California’s attorney general’s office has dropped its objections to the Guenoc Valley ultra-luxury resort and housing development proposed for southeastern Lake County after winning concessions from developers over wildfire risk, evacuation safety and greenhouse gas emissions.
The settlement brings Lotusland Investment Group and its supporters one step closer to realizing long-held plans for a 25-square-mile tract of fire-prone landscape east of Middletown that they hope will one day become a five-star international luxury destination resort will be boutique hotels, around 600 rooms and resort apartments and 1,400 residential villas.
Additional amenities planned for the property approximately three miles east of Highway 29 off the Napa County Line include a golf course, polo fields, spa and wellness facilities, an equestrian center, and upscale commercial and retail services.
Many local officials see it as a potential economic engine, creating construction and other jobs and attracting new residents and visitors to a region that is struggling economically.
But after a local high court judge found the environmental assessment for the 16,000-acre resort inadequate last year, Lake County regulators were forced to retract the environmental impact report and revoke previous land use permits, leaving Lotusland with a long way to go proceed with development.
A new analysis of the cumulative evacuation needs and the impact of adding up to 4,070 new people to an area already population of about 10,160 has yet to be conducted. This report must be circulated for public inspection. All comments must be considered and the final outcome must be approved by the board of directors before officials can issue land use permits and construction can begin.
“The settlement definitely does not give this project a green light, nor does it allow it to move forward tomorrow,” said Peter Broderick, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The nonprofit, along with the California Native Plant Society, led the prosecution against the proposal and filed a lawsuit in local court in 2020. Both are pending appeals against Supreme Court Justice J. David Markham’s decision.
In addition to objections to wildfire risk, public safety concerns and greenhouse gas impacts, which then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra emphasized when he joined the legal challenge in February 2021, they said Markham ruled too narrowly when he confirmed most elements of the environmental report, saying only the analysis of the community’s evacuation routes was missing.
They still challenge the project for other reasons, including negative impacts on critical wildlife corridors and on habitat for vulnerable and threatened species.
“We appreciate the Attorney General’s commitment to this important matter,” said Nick Jensen, director of conservation at the California Native Plant Society. However, the state’s agreement does not deny the fact that the project will have a significant impact on rare plant life and vulnerable switchback habitats, while concentrating many more people in an area with a long history of wildfires. CNPS and the Center for Biological Diversity will continue to advance our appeal.”
Attorney General Rob Bonta said honoring the settlement would fulfill the developer’s responsibility to address the reality of Lake County’s wildfire history and the fact that the project is proposed in an area that has been designated a high fire hazard zone and has been in recent decades repeatedly burned.
These include the landmark Valley Fire in 2015, which swept 18 miles in a 12-hour period, eventually burning 120 square miles of land and destroying 2,000 structures, including 1,281 homes.
Most recently, a large portion of the 16,000-acre site burned during the lightning-triggered fire at the LNU complex that devastated 363,220 acres as of August 17, 2020.
But the developers say they designed the project around those risks by incorporating external sprinkler systems, underground utilities, firebreaks, a fire station and an on-site helipad.
They say their project would make the area safer.
“In the years since the Guenoc Valley project was originally planned and approved, the science and best practices for fire safety development have evolved,” said Chris Meredith, a partner on the project. “We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the Attorney General that reflects these advances and builds on our shared goal of protecting communities and the environment.
“From the beginning, we have placed safety and sustainability at the forefront and have worked closely with Lake County and the local community to ensure it is built in a responsible manner,” he said.