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Don’t put seniors in harm's way

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: July 3, 2008 12:31 a.m.
Updated: September 3, 2008 5:03 a.m.

We need housing for our growing senior population.
That is why state law allows local jurisdictions to forgo some of their planning rules about hillsides, water supply, and other issues that normally would be a concern. This is fine — our community wants good, safe housing, close by, for our seniors to live in.

But “safe” should always be the operative word.  Our parents and grandparents have worked hard for many years to benefit our communities. That’s why SCOPE supported the senior housing projects on Valley Street, McBean Parkway, and Bouquet Canyon Road.
These senior facilities are close enough to walk to shopping areas, and they have good, or at least useable, access to public transportation for our older folks that may no longer want to drive.  They are situated near restaurants and doctors’ offices. In short, they go a long way to creating safe, walkable, transit-oriented senior housing.

Seniors deserve the same kind of planning, free from special interest abuse, that we would expect the County to provide for all of our housing. That is why, sadly, SCOPE must oppose the senior housing proposal for Lyons Canyon near Towsley Canyon Park.

DR Horton, the developer of this project, seems to have used the senior housing designation to force the development of this project in a significant ecological area along with the removal of 162 oaks, including 10 ancient “heritage” oaks that took root around the time of the American Revolution. The proposed project will also take an area through which a beautiful creek flows, and destroy it to create a huge debris basin, in order to manage floodwaters.
These are all issues which make this project very difficult to support, despite our desire to encourage additional senior housing in our community. However, perhaps worst of all, this project will allow development in an extremely dangerous fire hazard area.

And that is where we must draw the line. This DR Horton project disregards the safety and security needs of our esteemed seniors who deserve much better.

All of us in Santa Clarita remember the huge fires of 2003 that burned right up the edge of Stevenson Ranch.  Numerous fire trucks lined up on Wiley Canyon near the gym to try to keep the flames from burning houses in Newhall. The images on all the local Los Angeles TV stations, and some national shows, showing firefighters and homeowners standing in backyards, trying to fight the blazes licking down the hills, are burned in our memories. That fire ravaged the area proposed for the senior housing development for the third time in the last decade.

As fire becomes more pervasive in drought-plagued California, and the costs to counties, taxpayers and insurance companies multiply into the hundreds of millions of dollars for these fires, local and state planning agencies know they must rethink zoning in fire hazard areas. Firefighting costs alone now reach between $10 million and $30 million for each fire, a huge sum for our cash-strapped counties. Our communities can no longer afford the cost of defending homes in areas where they should not be built in the first place.

The recent fire in Paradise accentuated the issue of senior housing in a fire hazard area. With over 50 percent of its population older than 65, the evacuation process presented special problems. Many seniors did not drive and could not evacuate themselves. Once evacuated, the seniors had special medical needs not easily accommodated in a shelter situation. One elderly lady died of a heart attack while being evacuated.

The developer claims that these issues will be addressed because his project will provide a “pad” for a new fire station nearby. But a graded pad is NOT a fire station. Where will the funding come from to build the actual station?  How will the county guarantee performance on DR Horton’s obligations when this developer, like so many others across the nation, is already in serious financial trouble. And, of course, even a fully-built and equipped fire station will not stop a fire blowing up into an inferno by 50 mile per hour Santa Ana winds. 

So the county is considering approval of a senior facility that is NOT convenient to any of the services seniors need, such as public transportation, restaurants and medical offices. They are considering waiving the 35-foot height limitation so that this project can be built with additional stories in an area that has consistently experienced massive earth movement in the last three major quakes (remember the freeway closures in this area of the Newhall Pass?). And they are putting seniors in a high fire hazard zone with a “graded pad” for a fire station to protect them.

The Los Angeles County Planning Commission is charged with “planning” our housing needs for the health and safety of our communities. When a zone change or conditional use permit is proposed, as it is in the Lyons Canyon project, the commissioners always have the option of saying no to a project that doesn’t meet the community’s needs.

So we urge the L.A. County Planning Commission to reject the Lyons Canyon project when it comes before them again next week. Not only does this project NOT meet the needs of our seniors, but it may also be putting them in harms way and into situations that make it difficult to ensure their safety.

Isaac Lieberman is a board member of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and the founder of SC Smart Growth. His column represents his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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