On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to green-light the controversial Centennial development, a 19,000-home mini-city to be built at Tejon Ranch in a remote valley off the Grapevine.
It is a pivotal, once-in-a-generation decision for the supervisors: Will they continue the old model of growth — in which subdivisions are allowed to go up in remote wilderness areas, often in high-risk fire zones, far from established job centers, requiring residents to drive long distances and creating more traffic and greenhouse gas emissions?
Or will the supervisors finally put a stop to sprawling, distant, risky development and instead send a message that Southern California is committed to growing in an environmentally sustainable way.
There’s really only one responsible choice: Say no to continued sprawl.
Not that it’s an easy decision. California has a debilitating housing shortage that is driving up rents and home prices, fueling an increase in homelessness and handicapping efforts to attract and retain businesses. Los Angeles County has failed to build enough housing to meet population demands and now has a deficit of 1 million homes. So, yes, the region needs to build a lot more housing. But it must be careful as it does so.
The Centennial development has been in the works for nearly two decades. Plans call for a community of 57,000 people in the mountains between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.
The property is currently open space of grasslands and rolling hills — a stretch of land that’s at “high” (or “very high”) risk of wildfires, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Between 1964 and 2015, state fire officials recorded 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres within five miles of Centennial, including four within the project’s boundaries. The vast majority of wildfires are caused by humans, including sparks from vehicles and power lines, so developing in wildland areas only increases the risk of fires and puts more people in harm's way.
The developer and L.A. County officials say Centennial would be made as fireproof as possible, using fire-resistant building materials and landscaping, and with power lines buried underground and multiple fire stations for fast response. Yet, even modern construction is no guarantee of safety. In 2017, brand-new homes in Ventura built to the state’s most current standards were destroyed by the Thomas fire.
The deadly fires in Paradise, Malibu, Redding and Santa Rosa have shown the tremendous danger of putting homes in the middle of high fire-risk areas in California. The threat is only going to grow as climate change fuels more frequent, more destructive fires.
And speaking of climate change, remote developments also help generate the greenhouse gases responsible for it. That’s because people who move to far-flung subdivisions for more affordable houses generally have to commute longer distances to their jobs, and the developments themselves are often built for driving, rather than walking, biking or transit.
The developers and county planners say the Centennial project would be different, with a network of villages designed to be walkable and bikeable. The developer has said Centennial would be a “self-sustaining community,” with an equal number of homes and jobs so that residents don’t have to commute to urban areas for work.
That’s a nice idea, but it’s liable to prove awfully difficult to accomplish. In Santa Clarita, 75% of residents commute out of the city for work, and the percentages are similar for Lancaster and Irvine, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. And unlike other suburban communities, Centennial would not be near any commuter rail lines.
The Centennial development cuts against the state’s ambitious sustainability laws and strategies. A decade ago, the state passed a landmark law designed to cut greenhouse gases by requiring regions to plan and design housing and transportation projects so that people wouldn’t have to drive as much.
Again, nice idea. But a recent report found the law has largely been ignored. California continues to approve sprawling developments and people are driving more, not less. The transportation sector is the state’s largest source of greenhouse gases, and emissions have risen despite the arrival of electric cars and vehicles that burn less fuel per mile.
Time’s running out — last week yet another study reported that greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are growing at a faster pace, making it much harder to prevent the most severe effects of climate change, including severe storms, wildfires, food shortages, heat waves, droughts and floods.
Why do we accept business as usual when radical change is needed? Why do we keep building houses in the path of wildfires, only to act surprised when flames force people to run for their lives? Why do we keep building homes in remote areas and then wonder why people drive so much?
Why do elected leaders ignore their own “visions” for a new way forward? Los Angeles County is a member of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. In 2016, the agency adopted a “Sustainable Communities Strategy,” which laid out the options pretty clearly:
“We can choose to build new sprawling communities that pave over undeveloped natural lands, necessitating the construction of new roads and highways — which will undoubtedly become quickly overcrowded and contribute to regional air pollution and ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change.
“Or, we can grow in more compact communities in existing urban areas, providing neighborhoods with efficient and plentiful public transit, abundant and safe opportunities to walk, bike and pursue other forms of active transportation, and preserving more of the region’s remaining natural lands for people to enjoy.”