Court Challenge to Plan Orinda, City Stands by Current Project Plan

(David DIerks, Photographer)
Orindans for Safe Emergency Evacuation (OSEE) filed a lawsuit alleging Plan Orinda’s Environmental Impact Report’s wildfire evacuation analysis is inadequate, potentially causing dangerous traffic jams in the event of wildfires.

    The future of new housing in Orinda continues to be a battleground for opposing forces.
    On March 30 the state approved the city’s Sixth Cycle Housing Element, part of Plan Orinda – an outline for redesigning downtown and expanding housing supply. Two years in the making, the approval represents a significant achievement for Orinda.
    That same plan is not viewed favorably by all Orindans. A grassroots group, Orindans for Safe Emergency Evacuation (OSEE,, filed a lawsuit, claiming the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is inadequate. The gist is the EIR does not sufficiently analyze or propose solutions to the wildfire evacuation risks created by increasing the number of people living downtown.
    In the section dealing with wildfires, the EIR states the risk of congestion affecting an emergency evacuation during a wildfire is “significant and unavoidable.”
    OSEE alleges, by adopting Plan Orinda, the city is acknowledging risk but moving forward with the project.
    California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines allow cities to weigh the benefits of a project against the unavoidable adverse effects and accept those risks if the benefits are greater than the potential harm.

Moving Housing Away from Downtown
    Arran Schultz, who serves on Orinda’s Parks and Rec Commission and is a member of OSEE, believes the city could address this evacuation issue by moving some of the planned housing from downtown to different parts of the city.
    Schultz gives as an example, the Caltrans Gateway, an undeveloped plot of land the city is currently trying to acquire from California’s transportation department.
    This solution is not feasible within the next eight years since, even though the Caltrans property was included in Orinda’s plan submitted to the state, California’s Housing and Community Development (HCD) rejected that site as part of housing it required for this cycle. Please see “State Approves Orinda’s Sixth Cycle Housing Element” in the May issue of The Orinda News for more details. This is a new development since OSEE filed its lawsuit.

Wildfire Evacuation Analysis
    Most importantly, Schultz thinks the city needs to do more evacuation analysis. “We can’t just keep saying it is going to have an impact but there is nothing we can do about it. We need to know, and it needs to be public, and it needs to be analyzed what these impacts are,” she said. “If you keep adding housing, fundamentally, at some point it is dangerous – we need to know where that point is.”

Wildfire Behavior Modeling
    Another issue is the city’s lack of wildfire behavior modeling in its EIR. In a Nov. 1 email to Orinda Planning Director Drummond Buckley, MOFD Fire Chief David Winnacker wrote, “The fire scenarios do not appear to include modeled spread. In the absence of an understanding of both the spatial and temporal factors associated with a dynamic event, the analysis appears incomplete as it may not include impacts to the very evacuation routes that are being analyzed.”
    Placeworks, the consulting firm advising the city for the project, confirmed that wildfire behavior was not modeled in the evacuation analysis.
    In minutes from the presentation of the city’s Evacuation Analysis to the City Council on Nov. 15, it was noted, “This is a citywide, programmatic study of evacuation scenarios, not a plan of operations for future evacuations.”
    When The Orinda News asked Winnacker if he thought the additional housing included in Plan Orinda presented a real and valid fire danger to residents in the event of a wildfire and need for evacuation, he responded via email, “I defer to the City with regard to land use planning, zoning, and evacuation as these are municipal functions.”

The City Responds
    The city disagrees with OSEE’s arguments. Referencing state law, Orinda’s city manager, David Biggs, explained the purpose of an EIR is to offer policymakers enough context about a project’s environmental consequences to make an informed decision.
    However, he noted, “It doesn’t require us to do hundreds of different iterations to find one [scenario] that a select group of citizens believe is the needed analysis.”
    Compared to other EIRs, Biggs argues the city’s wildfire analysis was not only adequate but went above and beyond what was required.
    “We did extra analyses that weren’t required because there were concerns and I think for where this is globally, as far as cities and evaluating these types of issues, the city did a stellar job,” said Biggs.

Remembering the Oakland Hills Fire
    A current resident of Orinda, Tom Lavin narrowly escaped the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991, giving him a real-world perspective on wildfire evacuation. “We were fortunate to get out,” he said. “We lived in a cul-de-sac and by the time we made the determination to leave, the fire was coming over the road. If we had been 30 seconds or a minute later, we wouldn’t have made it.”
    Two people Lavin knew well were among those who lost their lives, including his son’s teacher and a schoolmate. “The girl, who my son walked to school with, was leaving in a car and her mother was in another car in front of her,” he said. “Her mother made it, but she didn’t.
    “The whole point is that they didn’t die from the fire, they died from poor planning. There should never be a one-lane street that’s expected to handle two-way emergency traffic, especially when that road is located in an urban forest that is known to burn. When gridlock occurred, people tried to flee on foot, but the smoke was too heavy, the fire was too fast and 25 people died.”

Plan Orinda Status
    As of this writing, the court case is ongoing and Biggs said the city will proceed with Plan Orinda unless the judge instructs otherwise.
    Reflecting on these clashing developments – OSEE challenging Plan Orinda while the project gets the go-ahead from the state – Mayor Inga Miller expressed an optimistic outlook. “It [Plan Orinda] is the product of several years of community input on how to continue this friendly, this beautiful, this vibrant community into one that can meet our state-mandated housing numbers, be more diverse and provide more options for our residents,” she said.
    Lavin believes the city is not focusing on the right priorities. “A fire will happen in Orinda,” he said. “It’s not a question of if, but a question of when.
    “I want to stress the importance of evacuation. I feel the city should take a look at the problems of accommodating these housing issues. They need to make the number one issue the consideration of lives.”

Kathy Cordova can be reached at

Prevention as Important as Evacuation
     Discussing the area’s historically unprecedented amount of vegetation and potential wildfire fuel, Ethan Elkind, Orindan and director of Berkeley Law’s climate change program, said there needs to be more aggressive fuel abatement programs in the city.
    “Orinda is incredibly overgrown and it’s a ticking time bomb. That’s really the core issue here, not [if] a few people living downtown are going to stop a procession of cars coming out of El Toyonal, or Miner Road or Moraga Way,” said Elkind.
    Mayor Inga Miller said a myriad of strategies have been employed to protect Orindans: the city has recently hired two employees for community outreach about fire safety, is undertaking fire-safe landscaping projects and residents can apply for grants to harden their homes against wildfires.

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