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California Housing Development Is A 'Disaster Waiting To Happen'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 2018, we saw a lot of devastating wildfires in the state of California. During our coverage, we heard from people conflicted about whether or not to rebuild in the same areas that burned to the ground. But just weeks after the deadly Camp Fire, a massive, new housing development was approved in a high-fire-risk area near Los Angeles. Reporter Emily Guerin from member station KPCC took a look at the financial bet of rebuilding.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: Back in September, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a new housing development called Esperanza Hills. It's 340 luxury homes on an undeveloped patch of land. It's got amazing views of hills and canyons. And Kevin Johnson thinks it's a disaster waiting to happen.

KEVIN JOHNSON: This site is probably the most dangerous site in Southern California that you could pick to put 340 new families into.

GUERIN: He's a lawyer for one of the environmental groups that opposes the project. And he says what makes this site so dangerous is that a huge wildfire swept through here just 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Yelling) Stacy (ph), come on. (Unintelligible). Go ahead and drive.

GUERIN: In this recording by Casper News (ph), a man is rushing his wife into their car as a helicopter dumps water on the flames nearby. People who lived through it said the evacuation was chaotic, and they barely got out. Ed Schumann's house and 380 others burned down that day. And he does not like the idea of adding hundreds more houses to the community.

ED SCHUMANN: Evacuating that more many people in the same limited infrastructure - it's a scary thought.

GUERIN: So why would anyone want to build in such a risky place?

DOUGLAS WYMORE: California is woefully deficient in housing units.

GUERIN: And he's right. That's the developer of Esperanza Hills, Douglas Wymore.

WYMORE: When somebody comes into develop, it's going to be the areas that aren't currently developed, right?

GUERIN: In fact, more than 60 percent of new houses on the West Coast are in high-fire-risk areas. But Wymore maintains that it is possible to build here safely. His homes will be fire-resistant, he says. They'll have lots of brush clearing and two water tanks for firefighting.

WYMORE: I think that the bottom line is you can mitigate it, and you can protect it.

GUERIN: So that's the developer. But why would the Orange County Board of Supervisors approve the project? Here's one factor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY LAMB: It will generate $8,250,000 in property tax.

GUERIN: That's Gary Lamb, who works with Wymore. At a public meeting last year, he listed off how much money the project will generate for the community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMB: Four million will go to the Placentia-Yorba Linda school district.

GUERIN: And since 2011, Wymore has donated nearly $50,000 to the political campaigns of various members of the OC Board of Supervisors. Now, none of the supervisors wanted to talk to me for this story. But at a meeting last May, Supervisor Shawn Nelson explained one reason why he was signing off on the project. The Fire Department had already given it the green light.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN NELSON: If the Fire Department's satisfied, I'm not inclined to argue with them. I'm not a fireman.

GUERIN: But Timothy Kerbrat is a fireman in Orange County. And he says, from what he's seen so far, the project does meet state and local requirements.

TIMOTHY KERBRAT: Do they have access? Do they have water? Do they have a defensible space? Do they have hardened structures that they can protect? Are all those things occurring?

GUERIN: And in the Esperanza Hills project, he says they are. But here's the thing. If there's a fire, Orange County won't actually have to spend much of its own money to protect the neighborhood. The state and federal governments will reimburse them. Kimiko Barrett is a researcher at Headwaters Economics, which studies land use.

KIMIKO BARRETT: The consequences actually aren't borne by the people who are approving these developments.

GUERIN: She calls it a moral hazard. And until this changes, she says we're going to keep building in risky areas. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOUNTAIN'S "PERIPHERAL DRIFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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