Opinion: Undeveloped land is not ‘vacant’

1web 1 5 21 OP Ed fire station

By Pete Deneen

This Op-Ed is in response to the front-page Oct. 22 article, “Firefighters move into new Upper Ojai Fire Station.” In an otherwise unremarkable sentence touting the size and amenities of new Fire Station 20, the Ojai Valley News printed the casual phrase, “built on a 2.3-acre vacant lot,” which prompted me to write.

I am a grateful neighbor to the new Station 20 and celebrate its completion. It is an impressive structure, complete with state-of-the-art water conservation features, solar power, and native plantings. The station relocation also provides Upper Ojai Search and Rescue with a home at Station 20’s former site. Our community is now unquestionably better prepared for emergency response. This letter is about language. The descriptor, “vacant lot,” falls woefully short of describing the oak savanna where the new Station 20 was overlaid.

A variance was required to sever the parcel from a 200-plus-acre oak grassland in the middle of the upper valley. The new station was built right up against a seasonal creek, whose flow is significant enough to be marked on area maps. With Ojai already mired in exceptional drought conditions and little relief in sight as we enter another La Niña winter, the concrete poured to make the station placed an impervious seal on what was a prime groundwater recharge location at the top of our watershed — a low point in the upper part of the upper valley, where water can best infiltrate the porous loam soil. 

As organizations race to restore oak trees across our fast-warming valley, a mature oak was sacrificed to make way for the new station (it’s worth noting that 10 young trees were planted as remediation). The site of the new station was so prime that the people of the Chumash village, Sisa, wintered there, a safe distance from the capricious winter floods that can pour out of Sisar Canyon. 

The project was exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act process, which requires public agencies to “look before they leap” and consider the environmental consequences of their discretionary actions, and was a direct contradiction to the county’s Save Open space and Agricultural Resources initiative. It’s unlikely that a nongovernmental entity would be permitted to develop such a sensitive riparian habitat today.

All that to say: This was no vacant lot.

An actual vacant lot across the street from the station’s former site — unoccupied, available, and already developed — was a final candidate for the new fire station. But it was in Upper Ojai’s most densely populated neighborhood and those residents were loud enough in their opposition that the county withdrew.

As a former U.S. service member who specialized in emergency response, including fire suppression, I feel a fraternal happiness for our firefighters, who now have a modern and capable facility to do their job — not to mention an increased sense of security for future fires. While it can feel sacrilegious to question decisions made in the name of fire safety in our valley post-Thomas Fire, it is worth questioning whether the $9.8 million to relocate the fire station to service our unincorporated community of just 1,500 residents was economically or environmentally prudent. 

Moving forward, it is worth reflecting on the language we use to describe space. Terms like “vacant lots,” and the dissociative mindset that comes with that language, is partly why Ojai finds its environment significantly degraded from what it was before colonizers arrived. We can’t afford to perceive undeveloped earth as vacant, which devalues land and permits us to ignore the real impacts of development, even when it's for our fire safety.

— Peter Deneen is an Ojai native, former U.S. Coast Guard officer, and holds a master’s in Climate + Society from Columbia University.