Judge Rules in Favor of CNPS and Center for Biological Diversity in Guenoc Valley Decision
By Nick Jensen
This week’s important decision puts the brakes on a risky luxury development but fails to protect rare and endangered species.
On Tuesday, Lake County Superior Court, Judge J. David Markham, ruled in favor of CNPS and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in a lawsuit challenging the approval of the Guenoc Valley resort development. The ruling determined the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) failed to adequately analyze the project’s impacts on emergency evacuation in the surrounding community in the event of a wildfire. The Guenoc Valley Project is located in an area prone to extreme wildfire and has been threatened by numerous fires in the past two decades. Most recently, a portion of the project site burned in the 2020 LNU Complex, weeks after the Lake County Board of Supervisors approved the development.
In his ruling, Judge Markham emphasized that, “a significant number of wildfire deaths in California occur during attempts to evacuate,” and new residents would, “compete with residents in the surrounding area for safe evacuation routes.”
The Guenoc Valley luxury resort development would place more than 4,000 new residents on a 16,000-acre project site with plans to build five hotels, residential “estate villas,” a golf course, polo fields and equestrian areas, commercial and retail facilities, spa and wellness amenities, two wineries, and a float plane dock. This would be one of the largest development projects in the history of Lake County.
CNPS and CBD originally filed separate lawsuits in 2020, but these efforts to halt the project were later combined. In 2021, the California Attorney General intervened on behalf of CNPS and CBD. Then Attorney General, Xavier Beccera, noted that, “Lake County residents have borne the brunt of many of the recent wildfires that have ravaged our state. They deserve to know that the increased wildfire risks resulting from any new development in their area have been properly considered – and mitigated.”
Beyond the issue of wildfire, CNPS and CBD highlighted the project’s impacts on habitat, rare species, wildlife corridors, and climate change. The project would impact thousands of acres of oak woodland, wetlands, and serpentine areas that are home to dozens of rare species. The luxury complex would directly impact the state-endangered Lake County western flax (Hesperolinon didymocarpum) and federally-endangered Keck’s checkerbloom (Sidalcea keckii).
In reaction to the ruling, California Attorney General, Rob Bonta noted that, “We can’t keep making shortsighted land use decisions that will have impacts decades down the line. We must build responsibly. This is a win for current and future residents of Lake County, who can rest easier knowing that this project will only move forward if the developer takes proactive steps to ensure their safe evacuation if and when a wildfire occurs.”
The Guenoc Valley ruling follows similar victories on wildfire-related issues on Tejon Ranch’s Centennial Project in Los Angeles County and San Diego County’s Otay Ranch Village 14. As a result of Judge Markham’s ruling, Guenoc’s approvals are vacated and the project cannot proceed.
At CNPS, we echo Attorney General Bonta’s sentiment that this marks a call for responsible development decisions. This week’s ruling is a victory in that it halts a highly problematic project. But it’s important to note that the decision also leaves the impression that quick fixes are possible on this and similar projects. Mitigating the development with expanded emergency evacuation may help improve safety in an already dangerous situation, but it is a band-aid. It kicks the can down the road on the bigger challenge at hand: That is, how we protect and nurture California’s residents and globally-recognized biodiversity amid the growing pressures of climate change and housing shortages. As long as we continue to allow development in risky areas, particularly high-cost resort development that destroys endangered habitat, we work against the very goals California’s leaders have advanced through California’s 30×30 Initiative, Governor Newsom’s Executive Order on Biodiversity and California’s Climate Smart Lands Strategy.
To learn more about the decision, please see our joint release with the Center for Biological Diversity.