California AG reaches settlement with developers of huge Guenoc Valley resort project in Lake County
The California Attorney General’s Office has dropped its objections to the Guenoc Valley ultraluxury resort and residential project proposed for southeastern Lake County after winning concessions from developers related to wildfire risk, evacuation safety and greenhouse gas emissions.
The settlement moves Lotusland Investment Group and its supporters one step closer to realizing long-held plans for a 25-square-mile patch of fire-prone landscape east of Middletown that they hope one day will boast a "luxury international destination resort" with five boutique hotels, about 600 rooms and resort apartments, and 1,400 residential villas.
Additional amenities planned for the property about 3 miles east of Highway 29, near the Napa County line, include a golf course, polo fields, a spa and wellness facilities, an equestrian center and high-end commercial and retail services.
Many local officials view it as a potential economic engine, creating construction jobs and other employment, and drawing new residents and visitors to a region that has struggled economically.
But after a local Superior Court judge last year found environmental review for the 16,000-acre resort inadequate, Lake County supervisors were forced to decertify the environmental impact report and rescind prior land-use approvals, so Lotusland still has a way to go before it can proceed with development.
It still must complete a new analysis of the cumulative evacuation needs and impacts of adding what the judge said would be up to 4,070 new people to an area with about 10,160 residents already. That report must be circulated for public review. Any comments must be addressed and the final result approved by the board of supervisors before officials can issue land-use approvals and construction can begin.
"The settlement definitely does not greenlight this project or allow it to move forward tomorrow," said Peter Broderick, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The nonprofit organization, along with the California Native Plant Society, together led the charge against the proposal, filing suit in local court in 2020. Both still have appeals of Superior Court Judge J. David Markham’s ruling pending.
In addition to objecting to the wildfire risk, public safety concerns and greenhouse gas impacts underscored by then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra when he joined the legal challenge in February 2021, they say Markham ruled too narrowly when he upheld most elements of the environmental report and said only the analysis of community evacuations routes was lacking.
They are still challenging the project on other grounds, including negative impacts to critical wildlife corridors and to habitat for sensitive and threatened species.
"We've appreciated the attorney general's involvement in this important issue," said Nick Jensen, conservation program director for the California Native Plant Society. "However, the state's settlement doesn't negate the fact that the project will have concerning impacts to rare plants and vulnerable serpentine habitats, while concentrating many more people in an area with a long history of wildfire. CNPS and the Center for Biological Diversity will continue to move forward with our appeal."
Attorney General Rob Bonta said compliance with the settlement would satisfy the developer’s responsibility to address the reality of Lake County’s wildfire history and the fact that the project is proposed for an area designated a high fire hazard severity zone that has burned repeatedly over recent decades.
That includes the landmark Valley Fire in 2015, which ripped across 18 miles in a 12-hour period and eventually torched 120 squares miles of land, destroying 2,000 structures, including 1,281 homes.
Most recently, a large part of the 16,000-acre site burned during the lightning-sparked LNU Complex Fire, which scarred 363,220 acres beginning Aug. 17, 2020.
But developers say they designed the project around those risks, building in exterior sprinkler systems, underground utilities, fire breaks, an on-site fire station and helipad.
They say their project would make the area safer.
"In the years since the Guenoc Valley Project was originally designed and approved, the science and best practices for fire-safe development have advanced," said Chris Meredith, a partner in the project. "We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the attorney general that reflects those advances and builds on our shared goal to protect communities and the environment.
"From the beginning, we have placed the highest importance on safety and sustainability and have worked closely with Lake County and the local community to ensure it is built in a responsible way," he said.
The settlement requires, for instance, that multiple dead-end roads in the initial plan now be connected with other roadways. It also stipulates that 10 feet on each side of roadways be improved with fire-resistant hardscape where feasible, and that 64 residential parcels arrayed in three areas on the edges of the 25-square-mile project be eliminated so the project is more densely built. The 64 structures will still be built.
It mandates the project homeowners’ association contract with a wildfire expert and have an individual always on-site with expertise in evacuation and emergency access. The developer, Lotusland Investment Group, also must reach agreement with the Lake County Fire Protection District on annual payments to cover staff and equipment needed to provide any emergency or wildfire response.
The settlement also includes a plethora of new requirements for electrification and reliance on clean energy, including rooftop solar installation, on-site solar farms, electric vehicle charging stations and the purchase of carbon offset credits.
"Every year, devastating wildfires burn through California, forcing evacuations, destroying homes, and threatening lives," said Bonta. "Developers have a responsibility to build in a way that recognizes this reality and to make smart decisions at the front end so people's lives are not endangered down the line. Today's settlement is an example of responsible development, demonstrating how developers can reduce both wildfire ignition risks and greenhouse gas impacts at new developments."
Broderick, with the Center for Biological Diversity, was not convinced.
"It’s disappointing that the state will no longer be involved in the lawsuit challenging this dangerous development, but at least this agreement requires developers to install solar panels, modify road plans and make other small improvements," he said. "But this settlement doesn’t change the fact that this luxury resort project brings far too many wildfire risks to the Guenoc Valley. Lake County residents deserve much better. We are moving forward with the case."
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or [email protected]. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.