Tejon Ranch’s Centennial: A Fiscal and Fire Disaster Waiting to Happen for LA County

PLANNING EMERGENCY-In this time of recurring climate-induced wildfire disasters, where many have died, and thousands of homes, schools, and businesses have burned to the ground, should we be putting more people in the path of danger by building flammable communities out in the flammable wilds? 

A proposal by the Tejon Ranch Company to develop Centennial, a community for 60,000 people, in a remote, wildfire-prone section of Los Angeles County, is a disaster waiting to happen. The County has a chance to stop it on December 11 when it comes up for approval from the Board of Supervisors. 

The Wrong Answer to a Housing and Transportation Emergency 

As an urban planner advocating for our region to take collaborative action on the predicted mess we face from climate disruption, hotter heat waves, longer fire seasons, stronger Santa Ana Winds, I submit that not building fire-trap sprawl communities is the first decision necessary to head off more future problems. We have transportation sustainability and housing affordability emergencies to deal with, but Centennial solves neither, and we can and must do better. 

Zero public transit will serve these 19,000 homes and 8.4 million square feet of commercial space. Taxpayers would instead be forced to shell out at least $830 million to expand Highway 138 and will stuff 75,000 new commuter trips to work or shop or play in far-off Santa Clarita or Downtown LA. Why would our County spend millions on more roads instead of improving mobility within the already-gridlocked metropolitan area, where easily that much housing and more could be encouraged. 

Last century’s answer to affordable housing was to force millions of Southern Californians into their cars for multi-hour commutes, gobbling up land and people’s lives trapped in their cars. Today’s sustainability emergency requires scarce public taxpayer funds invested to promote light-rail-oriented housing and transportation-efficiency-makeovers in underfunded cities like Bell, Compton, Norwalk, and Gardena. 

More Sprawl: A Model for the Country, An Example for the World? 

Supervisor Janice Hahn has portrayed herself as a progressive environmentalist, remarking that LA County can be “a good model for the rest of the country, and an example for the world.” Approving and investing in more leapfrog, car-addicted communities in the path of more fires, destroying rare grasslands and habitat for endangered species, putting further stress on water resources, would amount to land use malpractice: the example of doing the same thing we have always done and expecting different results. 

Tejon Ranch and LA County planners claim that Centennial would be built as a fire-proof community, but since Ventura, Sonoma, LA, and Butte Counties have been hit with massive human, property, and environmental losses from severe, wind-driven wildfires, we must admit we are not prepared.

Centennial is planned on land deemed with “high” and “very high” fire hazard severity, and since 1964, 31 fires have incinerated larger than 100 acres of the surrounding landscape. More people settling into a hot, windy place, subject to more intense weather as the climate continues to warm, doesn’t seem a reliable bet. How would 60,000 people evacuate for an emergency when the two escape roads out could be blocked – yes, a recipe for disaster. County planners have not been required yet to devise the escape plan. 

We Need Solutions, Not Press Releases 

I am most concerned about Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district Centennial is in, when she spoke on her fellow decision makers responsible for deciding this project: “It's going to be a [Board of Supervisors] that will be looking for solutions to problems.” In the context of a press release, a project promising almost 20,000 homes sounds like a solution to the housing crisis, but who can afford them? Who would want to live out there and drive everywhere? When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008, housing in the nearby Antelope Valley lost a good proportion of its value. What about the next crash, that maybe will be both environmental and financial? Centennial is a solution that presents massive problems and seems like a very bad fiscal bet for the County. 

The California Environmental Quality Act requires alternatives proposed that would reduce the land area and development intensity, but their studies fail to comply. Maybe this isolated location might be suitable for 1,000 new residents, a small town that would include restaurants and businesses, like the nearby community of Frasier Park. The balance of the landscape should be permanently protected as valuable wildlife and plant habitat. Tejon Ranch Company could sell the land to the State of California for a state park, which would allow the public to explore the wild paths covered in seas of wildflowers in the spring, with California condors soaring overhead. 

A Critical Choice for LA County’s Future 

Do the LA County Board of Supervisors want to get on the right side of history and reject this dangerous mix of flammable houses planned for a flammable landscape? Do they want to dedicate scarce resources to car-addicted, carbon-intensive sprawl, rather than invest in improving mobility and adaptive housing opportunities in our existing communities? We will see when the Board decides the fate of this destructive proposal.y, the only choice should be to reject Centennial for the corporate real estate boondoggle that sacrifices the region’s long-term sustainability as well as places future residents in the path of wildfire harm.


(Jack Eidt is the Director of Wild Heritage Planners and publisher of the blog, WilderUtopia.com. He also is a co-founder of the climate change activist organization, SoCal350.org.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda abrams.