Editor’s note: Eliot Hurwitz is the Executive Director of the Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association (SSCRA), based in Lake County, California. Magdalena Valderrama is Program Director for SSCRA and a longtime FAC Net member. This blog is a continuation of reflections Magdalena shared in her 2021 blog, “The Long Haul: A Survivor/Practitioner’s Look at the Journey from Recovery to Mitigation to Planning,” and speaks to the recent changes and updates to the Lake County community of Cobb Mountain’s considerations for wildfire preparedness in their community’s planning.

In September 2015 the Valley Fire ripped through the small rural Lake County, California community of Cobb Mountain, about 2 hours north of San Francisco. At the time it was the third most destructive wildfire in California history, with over 1300 homes lost, and sadly significantly eclipsed by subsequent fires in the years that have followed. In Lake County alone, over 65% of the county land area has burned as of 2023. But back in 2015, as local residents grappled with the magnitude of the event, new local organizations such as Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association (SSCRA), named after one of the area’s historic districts, sprang up to serve. SSCRA also wanted to find new approaches to relief, recovery and resilience. 

By 2020, the Cobb Mountain area still had barely been rebuilt, compared to other communities in the region with greater and more recent wildfire devastation and greater access to resources. Other wildfires in the county had destroyed a final total of 60% of the county’s land mass. But the Cobb area community was ready to take a fresh look at itself, especially through the lens of climate change and disaster resilience.  SSCRA began looking for grant support to explore innovative recovery options based on whole systems understanding, and also saw an unusual opportunity to link resilience with a greater strategy to benefit the community and possibly the whole county. We understood that to become a truly fire-adapted community would require changes not only to local fire mitigation and forest stewardship practices, but a comprehensive shift in how we live together and in this ecosystem. A key way to accomplish this shift would be to work with the planning structures in the county.

California planning structures – general plans and area plans

Before founding SSCRA, we had spent decades working at the national, regional, and local level on issues of development policy and community organizing. We were very  familiar with California’s required general practice for development planning in counties and municipalities, known as the “General Plan.” By state law, each local jurisdiction is required to maintain a current General Plan that must contain seven “elements”: land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. The General Plan represents the community’s view of its future and expresses the community’s development goals. Although General Plans have been used in California since the 1920s, the state’s legal mandate in 1971 established general plans as the local government’s long-term framework or “constitution” for future growth and development, requiring that any local land use regulation “be consistent with” the General Plan. 

Crafting and updating these General Plans has become a major industry in the state, often occasioning pitched battles and sometimes taking many years to complete. And over the years, drafting each of the “elements” in the Plan has evolved into a rather esoteric process, attempting to fit the complexity of contemporary society into the required seven boxes. For example, the required Housing Element has come to be associated with an additional, complex body of law and procedure. 

In recent years, and especially as understanding of the complexity of local communities has evolved, the legislature has passed new rules that allow jurisdictions to add any additional elements they wish. For example, adding “Sustainability”  and “Health” elements has been popular. 

The new rules have also allowed organizing the Plan in creative ways, as long as each of the topics in the Required Elements has been addressed. In the past, unlike most California counties, but not being the only one, Lake County added to the standard General Plan structure a series of sub-county “Area Plans” which, while required to be consistent with the General Plan, can address local issues in even more useful detail. This overall structure has provided a wonderful capacity to “zoom down” into local idiosyncrasies. However, the challenge of keeping such Area Plans current has been hard, especially for rural communities like ours with limited resources. The Cobb Mountain Area Plan (the second oldest of the eight in Lake County), has not been updated in over 30 years, since 1989.  

Upgrading the planning framework 

SSCRA, partnering with the newly established Cobb Area Council (a “Municipal Advisory Council” established by the Lake County Board of Supervisors), successfully applied for a rare AHEAD-DR (Access to Housing and Economic Assistance  for Development – Disaster Recovery) grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. The grant was awarded for developing a local redevelopment approach and resulted in the publishing of Cobb Mountain – Regeneration After Wildfire – A Community Resilience and Development Strategy” (see the Strategy tab of the Cobb Area Council website).

Conventional planning procedures and assessments often start with a look at community needs. Instead, the Cobb Strategy was founded on two different premises:

  1. The guiding orientation was to look at our community as filled with “assets” to be mobilized, connected and amplified, rather than only a community with “needs” that could only either effectively be addressed by resources from outside or would likely become dependent on these outside resources (see extensive FAC Net Blog coverage of “asset-based community development” or ABCD. While recognizing the importance of drawing appropriate assistance from the institutions and government agencies responsible to serve the community, ABCD assumes that the community must build its own local capacity to make best and sustainable use of those resources. In other words, much of the work required to cultivate true community resilience must be nurtured and sustained by local enthusiasm and self-reliance.)
  1. An organizing framework was needed that would be much more reflective of the “systems” thinking of how local communities actually work.

Having prior familiarity with the “assets” orientation from ABCD, we began our search for an organizing framework, and came across the work of Cornelia and Jan Flora at the University of Kansas and Ohio State. Our initial introduction was through their landmark book, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change. Currently in its 5th edition, the book has been updated regularly and extensively cited in the literature on community development. Broadly, the Floras’ “Community Capitals Framework” describes a set of seven “capitals”, understood as community assets, or community resources that can be utilized to produce additional resources. 

The seven community capitals described by the Floras, Natural, Built, Social, Financial, Cultural, Political, and Human, represent all aspects of community life and, as the term “capital” is commonly defined, can be invested and saved, or wasted and depleted. Communities invest capital when they use those aspects of community life to improve the community. Taken together, these seven community capitals work as an integrated system, including overlapping activities, complex relationships, and mutual  reinforcements building the strength and stability of each capital and the entire community. 

When the community capitals are all strong, balanced and well integrated, all kinds of creative and lively things can happen. Like a healthy forest, a well-balanced and strong community will show all the signs of fullness and resilience that are possible in a thriving community. 

A new strategy

The first version of the Cobb Mountain Strategy was adopted by the Cobb Area Council in the Spring of 2022, and can be found on their website under the Strategy tab.

Click to read the Executive Summary of the Cobb Mountain Strategy.

The Cobb Mountain Strategy calls out the specific connections between the Seven Forms of Community Capital used in the Strategy and the seven required General Plan Elements, following the formal flexibility currently permitted in California. In a few strokes, the correlation drawn between the two frameworks allows the Cobb Redevelopment and Resilience Strategy to incorporate into a single document of only 64 pages (including supporting materials and a strategy timeline) an understandable economic development program, a community-based fire recovery strategy, and an overall approach to long term community resilience. 

Figure constructed by Eliot Hurwitz showing the connections between the Seven Community Capitals Framework and the Elements required by the California General Plan (and County of Lake Area Plan) structure.

Most recently (late fall 2023), with a dynamic new Community Development Director on board, and courtesy of a significant planning grant, the Lake County Community Development Department has kicked off the full countywide General Plan and Area Plan update process. Early consultations with the director have bolstered our expectation  that the Cobb Mountain Strategy, with its seven Community Capitals systems approach, will strongly inform the update to the Cobb Mountain Area Plan. Community process events will be announced in the early part of 2024. 

In the end, it has taken over eight years since the Valley Fire for the County itself to come to the point of being able to update both its General Plan and the local Area Plans. In the meantime, the Cobb Mountain community has taken advantage of a rare chance to quickly develop a much more educated and nuanced understanding of the kind of changes that we know will be necessary to keep our community fire safe and resilient into the future, and we are continuing to take steps to make it so. 


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