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Property developer Edwin F. (Ted) Moore wants to turn a former school property in Ojai, Calif., into a hotel, commercial space and housing.

David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

When Ted Moore looks at the low-slung Spanish-style buildings now used as the local school board’s headquarters in this picture-perfect mountain town, he sees a different future — perhaps a hotel, offices, stores, homes and a park.

But he’s going to have to do something about the water first.

“Water is everything here,” says Mr. Moore, a regional developer who also owns a company that looks for new sources of water in other parts of California.

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“Water is really the new gold. You can’t really do a project in this town unless you can identify a new water source.”

The need to pinpoint a new water source in a development proposal is crucial on a site like this, nestled in the mountains north of Los Angeles and east of Santa Barbara. The three-hectare, centrally-located property, called Chaparral, formerly housed an elementary school and is now used for administration, an alternative high school, a skateboard park and bus parking.

Any new development will need a water supply though. “We’re really a microcosm of what’s happening statewide,” says Mr. Moore. “It has an impact on other aspects of planning, like the shortage of affordable housing.”

It might also be a microcosm of what’s happening globally.

Planning and designing even the most seemingly straightforward developments are more complicated everywhere today, with the advent of climate change, water and energy shortages and weather swings that seem to get wilder all the time.

Mr. Moore’s plan for a hotel, commercial space and housing is in limbo because of a water shortage. ‘Water is really the new gold,’ he says. ‘You can’t really do a project in this town unless you can identify a new water source.’


“Increasingly states, provinces, cities and regions are appointing resilience officers to help shape planning processes and standards to account for extreme weather events,” says Sherena Hussain, assistant professor at the Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

Toronto has joined 99 other cities in appointing a resilience officer, whose job is to assess how well prepared the city is for wild weather, develop an action plan and trade notes with other cities.

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The idea of sharing notes is to develop uniform standards that developers can follow. Yet while places such as Southern Ontario might contend with problems like unseasonable (and, this year, unreasonable) blizzards in April and severe flooding, everything can be more extreme in California.

“Ojai presents an exceptional opportunity to do things differently,” says Nicholas Deitch, senior principal at Mainstreet Architects and Planners Inc. in Ventura, Calif., and architect of the Chaparral proposal.

For commercial developers in most places, the complications mean new, often tougher building regulations, new standards and the need to answer new questions.

Here, the questions are more basic. Is there water? Could a wildfire start nearby? Might there be deadly mudslides after the fires burn down the forests and the heavy rains come? What about earthquakes?

In the case of Ojai and other parts of California, a lot of these questions were already answered in a painful way late last year. In nearby Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the biggest fire in California’s recorded history destroyed more than 750 homes and killed two people.

That was merely the local damage. Across the state, which, with a population of 39 million, has more people than Canada, 9,000 wildfires burned last December, destroying nearly 11,000 structures and killing at least 46 people.

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The fires were followed by mudslides, with huge trees uprooted and cars tumbling down mountainsides at such blinding speeds that residents in some cases had mere seconds to escape with their lives. Survivors who witnessed the damage remain traumatized by what they saw.

The same dry and fiery conditions were felt on Canada’s West Coast as well last year.

Nine thousand fires, including this one near Ojai, raged in California last December, destroying nearly 11,000 structures and killing at least 46 people.

MARK RALSTON/The Globe and Mail

The 10.3-square-kilometre town of Ojai and its approximately 7,500 residents were largely spared from the worst damage. But residents say it came too close for comfort — difficult to watch in a setting where the surroundings are normally so beautiful that they were used as the location for Shangri-La in shooting the classic 1937 movie Lost Horizon.

The fires and mudslides were reminders of the need for increasingly stringent environmentally-conscious urban planning.

Mr. Deitch believes that architects and developers are moving forward in designing commercial developments more in tune with environmental and extreme weather needs. The idea of LEED building standards (certification of a design for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is becoming normal practice across North America, he says.

There’s still a lot to be done to raise and fine-tune eco-standards though, Mr. Deitch acknowledges. For one thing, the standards are too, well, standard.

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“We’re constructing [LEED] buildings in Southern California that are almost airtight when they don’t need to be. If you’re building in Ontario you want to save energy and keep in heat in the winter, but in California you should be allowing breezes to blow through,” he says. The standards don’t recognize the geographical differences enough, Mr. Deitch contends.

Another issue is that even when environmental considerations are factored into design, developers and their projects are still too subservient to the automobile, Mr. Deitch adds.

“Throughout Southern California, and including the beautiful Shangri-La town of Ojai, we have seen a preponderance of car-oriented low-density development. This continues to perpetuate the issues of climate impact, detriments to water quality of run-off and all of the social and health-related impacts that are associated with suburban development,” he says.

The proposal he has designed for Mr. Moore’s company would do things differently, Mr. Deitch says. Even under California’s relatively stringent environmental regulations, developers must provide parking spaces, which take up land. But the proposal would retain the skateboard park, establish a central green space and protect the stately oak trees that are now scattered about the property.

While this particular development proposal has been on the drawing board for several years and is likely to remain under discussion for years ahead, "the property is centrally located and within walking distance of most every delight the town has to offer. It’s an opportunity to break the mould,” Mr. Deitch says.

As long as Mr. Moore can show where the water source will be.

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— Town was named by the Chumash people, early inhabitants of the valley — Ojai is a word for “nest.”

— Ojai is known for its extremely laid-back alterna-culture, a luxury spa hotel, and as a home to Theosophists, a 19th-century belief system that seeks the direct, unmediated knowledge of God.

— Famous residents have included authors Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley and many A-list movie stars.

— Also known for annual music festival that has featured composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.

— Chain stores and restaurants are banned from downtown Ojai, other than a few gas stations.

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