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Court ruling pending on 16,000-acre Lake County planned resort

A legal challenge against a planned 16,000-acre ultraluxury resort between Clear Lake and Napa Valley may be headed toward a ruling in Lake County Superior Court next month.

Judge J. David Markham on Nov. 3 said that he planned to issue a ruling after Dec. 10 on the lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity against Lake County and developer Lotusland Investment Holdings over the July 2020 approval of the Guenoc Valley project near Middletown. The state Attorney General’s Office took an unprecedented step of supporting the lawsuit against the project, citing wildfire risk.

The Guenoc Valley project was approved by the Board of Supervisors four years after the San Francisco- and Hong Kong-based Lotusland purchased the property, located off Highway 29 north of Calistoga. The approvals allow for 400 hotel units in five “boutique” complexes plus 450 resort units, 1,400 estate villas, 500 workforce housing bedrooms, according to the environmental impact report. The goal is to build it over a decade.

An attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity on Nov. 3 objected to the characterization by Lotusland counsel Jonathan Bass at a Oct. 29 hearing that groups bringing the lawsuit were “outside nitpickers” against the project.

“So this narrative of ‘outside nitpickers’ is perhaps compelling, but it’s a false one here,” Peter Broderick, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told the judge Nov. 3. He noted that the organization and the state Attorney General’s Office had submitted concerns about wildfire risk as the project environmental project was being put together.

Broderick said matters such as redesign of roads in the resort to comply with state fire safety requirements, determination of off-site water use and the specifics of livestock grazing to lower fire risk shouldn’t be left to after project approval.

“But all of that will be too late, because certifying the EIR and approving the project is the point of no return here,” Broderick said.

Lake County Counsel Anita Grant told the judge that the area knows what’s at risk for wildfire.

“Lake County residents know better than many exactly what devastation means when it comes to wildfire — fields and forests awash with flames moving great distances at unbelievable speed,” Grant told the judge. “So nobody has to tell the county of Lake about wildfire. And the county of Lake will never fail to consider wildfire risks of any development project here. That is one of the reasons why this project is something that the county can very strongly recommend, because the wildfire mitigations here are tremendous.”

She noted that the project’s wildfire-prevention plan includes undergrounding of electrical lines, management of woodland fuels, mandatory defensible space around all homes and commercial structures, a network of hydrants, external fire sprinklers sprinklers on every structure including private residences, a new fire station, 100-foot fire breaks along all property roadways, an emergency communications system and fire detection technology throughout the property.

“It's certainly true, there's no one size fits all for wildfire prevention. But refusing to allow development is not the answer,” Grant said.

She pointed to recent legislative efforts in Sacramento to limit or ban residential developments in high fire risk areas.

“With most of Northern California, indeed most of the entire state, a high fire risk area, development can't simply stop,” Grant said.

Markam specifically asked for clarification on how the project environmental document determined from local experts that the resort could be evacuated in a half-hour. Filings on that question are due from the county and developer by Nov. 19 and from the other side by Dec. 7.

The county considered economic "multiplier effect” of the resort to be an overriding concern when balancing wildfire risk, Grant said. The resort would employ 300 and also require about 700 construction jobs to build.

“This would bring economic vitality to areas outside the county itself with jobs the project will spur indirect secondary economic development from economic growth, such as the need for housing, schools, regional infrastructure for shopping, entertainment and tourism,” Grant said, noting that agritourism is a key focus of the county’s central planning document.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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