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Northern California city sued over approval of housing in wildfire-prone area

A coalition of environmental groups say Chico hasn't learned anything from the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the nearby town of Paradise in minutes.

CHICO, Calif. (CN) — Environmental groups sued the Northern California city of Chico on Friday over its approval of a plan to build thousands of new homes without properly assessing wildfire risks. 

A coalition of environmental groups claims the approval of the Valley’s Edge development, which designates a large piece of land outside the city for building nearly 2,800 homes, violates the California Environmental Quality Act.

Chico estimates the project could bring nearly 5,700 residents to the eastern side of the city, nearly the size of the nearby town of Durham. The land is located in a 1,400-acre special planning zone adjacent to the town of Paradise, which was devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire. It is now zoned to accommodate a majority of low-density homes and estates, as well as parks, a bike path and retail space. More than 1,300 homes will be designated for people 55 and older. Less than 1% of the land is set aside for subsidized affordable housing.

Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Aqualliance say in their lawsuit filed in Butte County Superior Court that the City Council and city staff did not adequately analyze ongoing wildfire conditions and evacuation routes before approving the project 6-1 on Jan. 3. 

“Tragically, Butte County knows far too well how destructive and unpredictable a fast-moving wildfire can be. Unfortunately, city leaders didn’t apply that knowledge when approving this risky project,” said J.P. Rose, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s too dangerous to wait until the next wildfire to test out evacuation plans. We have to make smart, science-based decisions now.”

The groups say the city also failed to complete an adequate study on how the groundwater supply will be affected by this project, which sits in an area where hundreds of domestic wells were reported dry last year.

Nor did the project’s environmental impact report properly assess the impacts of climate change on the necessary water supply and demand, the groups say. Building Valley's Edge will result in groundwater decreases of approximately one foot per year “which does not constitute sustainable groundwater management,” they say in the complaint.

Valley’s Edge planners also did not consider potential harms to imperiled wildlife, including the Butte County meadowfoam, an endangered flower, according to plaintiffs. The project, located in a vernal pool habitat, would also harm the conservancy fairy shrimp, vernal pool fairy shrimp and vernal pool tadpole shrimp. The land is partly composed of lava rock and oak trees.

The city planner said in the project's final report that mitigation measures will be taken to prevent any environmental harms, but petitioners say those measures are "so vague as to be meaningless."

“We’re quickly losing what little remains of precious vernal pools to encroaching development and climate change,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance. “Since the early 1990s, the city of Chico, activists, and resource agencies sought to protect vernal pools in Butte County, but here we are today with a City Council ignoring past commitments and efforts. Without more foresight and better planning, we’ll lose these Butte County gems forever and we’ll deeply regret it.”

Sierra Club attorney Don Mooney pointed to the wildfire risk as reason enough to can the development. “The lesson from past wildfires is that we need to plan and build much smarter,” he said. “Bringing a sprawling development to a fire-prone area without considering the consequences is not smart planning. Chico deserves a safer project that doesn’t decimate the vernal wetlands we still have.”

Chico’s city manager, planner and city attorney did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. 

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