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Friday, Aug 19, 2022

Wildfire Worries Defeat Project in Calabasas

 West Village at Calabasas, a long-planned 180-unit residential development, was unanimously rejected last month by Calabasas City Council based on its environmental impact report.The criteria for the 5-0 vote on May 17 to nix the project had to do with three issues: a lack of wildfire risk assessment; a disregard for open spaces; and issues endangering the surrounding biodiversity.

For more than five years, New Home Co. has plugged away at expanding its footprint in the city by building West Village at Calabasas on a vacant 77-acre lot at 4790 Las Virgenes Road, near the eastern terminus of Agoura Road.The Irvine-based builder – which has developed units throughout California, Arizona and soon Colorado – already owns the 72-condo Calabasas Avanti, at 23600 Park Sorrento.“Each of the City Councilmembers cited various reasons for their individual votes to deny the project, and wildfire mitigation was one of those subjects prominently mentioned,” said Mayor James Bozajian. “One of the overriding factors was the City Council’s interpretation of the Open Space Initiative, codified by voters in 2005 and then again in 2015. Most of us, myself included, specifically mentioned that our ordinances relating to open space preservation prohibited approval without a two-thirds vote of the public.”Opponents to the project, including environmentalists, believe that the City Council followed its community’s consciousness in rejecting the project.“The City Council not only did what’s right for residents, it did what’s right for the wildlife that makes Calabasas so remarkable,” said Tiffany Yap, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Officials should think twice before approving any hillside development that eliminates wildlife connectivity and increases the chance of yet another wildfire.”But New Home disagreed “with any contention that the wildfire risk was not adequately considered and analyzed,” according to an email from the company’s legal counsel, Michael Shonafelt, partner at Newmeyer & Dillion in Newport Beach. The email also said that the open space criticisms contradicted the city’s own zoning code and general plan.“New Home Co. already has advanced two carefully planned projects for this site,” Sonafelt wrote. “Both had extensive input from the city. Neither could be realized due to project opponents and/or the city decision-makers.

This is despite the fact that the city’s general plan already features a 180-unit residential project just like this one, but with considerably more commercial space than the New Home Co.’s proposal.”Mayoral perspectiveBozajian, one of the five councilmembers who vetoed the project, explained why this particular project proved problematic for him and his colleagues.“I was a little surprised that it got as far as it did,” he said. “We didn’t have a single person who spoke in favor of it who were from Calabasas. I would think that they would have tried to canvass support.”Given the recent Woolsey Fire, a wildfire which devastated nearly 100,000 acres in Calabasas and Malibu and destroyed 1,643 structures, Bozajian thinks that in the future developers will need to talk about fire risk in their presentations.“They’re going to have to address it in an (Environmental Impact Report),” Bozajian said. “It depends on each individual project, (but) it seems like if it really isn’t mentioned, it probably isn’t going forward.”“It’s not even the developer’s fault, per se,” Bozajian said of New Home, as developers usually hire an outside party to conduct the EIR.Yet despite the EIR’s wildfire risk data deficiency, the West Village plan had other issues, too, he said, such as ingress and egress – evacuation routes.There was also a lack of fidelity to open space guarantees.

“Open space must be graded and have concrete basins to mitigate potential landslide issues,” Bozajian explained. “The land must be left in its completely natural condition.”Wildlife at riskThere were also biodiversity issues, which scientists such as Yap see as critical.

Yap’s employer, the Center for Biological Diversity, has been at the forefront of trying to keep overzealous developers from compromising area fauna and flora throughout California. In January, a judge issued a ruling blocking the 1,300-acre Northlake development in Los Angeles County, where it would have threatened rare wildlife by paving over 3.5 miles of Grasshopper Creek.

The center also played a role in slowing down the trajectory of Tejon Ranchcorp’s controversial Centennial project in April. A judge motioned to block the project, which he said would have imperiled 57,000 residents by placing more than 19,000 homes on remote wildlands an hour north of downtown Los Angeles.

Regarding West Village at Calabasas, Yap said the center’s main concern is the project’s location within the wildlife corridor.

“The area between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Sierra Madre is really important to mountain lions” as one of the last remaining linkages for the California Endangered Species Act-protected panthers.  “They’re doing really poorly,” she said, explaining how mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains are boxed in by the 101 freeway, hit by cars, and killed by rat poisons.

Yap added that the West Village project would also mean the destruction of “a lot of existing habitat of oaks.” The increase in wildfires in recent years has been taking its toll on California’s biodiverse landscapes. Native shrublands, which are fire resilient, are adapted to fire cycles in which fires occur every 30 to 150 years. However, as people have started to ignite fires more frequently, these habitats are unable to recover, and they become degraded.

“Invasive grasses come in, it becomes more flammable and creates a disastrous feedback loop,” Yap said.

As a result of these issues, Yap continued, “Where we place homes matters, as 95 to 97 percent of wildfires are caused by people (or human sources such as power lines, car sparks and electrical equipment).” Yap believes that the biggest problem of West Village’s EIR was that it provided zero analysis of wildfire risk.

“That’s a huge violation of CEQA,” she said, especially as all of Calabasas has been designated as a very high fire hazard severity zone by CalFire (California Department of Forestry and Fire). As a result, such a development as is could become a risk to existing and future residents.  Yap said she is not naïve about progress or anti-progress.

“Basically, we know there’s going to be growth, but we need it to be smart growth,” she said. “This project just doesn’t do that. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t do their due diligence. And that affects everyone.”  Bozajian agreed.“These major issues tanked this project,” Bozajian said.New Home’s past history in the community did not buy it goodwill for West Village. However, as Bozajian explained, that’s because West Village was an entirely different animal than the Avanti project, which was a redevelopment.“It was already a developed property,” Bozajian said. “Avanti was the old Calabasas Inn and it was also a much smaller parcel.”Housing mandateCalifornia has mandated cities to hit quota benchmarks on creating new housing or be penalized. However, Bozajian believes the mandate is “hard to meet because we’re built out. Also, California has lost population, the county has lost population so (the situation has changed since the Regional Housing Needs Allocation was initiated). There will be some pressure on the legislature not to continue to do this one-size-fits-all approach.”  Shonafelt, the attorney for New Homes, said in his email that his client “believes the denials were unlawful and therefore void.

(New Homes) is currently considering its rights to pursue available judicial remedies.”Bozajian acknowledged that Calabasas is not the easiest city for development.“The cities in Conejo Valley have a general reputation of being slow growth,” Bozajian said. “If you look at the history, it’s been very difficult to vote them through. (West Village) is one in a long line of developments that have run into difficulties. … (Developers) come in knowing that the City Council won’t rubber stamp any development.” 

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.

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