California developers want to build a city in the grasslands

আপডেট: জুন ২৯, ২০২১

About an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles lies one of the last remaining pieces of the truly wild, wild west.

The 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch is dotted with centuries-old native oaks. Endangered mountain lions roam the grounds, and California condors soar above it. Rains paint the hills bright orange with poppies, and purple with lupine. But in the summer, and during drought years, the landscape dries to a shimmering gold. A small group of cowboys still run cattle here.

Soon all of it could go up in smoke, scientists and climate activists fear.

The Tejon Ranch Company, the publicly traded corporation that owns the land, wants to build 20,000 houses, as well as shopping centers, offices, gyms and restaurants along this frontier. The company first pitched the project, called Centennial, two decades ago as a solution to California’s housing crisis.

The development has been controversial from the start, but as California braces for an extreme wildfire season, debate over whether the project should go forward has taken on renewed urgency. Environmental groups are warning that in the age of western megafires, building along these windy, arid grasslands would put tens of thousands of people, as well as highly endangered plants and animals, in harm’s way.

“Centennial embodies this vision and lifestyle that just doesn’t fit in the 21st century,” said Nick Jensen, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society, who has been protesting against the development for years. The idea of taming the wildlands, of propagating it with picket-fenced homes was once integral to the American dream, he said. “But in the modern age, in the age of climate change and in the age of wildfires – it just doesn’t fit.”
The fight for Centennial

Tejon Ranch is the largest private landholding in California, spanning 422 sq miles. It’s bigger than the New York metro area, and nearly as big as the city of Los Angeles.

Jensen, who has spent a decade studying, and fighting to conserve this landscape, can’t help but get excited as he talks about it. As a graduate student, he discovered a previously unknown species of wildflower – the Tejon jewel flower – here.

The landscape is unlike any other in the world, constantly transmorphing over time and space. Rugged, rocky terrain gives way to rolling hills, which transition into dusty desert dotted with Joshua trees. Fourteen per cent of all California native plant species, sub-species and varieties grow within the ranch’s boundaries.

The property’s untamed valleys and jagged mountain peaks often serve as a backdrop for luxury car commercials and fashion shoots. Annie Leibovitz photographed Rihanna, crouched amid Tejon’s golden grasslands, for a Vogue magazine cover. The movie Seabiscuit was largely filmed on the ranch; so was Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams music video.

“I love this place,” said Jensen – who was banned from the premises after he began advocating against Centennial. “But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live here,” he said.

The Tejon Ranch Company pitched Centennial in 1999 as an opportunity for middle class families priced out of Los Angeles to buy their very own plot of paradise. Since then, Tejon developers have been trying to sell that vision.

Even after the company secured approval for two other developments on the ranch – a small suburb called Grapevine and a luxury retreat called Mountain Village, it worked for years to assuage concerns that Centennial would be built atop what the state’s fire agency describes as “high’ and “very high” fire hazard zones.

The company’s proposal assured that developers would employ the “most stringent available” measures for “fire mitigation”. Homes and offices would be built to survive fires. The city would include “three to four fire stations and a sheriff’s station” to respond to any blazes sparked within Centennial and in neighboring communities. And “careful consideration” would be given to clearing out fire-fueling brush in the area. Ultimately, the company argued, the development would also help neighboring communities, and “protect natural resources and areas of development”. The county’s fire chief, Daryl Osby, testified that he was “confident and comfortable” with the developer’s plans.

“Given California’s housing crisis, which is a crisis of availability, affordability, California needs to immediately and dramatically increase its supply of housing,” Barry Zoeller, a senior vice-president of Tejon Ranch Company, told the Guardian. “It will be a modern, cutting-edge master planned community, the type of development that has proven to be innovative, efficient, sustainable and fire resilient.”

Fire scientists, however, have always been skeptical. “If it wasn’t so terrifying, it would be funny,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “I tip my hat to the developers. They have done a lot of work trying to figure out how to make that site as fire safe as they can,” he said. “But while new building practices have made houses more fire safe, they certainly have not made them fireproof.”