posing increasing threats to the residents and environment of California. More acres of California have burned in the past decade than in the previous 90 years. While lightning has historically been a common cause of fire, in recent years, many of the state’s most destructive fires have been caused by human activity, with catastrophic consequences. Since 2010, wildfires have killed nearly 150 people in California, and since 2005, wildfires have destroyed over 97,000 structures, requiring mass evacuations and exacerbating California’s housing crisis.

Residential developments in the wildland-urban interface and other wildfire prone areas can significantly increase the risks of wildfires and the related risk to public safety. Introducing more people via additional development increases the likelihood of fire ignition, which may then develop into a wildfire. Building housing in the wildland-urban interface also puts more people in harm’s way, and may hinder evacuation routes and emergency access. 

CEQA requires that state and local agencies disclose and evaluate the significant environmental impacts of locating development in areas susceptible to hazardous conditions – such as wildfire – and adopt all feasible mitigation measures to reduce or eliminate those impacts. The Attorney General’s guidance is based on the California Department of Justice’s experience reviewing, commenting on, and litigating several planned development projects in wildfire prone areas. 

The guidance sets out best practices and mitigation measures for topics including:

  • Project Density: Project density influences how likely a fire is to start or spread, and how likely it is that the development and its occupants will be in danger when a fire starts. Local governments should strive to increase housing density and consolidate design, relying on higher density infill developments as much as possible.
  • Project Location: Project placement in the landscape relative to fire history, topography, and wind patterns also influences wildfire risk. Local governments should limit development along steep slopes and amidst rugged terrain to decrease exposure to rapid fire spread and increase accessibility for fire-fighting.
  • Water Supply and Infrastructure: As part of evaluating a project’s wildfire risk impacts, local governments should analyze the adequacy of water supplies and infrastructure to address fire-fighting within the project site. Local governments should consider requiring on-site water supply or storage to augment ordinary supplies that may be lost during a wildfire.
  • Evacuation and Emergency Access: Evacuation modeling and analysis should be completed prior to the development's approval and include evaluation of the capacity of surrounding roadways, project impacts on existing evacuation plans, and proximity to existing fire services, among other factors. Local governments should consider placing developments close to existing road and evacuation infrastructure, and where appropriate, constructing additional roads to facilitate evacuations.
  • Fire Hardening Structures and Homes: Home hardening has been shown to be an extremely effective measure for preventing structure loss during a wildfire. Local governments should require developers to upgrade building materials and use installation techniques to increase the development’s resistance to heat, flames, and embers beyond what is required in applicable building codes.


Donate  •  Volunteer  •  Learn More

We have an extremely strong case but we need help with funding to continue to move forward. Please donate!