By Mark Gutglueck
Upland city officials have yet to satisfy many city residents that the draft general plan now under review which is intended to fully update the comprehensive blueprint for the city’s development does not represent too radical of a departure from the city’s current character.
The general plan was last fully rewritten in 1992 and the document that will soon go before the council envisions a substantive change in terms of land use and crowding, both in Uplands residential neighborhoods and in its commercial zones.
At the center of the still-swirling controversy is Upland’s development services director, Jeff Zwack, who abruptly ushered the proposed updated planning document before the city council in March after the redrafting effort had been languishing on his desk for more than seven years. In 2008 the update effort began. It proceeded in fits and starts but has been marked by very little public exposure until recently.
From 2008 until April of this year there were only three actual public events held outside City Hall where the city actively sought to get citizen input. Those venues – the Scary-A-Fair, Craft Fair and the Christmas Parade, all in 2008 – were related to topics unlikely to attract people particularly concerned about land use issues. Over the next six years the planning department held four workshops and one open house where the public was invited to offer input on the city’s long term planning approach.
A utility bill mailing to Upland residents in April heralded the general plan update and a planning commission hearing on the subject was held on April 22. Zwack and other officials anticipated that another public review of the document would be staged in May and that it would then go to the city council for its review and approval in June.
At over 2,000 pages, the updated general plan presages changes in the nature of the city’s residential zones, with an upticking in housing density that will put as many as 55 units on a single acre while most of the city’s existing neighborhoods have fewer than eight homes per acre and the vast majority of those built more than three decades ago have fewer than six units per acre. In addition, the plan as drafted calls for what is referred to as mixed-uses, which include placing residential units atop commercial and office buildings.
After crawling along at a snail’s pace for more than six years, shrouded for the most part, in the backrooms of City Hall, the update suddenly appeared to be progressing at near light speed toward approval, with the public being shoehorned into a very limited set of open hearings at which its input was to be obtained. This created alarm among many residents, including the few who had merely begun to thumb through the voluminous general plan rewrite and even more of those who had no chance to examine it but had been told about it.
Some suggested that city staff members, members of the planning commission and even members of the city council had been paid off by developmental interests to do a rush job on the update before the public had an opportunity to thoroughly review it, let alone make objections to it or suggest changes.
City officials, however, downplayed such suggestions, dismissively characterizing the objections to the proposed plan as the belly-aching of just a handful of malcontents. At the last council meeting in May, however, there was a general outpouring of opposition to the plan, bordering on an insurrection. Reluctantly, the council extended the public review period on the document beyond the original 45 day period which had begun on March 8 and ended on April 22.
This week, the planning commission held a hearing to gather further public input on the matter. While some elements of the community signaled their readiness to see the new plan implemented, others evinced a continuing distrust of the council’s motives as well as the motives, wisdom and honesty of city staff still plugging the changes.
What was revealed at the meeting is that at least some of the city’s residents, primarily those opposed to it, had far greater knowledge of its contents than most of or even all of the planning commission members claimed or acknowledged. On more than one occasion, planning commission chairman Gary Schwary evinced complete ignorance or mystification as to certain provisions contained in the document when those provisions were referenced by speakers. Further revealed was that staff has begun work on a substitute draft plan that is in some or even many respects different from the plan that has been released to the public. This revelation came as a severe blow to the credibility of city officials, who allowed the public input on the environmental impact report for the general plan change to elapse on the day of the hearing. In this way the environmental report the city is paying to have processed will not pertain to the document that is eventually to be adopted by the city council.
Several Upland residents expressed concerns about political and social dictates being insinuated into the new general plan document. Todd Mills said the proposed general plan update states “We should redesign our city around ‘smart growth and social equality.”
Diane Fedele, furthered that theme, making pointed references to the overweening nature of the new general plan
“I know we are currently in a drought and have had two other serious droughts in the past 30 years or so, but we won’t always be in a drought,” Fedele said. “Yet these rules and restrictions are written with no end in sight. I and many other Upland residents have landscaped their yards during both the good and bad times and what we have accomplished is part of what makes Upland the City of Gracious Living. Why are you requiring us to comply with your vision of what you want Upland to become and not allow us, as individual homeowners, to spend our own money on what we want and hw we want it to be? In redoing my landscaping, I must provide a landscape and irrigation plan for approval. This plan may be self prepared or done by a licensed landscape architect or landscape professional. If it is approved, then I will be issued a construction permit. All the detail required on these plans is beyond significant: For instance a lengthy listing of the botanical and common names of plants, the total quantities by container size and species, and the spacing in which they will be planted, along with a description of existing plant material to be retained or removed is required. A minimum of turf area is not to exceed the annual water allowance. Calculations are required for parking and site landscape areas in square feet and per lot. Also a plan cannot have the turf portion exceed 25 percent of the landscaped area.”
Directly addressing Zwack, Fedele continued, “I asked what would happen if I decided to redo my backyard and not get a permit, how would you know? You said that my neighbors would report me or you would notice it through my activity. I am pleased with my lawn, yet you asked what my neighbors said about it. You are asking that any of my neighbors concerned about my lawn or backyard report me. Really? I thought this was America.”
Dean Mills offered to the planning commission evidence that city staff had failed to make full disclosure of what is in the proposed new plan and had further created alternate versions of it without providing them to the city’s residents. In the first instance, Mills displayed a computer flash drive which he said contained the digital file containing the proposed updated general plan downloaded from the city’s old website and the version originally loaded on the city’s recently updated website. Both, he said, were missing, between the document’s table of contents and its land use section, the introduction in which the section designated “vision and key values” was contained. It was only within the last week, after he informed the city that the vision and values element was missing that city staff posted a version of the document with that portion intact, he said. Likewise, Mills said, the document offered for public review at the Upland Library lacked the vision and values passage as well.
Suggesting but not directly stating that the expurgated version had been substituted for the unredacted document to hide critical facts from the city’s residents, Mills said the posting of an incomplete document “doesn’t meet the requirement for full public disclosure and review.” He asked for “the period for public review to be extended.”
Mills went on to state that city staff had created a “red lined” document, i.e., one containing staff’s emendations to the originally generated new general plan, which staff was refusing to release publicly. In this way, Mills said, the general plan document as is proposed is constantly evolving and at any given time the public discussion about it is inexact and in some measure uniformed. “There appears to be some irregularities in terms of missing documents” Mills said, characterizing staff’s alterations of the plan as action going on in “closed session. Will you provide access to the red lined document?” he asked.
Zwack said that the red lined document represented a work product that was not finalized, calling it a “midstream document. It is not appropriate to release it midstream,” he said.
Deputy city attorney Yolanda Summerhill said that the public comment period for the environmental impact report relating to the revised general plan had been closed out. Summerhill did not address at all the possibility or likelihood that the general plan document submitted in March will undergo significant changes before it is presented to the city council for approval, as was indicated in Zwack’s acknowledgement that there currently exists a red lined, midstream version of it. Her comments did not touch on whether there would be a need to provide another environmental impact report based upon the more recent form of the new general plan and whether another public comment period for that environmental impact review will be provided.
Two days after the meeting, city attorney Richard Adams said, “If there is a decision by anybody that would reduce the impacts there would be no need to conduct another environmental analysis but if there was a decision that would increase the impacts, that would spiral into having to do further study.”
Dean Mills’ son, Todd, said the document put forth by the city was not only flawed, it represented a developmental agenda promulgated by certain staff members rather than the residents of the city and that the approval process should be tabled indefinitely so the plan could be rewritten in a manner involving resident participation.
The upshot of Todd Mills’ assertions was that the plan envisions much higher density in future development than is desired by the vast majority of the city’s residents. He suggested that a relative handful of business interests whom he mentioned by name have an interest in keeping protests against the high density embodied in the general plan from manifesting. “The general plan needs to be rewritten. No average John Q. Public was involved in forming what he visualizes in creating the stakeholders’ document. The general plan as written does not represent what he wants. This document grew out of the vision of those who have a financial interest in higher density. Randall Lewis of Lewis Homes, Frank Williams of the Building Industry Association, Bob Cable of Cable Airport and planning commission member Bill Velto of Tarbell Realty are the people who will benefit from the denser vision. The design principle is to move people into compact high density developments.”
Todd Mills said the city was employing the concept of “smart growth” into the plan, which he defined as “an insidious national political movement based on environmental extremism, social equity, and economic fairness designed to change the behavior of residents. They want people to live, work, play and die all in the same neighborhood, in the same building if possible. You have not even asked the residents if they want smart growth.”
Todd Mills was critical of the portion of the plan relating to high rise buildings, in particular its allowance of structures of six and seven stories.
He said city staff and Jeff Zwack in particular had misrepresented the nature of the new plan and its call for higher density in future and in-fill development. In direct reference to Jeff Zwack, Todd Mills said, “When they asked if this is encouraging high density, you told them no.” Todd Mills then went on to quote directly from the language contained in the new general plan draft, citing such phrases as “encourage high density multi-family housing” and “support the development of high density mixed use projects.” Todd Mills continued, “The housing element mentions high density residential development downtown. Old town – 35 units per acre. 55 units per acre downtown. There will be high density near the Montclair Transit Center.” He then addressed Zwck directly “Since you told everyone there is no high density, you will have no problem removing high density from the plan.”
Zwack acknowledged that the historic downtown specific plan, which was developed in and voted upon in 2011, specifies a maximum density of 55 units per acre.
“That is no secret,” Zwack expostulated in seeking to ward off Mills’ charge that he had been economical with the truth. “That was vetted through public workshops. The downtown specific plan is identified as a region in our general plan. Our comment is that the densities throughout the city except downtown are 20 units per acre.”
Zwack’s statement, which carried with it the presumption that 20 units per acre did not constitute high density, elicited gasps and groans from the audience.
With regard to “six or seven story buildings,” Zwack said the city was considering “layers” of options in 2008, shortly after the general plan update effort had begun. Staff was attempting to “get a variety of the community’s input,” Zwack said, when the concept of “six or seven stories” came up. He said vestiges of that consideration remain in the Colonies Specific Plan.
Planning commission Gary Schwary, speaking, apparently, for his colleagues, though they did not comment one way or the other, stated, “We want to make sure we are not allowing six or seven story anything.”
Zwack responded that in the “draft” of the general plan “mixed use zone commercial office [buildings] have a structural height of 70 feet. We are proposing to reduce that if individuals or groups have recommended changes.”
Virginia Shannon questioned the level of growth anticipated in the new general plan, which is roughly set at 8,000 residents, while the city is under a mandate to reduce water usage.
“How do you intend to meet the water needs when you want to bring in more people and businesses?” Shannon asked.
Marilyn Mills, Dean Mills’ wife and Todd’s mother, said that city officials had earlier ignored protests about the general plan update, dismissing as insignificant the questions and objections raised by residents earlier this year. She taunted the commission with a letter signed by 542 Upland residents who are opposed to the plan. “I am one of them,” she said. She charged that the general plan update had a political bent, which she called “unconstitutional. Political philosophies have no place in the general plan,” she said.
Two residents of the city, both coincidentally bearing the first names of Eric, expressed support for the general plan makeover.
One, Eric Gavin, enunciated the belief that higher density and more intensive city regulation of the minutiae of residents’ lives is a positive step rather than a negative one. He said he wanted to express “support for the general plan.” He said he appreciated the controversy it had generated because it made planning commission meetings “dramatically more exciting.” He said the long and short of it was that a Big Brother approach by government was needed, given the realities, exigencies and resource limitations of modern life. He took at swipe at Todd Mills for rejecting the principles of smart growth and social equality promoted by the general plan and inherent in it, sarcastically remarking that “dumb growth and social inequality” should be the guideposts for a new city planning blueprint.
Gavin said, speaking for the opponents of the plan, that they had taken the position “The plan is basically intended to make me do something I don’t want to do.” Gavin said those opponents were correct in that perception but he went on to say that people being told what to do is now a necessity because “We live on a planet with seven billion people on it.” Because there are “too many people,” Gavin said, “restrictions and conditions” are rightly imposed on people. He cited the example of what had occurred in “London during the 1950s. People burnt so much coal it created smoke so thick you could not see two feet in front of your face. The government said, ‘You cannot burn coal anymore.’” Londoners protested, Gavin said, complaining that the government was intruding on their rights to burn coal as they saw fit. But, Gavin said, “12,000 people died from respiratory conditions from that fog.” He then applied the analogy locally. “There’s more people in Upland now,” he said, asserting he could freely do “what I want to do in my own house or my own lawn only if it doesn’t affect everyone in the city or in the nation. We have to work together and play together so we can get along.”
Eric Hanson said the plan essentially embodied a good direction for the city and that continuously seeking to tweak it into something better was a futile undertaking.
“This document, no matter how much we try, will never be perfect,” Hanson said. “We can beat this into the ground, but it will not be perfect.”
Sweating the details will just result in unnecessary delay and doing so ignores the reality that it will be those who come forward to invest in the city and take some form of entrepreneurial risk who will drive what is developed rather than the plan itself, Hanson said.
“It will allow development to a certain density,” Hanson said. “It doesn’t mean a developer will find it profitable. Those people beating the drum to [reconsider the plan, alter it drastically or throw it out altogether], Hanson said, should take stock of the fact that those putting it together, including Zwack, other city staff members and members of the planning commission “are rational people who have a long-term interest in the betterment of the city. The city is not run by developers. There is no big conspiracy. We have to move this thing forward.”
Hanson said concern about the city’s direction was more properly vectored to “the planning counter” where staff resistant to the forward-looking plans of already existing business operators to expand their businesses or prospective business owners looking to obtain permits to operate were being thwarted by bureaucracy and red tape and unreasonable application processing delays.
By Mark Gutglueck