Developers stick with plans for Lake County resort and housing despite state opposition over fire danger
Citing a January court order that put plans for the controversial Guenoc Valley resort on hold, Lake County supervisors have rescinded a host of 2-year-old land use decisions made to advance the project in a fire-prone area near the Napa County line.
But representatives for Lotusland Investment Holdings say that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned plans for 16,000 acre resort and housing development east of Middletown and Highway 29.
Quite the opposite.
Consultants went to work months ago to try to bolster traffic studies for the master-planned community and surrounding area, and to satisfy the judge’s concerns about evacuation routes in the event of an emergency.
A supplemental environmental impact report addressing regional evacuation needs and impacts could be available for 30-day public review by late July, according to Lotusland partner Chris Meredith. It will be followed later by approval from the Lake County Board of Supervisors and Superior Court Judge J. David Markham, if all goes well.
If more time is needed to respond to public comments or make revisions on evacuation- and traffic-related issues, that will be accomplished, Meredith said.
But “that is the only thing that’s on the table,” he said. There is no opening “to relitigate the project itself.”
In fact, despite broad objections to the Guenoc Valley project from the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society, both of which sued the county and developers over the sufficiency of its environmental review document, Markham found fault only with the findings related to the project’s impact on regionwide emergency evacuations, according to his Jan. 4 ruling.
That was also the issue that drew then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra into the battle, in a case carried on by his successor, Rob Bonta.
Becerra joined the suit on behalf of his office and the state, saying the environmental review inadequately addressed increased wildfire risk associated with the development and the limited capacity for evacuation.
Becerra’s Feb. 2021 motion referred to recent catastrophic wildfires in the area, including the LNU Complex that swept through much of the project area mere months earlier.
Markham also acknowledged the substantial risk of injury and death related to mass flight during recent catastrophic wildfires in California and noted that about 4,070 people would ultimately be brought to the southern corner of Lake County if the project were fully built out.
“This is a significant population increase when considering the Project is located in Lake County Census Tracts 12 and 13 which had an estimated combined population of 10,163 in 2017,” he wrote. “If a wildfire occurs, the Project’s residents will need to evacuate. These people will likely compete with the residents in the surrounding area for safe evacuation routes.”
Lake County’s whole population is under 65,000.
The Lotusland proposal rates high on appeal, with dazzling descriptions of a high-end, sustainable community inspired by the rolling hills and lush vineyards of the landscape built on less than 10% of the overall acreage and designed to accommodate wildlife and agriculture.
Attractions would include a golf course, polo fields, equestrian center, spa and wellness facilities and mixed commercial uses appropriate to “a world class resort destination,” proponents say.
A fire station and helipad also are part of the plans, as are external sprinklers on all buildings, undergrounded utilities and other fire safety measures.
Though phased construction could eventually include up to a 1,400 estate village and five boutique hotels with 600 rooms and resort apartments, only one phase is addressed in the existing environmental impact report, Meredith said.
Approvals received from county supervisors and recently withdrawn would have allowed 441 residences and 141 resort units, for a total 542 units built over 10 years, as the market demanded, he said.
“We’re not coming in on Day One and there’s 2,000 extra cars on the road,” he said.
The new traffic study also will account for future Caltrans investments in road widening and other infrastructure, he said.
Lake County Counsel Anita Grant proof of the required rescission of the general plan amendments, permits and other approvals granted to Lotusland in 2020 will be provided to Judge Markham in keeping with the order, but nothing prevents the board from issuing them anew.
Supervisor Moke Simon, in whose southern district the development would be located, has championed the project as an important investment in the Lake County economy and housing stock while lauding Lotusland for its regard for local tribal history and resident concerns.
He has not been available for comment this week but in a written statement said, “Lotusland has well demonstrated their intention to develop a project that is environmentally responsible, respectful of Tribal Lands and the history of Lake County, and consistent with our countywide economic vision. This combination of qualities makes them a highly desirable partner.
“Lotusland’s project proposal carries many health and safety and other community benefits, including a fire station and helipad that will enhance disaster resiliency in the area, and much-needed additional housing supply. If this project ultimately does not move forward, it will be a tremendous loss.”
Representatives for the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society were not available for comment on Friday.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.