In California, Less Housing In Core Means More Near Wildfires

A recent approval in Tejon Ranch shows the political dynamics that encourage sprawl over density.

Ethan Finlan | September 3, 2018 | |
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California wildfires / Flickr

Last week, I covered a new California law that would preempt municipal zoning in the Bay Area to allow for denser development near BART stations. I mentioned that the state should apply this thinking to other metro areas, because NIMBYism in them is just as troublesome. When it comes to urban upzoning, NIMBYs explore all the options, and their elected representatives fall in line.  As a result, developers often look to the fringes, where there are fewer neighbors to object.

At the same time that California is contending with large scale wildfires, a large development is proceeding in a rural section of northern Los Angeles County that is particularly vulnerable. Tejon Ranch, located just beyond the “Grapevine” mountain range pass, is the site of a multi-acre development just approved by regional planners. It’s in a higher-risk region for fire, and has been at rick before. Back in 2013, a large fire came quite close to the area.  Yet Tejon is just the latest example of a far-flung development deep in the Golden State’s hot, dry pockets. The Inland Empire has grown substantially in recent years, and the push further and further into the Central Valley is well documented. As fires become increasingly common, suburbs which encroach upon forested areas and mountainous areas will be under the gun – and emergency services will grow increasingly strained.

The typical answer is to restrict such development through government edict. At best, this just delays the problem. Sooner or later, if people can’t find affordable housing in one jurisdiction (or state) they’ll move to another. Refusing to upzone near the urban core will serve only to continue this push into more hazardous regions. Outlawing development in these more hazardous regions will ensure that the state continues to become an exclusive enclave of the wealthy. Yet prominent environmentalists tend to block upzoning measures reflexively, based ostensibly on dubious claims about cities’ carbon emissions as compared to more disperse development. Even if legislation to prohibit such development were desirable, it hasn’t been successful at stopping sprawl, as the near unanimous vote of LA’s regional commission demonstrates. Rather there’s a tendency to allow sprawl developments, likely because they’re politically easier to build.

Not only does NIMBYism pose a risk to affordability and economic growth, it also imposes risks to the environment – and safety. California, and other states which claim to be opposed to sprawl cannot have it both ways. Deregulating zoning won’t prevent sprawl, but allowing cities to meet demand will take pressure off of environmentally sensitive regions.

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