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.