Trouble in Paradise

Deputies of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra raised several concerns, including a narrow road that could “create a bottleneck that would hamper evacuation.”

In his 37 years representing developers in Monterey County and elsewhere in California, attorney Anthony Lombardo has come up against opposition to real estate projects from every imaginable corner. Then, on March 20, he encountered something he had never seen before.

The office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote a letter to the county Planning Commission saying that plans for a hotel resort near Soledad fail to fully account for the risk of wildfire in the area.

It was not just Lombardo’s anecdotal experience that suggests this was an extraordinary intervention on behalf of the AG’s office. A spokesperson says that the office has in the past alerted local agencies to the potential violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, but a listing of public comment letters shows only 17 other such communications since 2011.

Lombardo set out to learn what spurred the interest of the state’s lawyers in Paraiso Springs Resort. He filed a California Public Records Act request to find out. The documents he obtained, which the Weekly has also received, revealed email conversations going back to December 2018 between Deputy Attorney General Nicole Rinke and John Farrow, an attorney for the local nonprofit land-use advocacy group LandWatch.

LandWatch Executive Director Michael DeLapa says his group managed to engage state officials on the issue of development in fire-prone areas because of the fallout from the extraordinarily deadly Camp Fire in November 2018.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General elaborates via email: “Wildfires present significant environmental, societal, and economic costs to California and are only expected to increase in frequency and severity in the future, in large part due to climate change. We must consider proposed developments with this risk in mind.”

The letter convinced the county to make changes to the resort’s environmental impact report, which outlines impacts of a proposed development, and also proposes mitigations like widening roads to accommodate traffic. A revised version, including an enhanced analysis of fire risks, was circulated in June.

On July 9, state lawyers wrote back. The letter said, essentially, thank you but it’s still not good enough.

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“While we thank you for including that additional information, we remain concerned that the risks of wildfire have not been adequately addressed,” it reads.

The Paraiso Springs project calls for building 103 hotel rooms and 77 time-share condominiums on the site of a shuttered resort in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains that was originally founded in the 19th century.

State lawyers wrote that the plans fail to properly analyze the “environmental impacts of locating development in areas susceptible to hazardous conditions such as wildfire risk areas.”

Lombardo says the project would include state-of-art fire safety infrastructure and emphasizes the economic benefit to the area.

“It would be unfortunate for the Salinas Valley to have their only opportunity for a five-star resort disappear,” he says. “Are they going to make these comments on every project in a rural area?”

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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