Terry Lamphier: Housing developments: public subsidizing hazards for private-sector profits
“We’ve got to continue to raise the bar on what we’re doing and local land use decisions have to be part of the discussion,” said Governor Jerry Brown, as quoted in The Union’s article, “Official: California must mull home ban in fire-prone areas” on Dec. 12.
Do our many existing, under construction and proposed housing developments reflect what we are tragically learning about best fire safe practices? When will the loss of lives, costs and challenges of disposal of tons of hazardous waste, the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of newly homeless and billions of dollars we all pay begin to affect planning?
Building in wildland/urban interfaces has long been recognized by fire officials as problematic if not downright dangerous. This irresponsible practice, supported by government officials who believe all housing growth is good and the “free market” should prevail, not only fails to recognize our inherent lack of suitable infrastructure but also ignores other effects far beyond lives lost.
As writer Stephen Pyne put it recently at Slate.com (as quoted in “The Week”, Nov. 23), developers erect towns in “the fire equivalent of flood plains.” This can only happen by approval of local governments, i.e., city and county planning officials, under control of our elected leaders. They bear more than a little responsibility for approving large housing projects nestled in woods with cul-de-sacs and very poor to non-existent viable escape routes (typical secondary “escape” routes are usually gated, narrow, and lead to other small roads).
Some approved but unbuilt projects have been recently renewed by government after years of lying dormant. Have government officials reviewed and updated safety requirements? Are they adequate in terms of evacuation routes, when faced, as the Paradise area did, with winds up to 50 miles per hour forcing evacuees onto 30 mph roads? Wind blown embers race ahead of fire lines, creating new fires miles away within minutes. Are adequate evacuation routes even possible, after witnessing the numerous photos of burned out vehicles blocking Camp Fire escape routes? If you have ever been in Morgan Ranch, Eskaton, Scotia Pines, Alta Sierra, Lake Wildwood, Lake of the Pines, Deer Creek, Banner Mountain, Cascade Shores or numerous other developments, you have to wonder, as will rural neighbors and city evacuees who will have to share evacuation routes.
Another unintended consequence: we are putting our public safety officials — firefighters and law enforcement — at ever-increasing personal risk as they attempt to get folks out of harms way.
Even if one dodges direct harms, we all pay — fire victim or not — higher utility rates, insurance rates and higher taxes to restore damaged infrastructure. PG&E is facing billions in fire costs and Gov. Brown passed a bill in September allowing utilities to bill customers for costs; insurance companies are moving away from pooled risk/benefit pricing to, essentially, insurance for the wealthy; repairs to damaged government-owned infrastructure eats into everyone’s taxes (this is in addition to the standard practice of using tax monies to build development-necessitated new public infrastructure — the recent county decision to subsidize a private developer’s road realignment in the Glenbrook Basin being a particularly egregious example).
Responsible government leadership would acknowledge these issues, recognize the risk will only grow and have the courage to put a moratorium on new development until we have satisfactory answers. Part of the process, for Grass Valley in particular, is an update on the internally inconsistent and (in some cases) flawed and outdated “2020 General Plan,” government’s 20-year planning document for shaping our community. When will the update begin? Will the document realistically reflect and act on what we are learning about fire safety?
Meanwhile, it is grossly irresponsible of government leaders to continue to pile hundreds of new homes onto our community, putting us all at risk for the sake of developer profits and raising the prospect of lawsuits for negligent planning in the face of known hazards.
We can start by updating a Grass Valley planning commissioner’s recent, tragically simplistic remark, “We need housing, period” to “We need fire safety, period.” This would truly illustrate government leadership for all of us, not just those “entitled” under existing planning.
Terry Lamphier lives in Grass Valley.
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