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By Mark Gutglueck
After eight-and-a-half years as San Bernardino County sheriff, John McMahon today announced his retirement effective July 16, a bit less than a year-and-a-half before the term he was last elected to in 2018 is set to expire in January 2023. McMahon will be the third consecutive San Bernardino County sheriff to end his elected tenure as sheriff prematurely.
There are varied perspectives on McMahon and his performance as sheriff.
Indeed, McMahon has been a study in contrasts.
Low key or relatively so in terms of personality, he was sheriff when the department was put to the test with several high profile events or cases, including one quite early in his tenure that originated elsewhere before spilling over into San Bernardino County, proving to be among most intensive and dramatic showcases of law enforcement action in American history.
As sheriff in San Bernardino County, the largest such jurisdiction in the lower 48 states spread over a 20,105-square mile territory larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey combined, McMahon held by default the most powerful political post in the region, one which former sheriffs had exploited to make themselves virtual kingmakers in decades past, influencing with what was seemingly a mere flick of their wrists who was elected to Congress, the state legislature, the board of supervisors, district attorney or various city councils. Yet for most of his time as sheriff, McMahon was unwilling to get directly involved politically other than in a few notable cases where his personal acquaintances living in the desert community were running for municipal office, where funding directly or indirectly to his department was involved or in assisting Republicans or others with whom he had established a bond were seeking elected office.
At various times, in the evolving social context of the Third Millennium, with seemingly ubiquitous cameras and personal communication devices capable of video and audio recording all playing against the backdrop of burgeoning and multiplying social media platforms that make containing revelations about the untoward behavior of law enforcement personnel impossible to contain, the transgressions of a significant number of the officers under McMahon’s command came to light, dimming the reputation of his department. Nevertheless, in at least a handful of cases, when misdeeds by some department personnel came to light, McMahon acted forthrightly by straightforwardly firing or dismissing those deputies instead of reflexively and blindly moving to protect them as had been the department’s wont in the past.
John Patrick McMahon was born on December 7, 1963 in Arcadia. His parents moved to the High Desert and in 1982, he graduated from Apple Valley High School. He immediately went to work as a truck driver, obtaining his commercial vehicle driver license within three months after graduating. He enrolled at Victor Valley College, where over the next three years he earned an associate of science degree in administration of justice. Among the courses he took early on in obtaining that degree was one in traffic enforcement in 1983, which dovetailed with his job as a truck driver. In 1985, he enrolled at and completed the 720 hours of training at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Academy.
Upon graduating from the academy, he was hired by then-Sheriff Floyd Tidwell and put to work as a jailer at the Needles Sheriff Station. He remained in that assignment for two years.
McMahon had an interest in transportation issues, and relatively early in his law enforcement career much of McMahon’s focus was on the elements of traffic patrol, control and safety. He took special interest in the traffic accident investigation course at the academy and he returned to Victor Valley College in 1990 for a 40-hour course in skidmark analysis, and that same year was detailed to the sheriff’s academy where he served as a driving instructor. In 1991 he immersed himself in vector sum analysis in studying traffic accident reconstruction while attending an 80-hour course in that discipline at the University of North Florida before attending a conference on railroad collisions in Reno that same year. He became an expert certified with regard to vehicle occupant kinematics, passenger restraint systems and boating collisions and safety by 1992. In the same timeframe he received further training at the sheriff’s academy with regard to drug influence and recognition. In 1993, he was given 400 hours of training to serve as a field training officer, another 56 hours instruction on specific officer training and then 32 hours on leadership and supervision.
At various conferences and seminars in California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Florida, he obtained a level of expertise and/or certification in headlight and taillight examination, collision damage analysis, critical speed accuracy/work zone accidents, accident reconstruction, bicycle/pedestrian accident reconstruction, the application of physics for accident reconstruction, low speed rear end collision analysis, low speed impact dynamics, low speed staged collisions, and motorcycle collisions.
Meanwhile, McMahon served as a deputy in the patrol division in Victorville from 1987 to 1989 and then the traffic division in Victorville from 1988 to 1989, the patrol division in Hesperia in 1989 and the traffic division in Hesperia from 1989 to 1991. In 1991, he returned to Needles as a field training officer, leaving that assignment to go to Victorville to become a field training officer in the Victorville traffic division in 1993.
Paralleling this, he was a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Major Accident Investigation Team for the High Desert Area from 1990 to 1998.
Beginning in 1992 McMahon moonlighted as an associate for Collision Consultants, Inc., a position outside the department. In that capacity, over the years he consulted for Carl Warren & Co, Adjusters, Farmers Insurance, Wawanesa Insurance, Western United Insurance and the 21st Century Insurance Company.
While engaged in the study of and experimentation with regard to low speed collisions and staged collisions, vehicle crush measurements, sudden vehicle acceleration, determining accident causation and biomechanics, McMahon participated and witnessed over 70 low speed collisions in which vehicles were occupied by test subjects, and was personally the test subject in 20 experimentally staged collisions.
In November 1994, in the last stage of Sheriff Dick Williams’ tenure at the head of the sheriff’s department and while Gary Penrod was the de facto leader of the department as sheriff-elect, McMahon was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the West Valley Detention Center, where he remained until August of 1995. He then was a supervisory sergeant at the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore until June 1996. Subsequently, he was assigned to the Victorville Station, which billet lasted 15 months until September of 1997. His last seven months as a sergeant were spent with the department’s employee services division, whereupon in April 1998 Penrod promoted him to lieutenant.
McMahon also found time to obtain a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management from Union University.
McMahon’s first assignment as a lieutenant at the department’s regional training center lasted three years and three months, until July 2001. Thereafter, Penrod assigned him to the Fontana Station, where he was the executive officer, managing and supervising patrol operations and scheduling.
After just three months as a lieutenant in Fontana, Penrod promoted McMahon to captain, at which point he was made the commander of the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino, overseeing 140 employees and over 700 inmates.
In 2003, McMahon returned to his hometown, serving as the station commander of the sheriff’s operation in Apple Valley, i.e., de facto Apple Valley police chief, from 2003 to 2007. Penrod thereafter promoted McMahon to deputy chief, from which assignment he oversaw desert patrol and the detentions and corrections bureau.
In January 2009, Penrod abruptly resigned as sheriff, recommending to the board of supervisors that Rod Hoops succeed him. The board of supervisors complied with Penrod’s wish, and in 2010, as an incumbent and with the full force of the county’s political establishment behind him, Hoops successfully ran for election in his own right, defeating his two opponents, Paul Schrader and Mark Averbeck.
That same year, Hoops promoted McMahon to the position of assistant sheriff, the third-highest ranking position in the organization after himself and the undersheriff.
In November 2012, Hoops, near the midpoint in his then current term, announced he would abdicate as sheriff. Stepping over Undersheriff Robert Fonzi, Hoops asked that the county board of supervisors select McMahon, then a resident of Phelan, to succeed him.
That move provoked objections and protests. It was noted that the sheriff’s department, including its administration and its union leadership, were tied into the county’s political and governmental leadership, and that an electoral/political advantage had been conferred upon Hoops in the 2010 election as a consequence of his appointment the previous year, which had allowed him to seek election to the office of sheriff in the status of incumbent.
Paul Schrader, who ran against Hoops in 2010 and was intent on running for sheriff in 2014, suggested that the county should consider appointing someone who would not seek election in 2014, thereby avoiding providing an unfair advantage to the earnest candidates seeking the office of sheriff in that race. Former San Bernardino County Marshal Keith Bushey, who had been a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department, weighed in on the issue as well. Bushey, whose marshal’s position was absorbed into the sheriff’s department when the board of supervisor’s merged the marshal’s office with the sheriff’s department in 1999, served as a deputy chief in the sheriff’s department for six years before retiring in 2005. In a letter to the board of supervisors, Bushey said he was himself contemplating running for sheriff in 2014, and referenced a “universal perception” throughout the sheriff’s department “that sheriff Hoops has already brokered an agreement with the board to ensure the appointment of John McMahon as his replacement.” He requested that the board not conform with Hoops’ expressed preference, as the appointment of McMahon would endow him with the power of incumbency and give him a leg up on any and all opponents he would face in the 2014 election.
The board of supervisors, nonetheless, perceived maintaining continuity and the status quo in the sheriff’s department to be a positive rather than negative consideration, and had come to recognize McMahon as a department loyalist. When McMahon confirmed that by telling the board he had every intention of running for sheriff in 2014, that heightened rather than lowered his stock with the board of supervisors, who unanimously approved his appointment.
He was sworn in as sheriff on December 31, 2012.
Less than three months later, McMahon underwent his baptism by fire as sheriff. Former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner, after experiencing problems with a training officer and testifying against her for using unjustifiable and unnecessary force against a detainee, had been subsequently fired on the grounds that he had made false statements in his report about and testimony against the training officer. Insistent he had acted ethically, responsibly and had told the truth, Dorner failed in his effort to be reinstated as a police officer. Out of frustration, he went rogue. After publishing an 11,000-word manifesto justifying the action he was taking, he embarked on a spree in which he engaged in revenge shootings, killing a couple in Irvine, shooting and killing a Riverside police officer and wounding another, before heading into the San Bernardino Mountains. There he abducted a husband and wife in Big Bear and carjacked a scout camp caretaker, then slayed San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Detective Jeremiah McKay and wounded Deputy Alex Collins as they closed in on him. Other sheriff’s department deputies pursued Dorner, and he holed up in a cabin in Angelus Oaks. Further department resources were brought in, and after efforts including the deployment of tear gas were used in an attempt to get Dorner to surrender, the cabin caught fire and Dorner, just before being engulfed in flames, used a handgun to take his own life.
The matter garnered international attention.
In April 2015, eleven sheriff’s department deputies and higher-ups were videoed by a Los Angeles television station helicopter as they beat Francis Pusok. Pusok, who, mistakenly assumed a team of deputies were coming for him when they came to a residence that was not his own to serve a search warrant related to an identity theft investigation, fled in a vehicle and led pursuing deputies on a chase through the unincorporated area of Apple Valley, the town of Apple Valley and further into the unincorporated area of Hesperia. Pusok abandoned the vehicle southwest of Bowen Ranch and fled on foot, thereafter stealing a horse from someone near the Deep Creek Hot Springs. The NBC Newschopper video showed Pusok atop the horse in the rough mountainous desert terrain as a sheriff’s department helicopter hovered nearby and deputies on foot made slow but steady progress over the scrub vegetation-strewn hillside toward Pusok. When the close encounter with the sheriff’s department helicopter spooked the horse, which led to Pusok being thrown to the ground, he at first sought to hide behind a clump of chaparral. Within seconds first one deputy, then another and in time several other deputies closed in on him. Tased by the first approaching deputy, Pusok initially appeared on the video to be compliant, laying out prone on the ground, with his arms and legs spread. When he was tasered again, Pusok reacted by springing up momentarily, but immediately laid down once more, prone and spread out. As he complied with the deputies’ commands by placing his arms behind him at the small of his back while he was lying face down, one of the deputies kicked him in the head. With the horse nearby, the two deputies then kicked and struck him him and then pummeled him on the head, neck and upper and mid-torso with the taser gun or their fists. Two other officers came into the camera’s field of view, one of whom slapped the horse on the rump and moved it away from the fracas. Initially, one of the arriving officers pulled one of the deputies back from Pusok but only seconds later, he too began to stomp and beat Pusok. The rough treatment of the suspect continued for roughly 14 seconds more, at which point two other deputies moved in to join the swarm over Pusok, and then two more. One of the officers appeared to continue to kick him about the head while four others tried to pin him to the ground. At one point, the concerted beating appeared to to have stopped, and with six deputies hovering over him, an effort to handcuff or tie Pusok appeared to be progressing. Thereafter, one of the deputies gratuitously stomped on him. Thereafter, a last unequivocal overt display of physical force against Pusok could be seen on the video when two other deputies punched and kicked him.
Ten deputies were initially suspended by McMahon in the aftermath of the broadcasting of the video, and the matter was considered by the district attorney’s office.
Twelve days days after the April 9 incident, on April 21, 2015, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors consented to pay Pusok $650,000 to settle a claim he was pursuing against the county, the sheriff’s department and deputies involved in his beating.
Despite the consideration that eight of the ten deputies could be seen on the video in some fashion to a greater or lesser extent striking, hitting, punching, kicking or stomping on Pusok, the district attorney’s office limited its filing of assault under the color of authority charges to deputies Charles Foster, Michael Phelps and Nick Downey. When the matter went to trial in 2017, Foster, represented by attorney Heather N. Phillips, was convicted on March 30 in a unanimous verdict. Two-thirds of the jury – eight of its 12 members – deadlocked 8-to-4 in favor of conviction against Phelps, represented by attorney Kasey A. Castillo, and Downey, represented by attorney Michael Schwartz.
Four days later, with the district attorney’s office and the two defendants’ attorneys set for a pre-trial hearing on a second trial, Phelps and Downey entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor disturbing the peace charges, and the case, minus a yet-to-be-filed appeal by Phillips of Foster’s conviction, was brought to a close.
At the time of Foster’s scheduled sentencing, Judge Dwight W. Moore granted a motion for a new trial filed by Phillips. Instead of going to trial, Foster entered into a disturbing the peace plea agreement indistinguishable from those accepted by Downey and Phelps.
In 2018, McMahon consented to Foster being reinstated with the department.
McMahon was sheriff when the bodies of the victims in the infamous McStay Family murders, believed to have been perpetrated in San Diego County in February 2010, were discovered in and around shallow graves in the desert area between Victorville and Oro Grande in November 2013. His department investigated the matter, and in November 2014 arrested Charles “Chase” Merritt of Rancho Cucamonga, the business partner of Joseph McStay, the patriarch of the murdered family, which included McStay’s 4-year-old and a 3-year old sons and his wife. Ultimately, Merritt was convicted in 2019 after a trial in which the integrity of the evidence and investigation was subject to question, and according to some, remains in doubt.
In 2014, when information surfaced relating to the abuse of prisoners at the West Valley Detention Center, McMahon fired seven deputies. In 2019, when information that a deputy at West Valley had staged fights between inmates, McMahon fired him.
Though he was never a detective, McMahon was well-versed in scientific analysis with regard to traffic issues and accident reconstruction. He is articulate though not eloquent, and more interested in factual analysis, data and science than art. He is direct and blunt. Despite being the most powerful political personage in the county, he was not particularly politically oriented himself and either did not fully appreciate nor understand the political nuance of what he signed on to in becoming sheriff or was not particularly interested in it. He is the latest manifestation of the Frank Bland Political Machine, which has remained dominant in San Bernardino County for well over a half century.
The first political machine to hold sway over the sheriff’s department and by extension San Bernardino County over the multiple terms of different sheriffs was that one which took root with the election of Walter Shay in 1918. Walter Shay began his law enforcement career in 1899 as a deputy sheriff under then-San Bernardino County Sheriff Charles Rouse. In 1903 he was elected San Bernardino marshal and in 1905 was appointed by San Bernardino Mayor Hiram Barton as the City of San Bernardino’s chief of police. He twice vacated that post to serve as a railroad company investigator, which paid more money at that time, but was twice induced to come back as San Bernardino police chief. He was working as the chief special investigator for the district attorney’s office in 1918 when he was elected county sheriff, succeeding J.L. McMinn. He was re-elected thrice, in 1922, 1926 and 1930. In 1931 he succumbed to cancer. It was at this point that the Shay regime became a dynasty in the true sense of the word, when his brother, Ernest Shay, was chosen by the board of supervisors to complete his term. Ernest Shay did so, and in 1934 stepped aside so his nephew and Walter Shay’s son, Emmett Shay, could run in his stead. Emmett Shay was elected and he served three full terms in his own right. In 1946, Emmett Shay was defeated by Jim Stocker, bringing the Shay family’s hold on the sheriff’s office to a close.
Jim Stocker’s tenure as sheriff lasted but a single term, when he was defeated by Upland Police Chief Eugene Mueller. Mueller suffered a similar fate, losing to Frank Bland in the 1954 election after serving one term. Bland was the police chief of Needles and a one-time FBI agent, and he campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, calling for the closure of the houses of prostitution that existed in the urban and rural areas and the pinball halls sprouting up like weeds in the county’s cities where they were distracting teenagers from doing their homework. Upon election, Bland held true to his word and embarked on an effort to shutter the county’s various dens of iniquity, major and minor. Bland would be reelected six times. In the course of his tenure as sheriff, he would establish a political machine that held a cinch lock-hold on the office of sheriff, consisting of scores of political donors who filled his campaign coffers and made running against him successfully a virtual impossibility. He further dedicated detectives assigned to the sheriff’s administrative echelon to gather intelligence on prominent county citizens, judges and elected officials. Bland’s political invulnerability drew to him even more support as time went on and nearly every mover and shaker in the county would pay homage to him, either in the form of political contributions or endorsements or both. Bland would return the favor, endorsing candidates of his liking and putting the arm on his donors to in turn support his political choices. His kingmaking status extended to members of the bench. While the governor had the power to appoint judges, state judges did not serve indefinitely, and had to seek reelection every sixth year. Bland withheld his endorsement from those judges who demonstrated themselves to be in his estimation soft on crime and anything less than solid supporters of law enforcement, and would instead vector as much money and electioneering assistance to any lawyer with the right attitude who would run against them. Rarely did a judge remain on the bench if Bland was determined to see him removed.
So powerful was Bland as a political, social and legal entity that he twice overcame political disasters that would have very likely felled any other candidate.
In 1966, information surfaced that Bland himself had pilfered thousands of dollars from a fund that had been set up to provide his deputies working the vice/narcotics detail with money for drug buys, to place bets with bookies or make the monetary exchanges needed to arrest pimps and prostitutes. Despite the revelation, Bland remained in office and was never molested by the district attorney as he was able to bury the negative publicity under an avalanche of positive-sounding political mailers and handbills, and gain re-election.
In 1978, Bland again dodged a mortal bullet when a scandal enveloped his campaign that showed 24 years after his maiden campaign for sheriff based upon eradicating the county of the scourge of prostitution, his department had become mired in questionable ties with ladies of the evening. At a Bland campaign fundraiser in April of that year at Sweeten Hall in Rancho Cucamonga, donors and others in attendance with Bland were offered the services of prostitutes inside a trailer within the hall’s parking lot. A bust of the proceedings corralled a couple of the girls, a member of the sheriff’s department and one of Bland’s supporters. The ensuing case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Bill Parker, leading to revelations about the matter that came too late to prevent Bland from being elected to serve a seventh term.
In 1982, an increasingly alcoholic Bland had been weakened by the revelations from the Sweeten Hall incident as well as a scandal over his department members’ appropriation of stolen goods recovered in the course of his department’s operations. At that point, Bland, then 69, stepped down, intending to hand off the reins to his second-in-command, Undersheriff Floyd Jones. But Jones had a heart condition. Instead, the Bland Political Machine swung in behind Bland’s second choice, Floyd Tidwell, an inspector and assistant sheriff with the department.
The development community had long before demonstrated itself as a powerful element in the sheriff’s electioneering team. In 1982, Garry Brown, the executive director of the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association, served as Tidwell’s campaign manager. Tidwell handily defeated his opponent, a one-time sheriff’s captain, Chuck Callahan, who was considered a renegade with the department for defying Bland’s will.
Just prior to the 1986 election, Garry Brown was caught on tape telling undercover operative David Kenneth Thomas that he and another key Bland political supporter, James Hunter Price, could arrange for Thomas and those Thomas was associated with to get licensing for and open massage parlors that would be fronts for brothels. The owners of those establishments could prevent arrests of their employees and evade prosecution of themselves and their businesses’ operators through the delivery of large-scale campaign contributions to the sheriff, Brown and Price told Thomas, who was wearing a hidden sound recording device. That money would provide the bordellos’ operators with advance warning of the time and place of vice operations, Brown and Price said.
Brown and Price, as well as Herschel Jennings, the operator of two such operations in Bloomington and Adelanto, were arrested and charged with activity relating to keeping a house of prostitution, along with several girls who worked in the massage parlors. That scandal did not prevent Tidwell from being elected in 1986, but revelations about the case, including Thomas’s alleged suicide during an armed standoff with 27 sheriff’s deputies in 1988, threatened Tidwell’s prospects for reelection in 1990. He stepped down and the political machine that Bland had created was made available to Tidwell’s hand-picked designee, Dick Williams.
Williams cruised to an overwhelming victory and served one term as sheriff. Williams, however, was not a horseman, as had been Bland and Tidwell before him. This clashed with a central element of the department’s culture. Williams handed the political machine over to Gary Penrod, at that time a deputy chief with the department who was a cowboy and a roping partner with Tidwell on the rodeo circuit. Penrod used more than $500,000 in campaign money provided to him by the Bland machine to hold off challenges by six other candidates in the 1994 race. Penrod was reelected three times before he retired halfway through his fourth term in 2009, as he was about to be engulfed in a scandal relating to his sale of honorary deputy status for political contributions. Penrod recommended Rod Hoops as his successor. The board of supervisors complied with his wishes, and when Hoops opted to retire, that ritual was repeated when he recommended McMahon.
It is worth noting that in the cases of Penrod, Hoops and McMahon, their decisions to leave office each came at the point at which they had maximized the pensions they could receive. As law enforcement veterans, each was entitled to a pension equal to three percent of his maximum salary while employed times the number of years he had as a law enforcement officer. Thus, after reaching the two-thirds mark in their 34th year as a law enforcement officer, each was eligible to draw a pension equal to 100 percent of his salary/pay as sheriff. Thereafter, that pension is subject to an annual cost of living increase capped at three percent per year.
At present, Penrod is drawing an annual pension of $240,563.74.
Hoops is drawing an annual pension of $328,988.18.
McMahon is now receiving total pay and benefits of $490,566.99, of which $307,923.78 is salary/pay. Thus, McMahon will be provided with a $317,161.49 annual pension next year.
McMahon was generally against involving himself in politics simply for the sake of being involved in politics. He was also stung in 2014, when some of those whose endorsements he claimed in his elective effort disavowed having endorsed him. McMahon would endorse some candidates, particularly those who had a demonstrated affinity for him or his department, more often candidates for state legislative office than those in local government, certain incumbents and those in a position to help his department financially. He considered betting on unknowns risky, and sought to avoid having endorsed the opponent of a candidate who won. He was sparing of his endorsements in local races, with the primary exceptions being the assistance he offered to his friends and acquaintances on the town council in his hometown of Apple Valley or for Measure O, a tax measure to fund public safety programs in Apple Valley. While he would share his presence at certain community events and public forums, he was reluctant to raise money for anything other than his own races. Though he was for the most part partisan in his support where he did provide it, gravitating toward Republicans, he did assist certain Democrats, such as James Ramos, who had worked with him in his first six years as sheriff when Ramos was on the board of supervisors, or Connie Leyva, whose California Senate district is so thoroughly Democratic that a Republican has virtually no chance of capturing it.
Despite his having eschewed being caught up in politics, action McMahon took beginning earlier this year was widely considered to be political in nature, which relates to an issue that is to have a bearing on his legacy and reputation as a major San Bernardino County public official.
In 2016, California voters’ passed Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized the use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect throughout the Golden State, pursuant to local control and yet subject to local prohibitions as to the drug’s cultivation, processing, alteration and its sale. San Bernardino County’s governmental structure and that of its two incorporated towns and seventeen of its twenty-two incorporated cities resisted going along with the new trend. Only five cities made any shift, with San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles consenting to allow the plant to be commercially grown and altered into edible and otherwise applicable palliatives, liniments and salves, and for those to be distributed and sold at both the retail and wholesale levels. Barstow has made preparations to permit sales. Hesperia has allowed businesses distributing and delivering the product to exist within its confines.
The continuing prohibition of marijuana and its commercialization elsewhere in San Bernardino has resulted in those looking to profit by cultivating and selling it, either under or outside of the regulatory schemes governments are permitted to engage in under Proposition 64, to try their hand at becoming marijuana cultivators or entrepreneurs. Recognizing that there is a tremendous appetite for the drug and that the collective resolve of San Bernardino County officials together with officials in the towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley and the cities of Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Redlands, Yuciapa, Big Bear, Twentynine Palms and Victorville to prevent its production and restrict its availability is artificially boosting its price, daring individuals have undertaken to cultivate it in small, medium, large and gargantuan quantities in many places where they believe they can do so undetected. As a consequence, unlicensed marijuana farms over the last several years have flourished in the more remote areas of the county, in particular the vast reaches of San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert.
Put upon by these operations, residents in those areas have made objections to them. The sheriff’s department, as the law enforcement authority in the county’s unincorporated areas, made some effort to deal with the issue in the 2017 to 2020 timeframe, but put only a small dent in those operations, and the illicit farms continued to flourish. The sheriff’s department, somewhat unfairly, was criticized for ignoring the problems the cultivation operations entailed, which involved in many cases excessive water use, contamination of the desert aquifer as a result of the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, trespassing, intimidation, threats of violence and actual violence against nearby property owners or those traversing the area near the cultivation operations, the use of explosive devices and bear traps, booby traps and the like around the periphery of those farms, and the presence of armed individuals intended as sentries near, around or at the operations.
Beginning earlier this year, the sheriff’s department stepped up its enforcement and eradication efforts against those enterprises. While the department has succeeded since then in raiding dozens of operations and uprooting literally tens of thousands of plants, the sheriff’s department’s energetic efforts in this regard have resulted in few substantive criminal prosecutions. This has created some degree of controversy.
Moreover, the sheriff’s department’s enforcement efforts was vectored exclusively toward unlicensed and unpermitted marijuana growing operations, which had the effect of benefiting businesses that went through the permitting processes particularly in Needles, San Bernardino and Adelanto. In Adelanto and San Bernardino, those obtaining commercial marijuana licenses engaged in several rounds of graft – including the delivery of bribes and kickbacks to the elected decision-makers in those cities. Those bribed or otherwise corrupted in this process included former Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, former Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright, former Adelanto City Councilman John Woodard and current San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia. Wright in 2017 was arrested by the FBI and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with accepting bribes in exchange for assisting marijuana entrepreneurs in setting up operations in his city. He was removed as a councilman as a consequence of his arrest. In 2018, both Kerr and Woodard failed to gain reelection after the FBI began a serious investigative effort targeting the marijuana-related graft in Adelanto, including serving search warrants at City Hall and Kerr’s home along with raids elsewhere around the city and at offices of those providing money to city officials. In San Bernardino, there have been recurrent reports and even signed affidavits relating that Valdivia, in exchange for money, committed to provide applicants for commercial marijuana operations with the permits and licensing they needed to establish their operations and get clearance to initiate business in the county seat.
Former County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who was chairman of the board of supervisors, the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and later was elected county assessor, was subsequently arrested, forced to resign from office and prosecuted for 14 felony political corruption charges, including conspiracy, fraud, bribery, soliciting bribes, accepting bribes, misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest by a public official and perjury. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to all 14 charges and was ultimately sentenced to three years in state prison for his crimes. His conviction on the public official conflict of interest charge prohibits him from ever holding elected public office in California again.
Postmus has resolved to remain in the political game, however, and has created a Wyoming-based company, Mountain States Consulting Group, LLC, which he uses to engage in political money laundering for California elected officials, particularly ones in San Bernardino County. Relying on his experience in being caught, prosecuted and convicted of bribery as well as taking advantage of the lax reporting requirements Wyoming has for limited liability companies based there, Postmus has devised a formula by which Mountain States Consulting Group takes in money from those with an interest in decisions to be made by elected officials in local government and that money is then conveyed to those elected officials with the proviso that the suppliers of the money will get their projects, licenses, permits, contracts or franchises approved by those elected officials.
Postmus and his associates, including John Dino De Fazio, who has an interest in a licensed marijuana cultivation operation in Needles, are working through Mountain States Consulting Group on behalf of those who have obtained marijuana-related business permits in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles to ensure they are not interfered with by any competitors. A comprehensive business plan Postmus is pursuing includes those entities that have already established a toehold in the San Bernardino County marijuana industry in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles to move to the next phase, which involves opening the rest of San Bernardino County up for a limited number of commercial marijuana operations, which Mountain States Consulting Group’s clients are given exclusive licenses and permits to run.
Postmus, through Mountain States Consulting Group, has begun to filter money to Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Curt Hagman, First District Supervisor Paul Cook and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe to get them to accept the next step in the process, which is intended to confer a monopoly, or a near monopoly, on those who have established cannabis-related operations in San Bernardino and Adelanto through bribery, as well as on De Fazio and his associates, in the areas of the county where commercial marijuana activity is now prohibited but will later be permitted. To this end, Postmus has formulated a timetable that would have the county move to allow making commercial cannabis activity to take place within the unincorporated areas of the county, roughly 94 percent of the 20,105 square mile jurisdiction by 2022. The estimated half of a billion dollar initial revenue stream this would create would be spread around to the decision-makers to be brought in on the deal, such that Hagman, Cook and Rowe would be guaranteed no less than $1 million each.
In setting the county’s budget for 2021-2022, the board of supervisors earmarked $10.4 million to deal with nettlesome land use and code enforcement issues in the county’s unincorporated areas, the most significant of which consist of unlicensed marijuana farms.
The supervisors’ commitment to fund more sheriff’s department efforts against unlicensed marijuana cultivators served as a signal to Postmus that county officials are agreeable to the timetable he has worked out with Hagman and County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez to provide the marijuana-related business operations that are Mountain States’ clients with the limited number of permits the county will issue when it undertakes to legalize marijuana-related commercial activity less than two years hence. The arrangements Postmus is pursuing in getting his clients permits to operate at the county level will ultimately give those entities an inside track in establishing cannabis-related businesses not only in the 18,899-square mile expanse of the county’s unincorporated territory, it will give the cartel Postmus represents an advantage in obtaining marijuana cultivation and cannabis-related product commercial entitlements in the eleven other county municipalities besides Adelanto, Hesperia and Needles where the sheriff’s department fills the role of police department, Postmus believes, those being Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Big Bear Lake, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Apple Valley and Victorville.
The timing of the sheriff’s department’s stepped-up operations against illicit marijuana cultivation operations in the desert, corresponding as it did with Postmus’s efforts on behalf of the cartel that has established itself in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles, was interpreted as a sign that McMahon was on board, along with Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr., Hernandez, County Chief Financial Officer Matthew Erickson, County Counsel Michelle Blakemore and Chief Assistant County Counsel Penny Alexander-Kelley, in allowing the cartel that has retained Postmus to achieve its marijuana cultivation and cannabis-product related monopoly.
McMahon, who throughout his professional law enforcement career engaged in arresting marijuana users and traffickers, the Sentinel is informed, was angered at the insinuations that he was involved in any way with the effort to marijuanify the county and make cultivation of marijuana or the production and/or sale of cannabis-related products a significant part of San Bernardino County’s future economy and culture. An individual close to the sheriff who did not want to be identified or quoted verbatim said that McMahon’s essentially apolitical nature prevented him from recognizing the political manipulation that was afoot over the last several months, and that he had only learned of the deal-cutting Postmus was involved in after public discussion relating to his and his department’s efforts to clear the decks of the competition to the enfranchised cartel that has taken hold in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles. McMahon was not until recently, McMahon’s contact insisted, aware of Postmus’s ties to the marijuana industry, and the sheriff further had no knowledge of the money Postmus is laundering to Hagman, Cook and Rowe. McMahon was appalled to learn of the deal that Postmus had arranged and was “floored” by the evidence churned up by the detectives attached to the sheriff’s department’s executive command indicating that Postmus was providing money to Hagman, Cook and Rowe, said the source, who insisted that any suggestion McMahon was a recipient of money provided through Postmus was patently untrue.
The damage McMahon is likely to sustain to his reputation if he remains as sheriff and involved in marijuana suppression efforts against the unfranchised marijuana producers while the cartel Postmus represents solidifies its hold on the county, the Sentinel was told, was a major factor, along with his having now maximized his pension, that went into McMahon’s decision to retire.
In an announcement posted to Twitter this afternoon, McMahon said, “Today, I’m announcing my retirement as sheriff of San Bernardino County, effective July 16th of this year. For the last 36 years I’ve been blessed to work with some of the most dedicated and hard-working law enforcement professionals. The eight-and-a-half years serving as your sheriff has been an honor and a privilege, a responsibility that I have taken very seriously. It is now time for me to focus on things in my personal life that require the attention of my wife, Shelly, and I. The community support this department experiences is not taken lightly, and we are very grateful for it. We have a talented and well-prepared executive management team that is ready to take our department into the future.”
McMahon made no indication of which member of that executive management team he will recommend to the board of supervisors as his replacement. The obvious candidates are Undersheriff Shannon Dicus, Assistant Sheriff Robert Wickum and Assistant Sheriff Horace Boatwright.
In fall of 2018, John Valdivia, who was then San Bernardino’s Third Ward city councilman, was in full ascendancy.
He was enjoying the best of multiple worlds as he was embarking on the next leap in his political career. As an incumbent councilman, he was campaigning from a position of strength, meaning his status as an officeholder left those who had business before the city inclined to provide him with political donations so they might curry favor with him. As a Hispanic in a city with a population that was 62 percent Latino, he had an inside track when the city’s voters would go to the polls. He was a Republican. This meant he would get money, lots of it, to carry out his November campaign. In San Bernardino County, Republican political activists are on the order of four times as effective in raising money for Republican candidates as their Democratic counterparts are at raising campaign funds for Democrats.
Valdivia had finished in first place in the June primary election for mayor, with 6,747 votes or 35.75 percent, which compared favorably with the performance of the incumbent, Mayor Carey Davis, who had polled 5,243 votes or 27.79 percent. As a result of that race and their first and second place finishes, Valdivia and Davis had cleared the upcoming field of five other candidates who among them had polled 6,882 votes or 36.47 percent. They were headed to a head-to-head run off that coming November.
Like Valdivia, Davis was a Republican, and he had some money in his political war chest. Four of the candidates Valdivia and Davis had vanquished in the June race were Democrats, which was an indication of how Republican money outmatched greater Democratic voter numbers. Being a Republican in San Bernardino should have been a disadvantage. 49.1 percent of the city’s registered voters are Democrats while just 21.7 percent of the city’s voters are Republicans. Nevertheless, Republicans tended to turn out to vote at a rate of better than two-to-one as compared to the Democrats. What’s more, Valdivia had been careful in terms of whom he let know he was a Republican. Virtually every Republican in the city new Valdivia was a member of the GOP. But he provided different mailers to Republicans than he did to Democrats in appealing for their votes, and he had been selective about how his political mailers were worded when he had been running for city council as well as when he was running for mayor. He hid the fact that he was a Republican from the city’s Democratic voters. Meanwhile, it was no secret to anyone that Davis was a Republican.
In this way, when the Democrats that did go to the polls made their choices, virtually all of them were under the impression that the race had come down to one in which Davis, a Republican, was running against Valdivia, who they figured was a Democrat. They were wrong, but their votes still went to Valdivia.
When the votes were counted after the November 6, 2018 race, Valdivia came out on top, with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
Valdivia was sworn in as mayor on December 19, 2018, at which point he had control of the city. Though the mayor in San Bernardino is not empowered to vote except to break a tie or otherwise with regard to certain very narrow issues such as council appointments and city hiring decisions, he does have veto power on 4-to-3 and 3-to-2 votes of the council. As the one elected city official elected citywide, he possesses a certain level of moral, practical and political authority the individual members of the council do not. San Bernardino’s mayor is also at liberty to unilaterally place items before the council for discussion or action, and he presides over the meetings, controlling the ebb and flow of debate. As the presiding officer of the council, he has the authority to recognize or ignore members of the council as they seek to take part in those discussions and debates.
On the day he was sworn in, Valdivia had the support of Sixth District Councilwoman Bessine Richard and that of Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel, both of whom he had served with while he was Third Ward Councilman and with whom he had an established alliance. He had also supported newcomers First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez and Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, who were put into office by their wards’ voters in the same November election in which he had been handed the keys to the city as mayor. With the Third Ward council seat he had resigned from to become mayor vacant, Valdivia had four votes he more or less controlled and the opposition of Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill to contend with.
The very evening of the day he was sworn in as mayor and both Ibarra and Sanchez took their oaths as council members, December 19, 2018, Valdivia flexed his political muscle. Ibarra in one of her first acts as councilwoman made a motion to schedule a special session to evaluate then-City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller’s performance as city manager. Valdivia had a less than positive relationship with Travis-Miller, and he considered her to be a vestige of Davis’s mayoralty. Thereafter for the next three months followed a multiplicity of closed sessions, at both regularly scheduled and specially scheduled meetings of the council, at which Travis-Miller’s performance was to be evaluated, with “performance evaluation” being a euphemism for considering firing her.
Valdivia coaxed the council along, and during the closed session on April 3, 2019, the troika of Ibarra, Richard and Sanchez voted, based upon a motion by Sanchez, to suspend Travis-Miller. Councilmen Jim Mulvihill, Henry Nickel and Fred Shorett voted to hold off on such an action, resulting in a 3-to-3 deadlock. Valdivia, using his tie-breaking authority, tipped the scales into a 4-to-3 vote to make that suspension.
The following month, an election was held to fill the Third Ward gap on the council. Juan Figueroa, whom Valdivia had endorsed and supplied with copious amounts of money to campaign with, won that contest. At that point, Valdivia could count on the unquestioning support of Sanchez, Ibarra, Figueroa and Richard on virtually any item that came before the council and the support of Nickel on most issues, including those that pertained to development in the city. Immediately upon Figueroa being installed as a member of the council, Valdivia finalized the displacement of Travis-Miller, establishing in her place the city’s 62-year-old assistant city manager, Teri Ledoux. Promoting Ledoux from assistant city manager to city manager zoomed her annual salary before benefits from $130,000 to $236,000, and set up a guarantee that upon Ledoux’s retirement a year later at the end of her 26-year municipal career, her pension would increase from $120,000 annually for the rest of her life to $189,000 per year.
At that point, with Ledoux beholden to him for the major windfall of her existence, Valdivia was in absolute control. His political reach in the county seat extended to every corner and scintilla of the 59.65-square mile municipality, matched by a titanium political vice-grip.
There was nothing Valdivia could not do, or so it seemed to him and everyone else.
At that point the real graftfest, only hinted at before, began. He was now able to assure potential political donors or those willing to slide him money under the table or through some other creative means that he had the wherewithal to ensure that city staff would write reports and recommendations favorable relating to any service contract, materials contract, development project proposal or franchise application he signaled met with his approval, and that he could deliver sufficient votes on the council so that any item that came before it which he considered to be in the city’s best interest would pass.
For the rest of 2019, Valdivia sold his services to anyone who would pay, the currency being donations to his political fund or retaining his company, AAdvantage Comm LLC, to provide nebulously described “consulting services.”
Valdivia was feeling his oats, filling his mayoral staff and making appointments to city commissions with those he figured would do his bidding. Among those on his staff were Mirna Cisneros, his constituent service representative; Karen Cervantes, his special assistant; Jackie Aboud, his field representative; Don Smith, who had worked on Valdivia’s campaign for mayor and was subsequently hired by the city to serve as Valdivia’s part time field representative, and Matt Brown, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after Bilal Essayli, Valdivia’s first chief of staff, resigned. Valdivia had also appointed Alissa Payne to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission.
In January 2020, Cisneros and Cervantes went public with accounts of how Valdivia began pressuring them to have sex with him. Cisneros related how Valdivia had solicited and received bribes. She also laid out how he used city money to travel about nationally and internationally on business unrelated to the city, which included raising money for himself or his future political campaigns. Aboud then came forward to say that Valdivia had squeezed her to have sexual relations with her, and that Valdivia had used his influence as mayor to provide favorable city treatment to his donors and supporters, while working to prevent city services from being rendered to his constituents who were not supporters, in particular those in the city’s Fourth and Seventh Wards, represented by his two rivals on the council, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill. Payne surfaced publicly with accounts that were in some fashion similar to those of Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud with regard to sexual advances the mayor had made toward her. Smith offered specific accounts of bribetaking by the mayor, including an account of an envelope stuffed with money that had originated from holders of the city’s tow truck franchises.
Valdivia’s difficulties mounted when Brown, who as his senior staff member had an overview of how things were run in Valdivia’s mayoral office from August 2019 until March 2020, sought representation by Tristan Pelayes, the lawyer who was representing Cevantes, Cisneros, Aboud, Payne, and Smith.
Aboud, Brown Cervantes, Cisneros and Smith sued the city over the ordeals they experienced with Valdivia.
Initially, in the face of the complaints and then the lawsuits against Valdivia, the law firm representing the city, Best Best & Krieger, functioning on the theory that it represented the city and that Valdivia, as the duly elected mayor, embodied the city as its political leader, and further presuming that Valdivia had de facto control of the city extending to a comfortable dominance of the city council, refrained from making any concessions with regard to Valdivia’s comportment or behavior. The firm, which employs Thomas Rice as San Bernardino’s chief assistant city attorney and Sonya Carvalho as San Bernardino City Attorney, asserted that making any public admission with regard to Valdivia’s transgressions would subject the city to liability, meaning monetary judgments.
While Valdivia continued to enjoy the undying loyalty of Councilwoman Richard and Councilman Figueroa, by early 2020, Nickel, Sanchez and Ibarra had become keenly conscious of the manner in which Valdivia had been using them to perpetuate the perception of his control of the council and thereby the city, by which he intensified his bribetaking. Wanting to no longer have anything to do with him and to end the perception of their political connection to him or condoned his action, they began distancing themselves from the mayor. This manifested in their no longer supporting him with their votes on the council, as well as Valdivia’s show of growing hostility toward them, at first in particular toward Ibarra. Valdivia supplied money to Richard and Figueroa to assist them in their 2020 electoral campaigns. In 2020, Figueroa gained reelection, but Richard lost, as did both Nickel and Mulvihill, who also had to stand for reelection in 2010.
Despite the fact that the council shed both Mulvihill and Nickel, who at that point were at odds with Valdivia, the mayor did not gain politically by that outcome. Nickel was replaced by Ben Reynoso in the Fifth Ward and Mulvihill supplanted in the Seventh Ward by Damon Alexander. Though it initially seemed that Alexander might align himself with Valdivia, by this point, six months after he took office, Alexander finds himself politically estranged from Valdivia. Reynoso was out of sync with Valdivia from the outset. Kimberly Calvin, who defeated Richard, was likewise at loggerheads with Valdivia from the time she came into office.
Thus, since December, Valdivia’s lone source of support on the council was Figueroa.
Valdivia’s remaining hold on control consisted of his tenuous grip on the city manager who replaced Ledoux last summer, Robert Field, and the city’s director of community and economic development, Michael Huntley, augmented by the city attorney’s office’s unwillingness to challenge him.
This week, a circumstance manifested in which it appears Valdivia has lost the last vestige of his hold on the city. He was scheduled to deliver the annual state of the city address on Tuesday, after which he had scheduled a VIP reception for those who are involved in the governance, promotion and advancement of the city. That reception was to be held at Hilltop Restaurant in San Bernardino, the ownership/management of which is one of Valdivia’s primary campaign donors, having most recently provided him with $5,000. Valdivia had requested from staff, and was provided with, several thousand dollars to hold that reception. When he was challenged on the necessity of that expenditure, Valdivia said it was a continuation of a city tradition, and that the reception was for “residents and stakeholders.” It turned out, however, that attendance at the reception was limited to those who were invited, and the only council member invited was Figueroa, Valdivia’s lone remaining ally on the council. Nearly all of those invited were Valdivia’s campaign donors, whom he intended to hit up again for more electioneering funding.
Taking stock of the way in which Valdivia had used taxpayer money to conduct personal fundraising, the city council on Tuesday June 15, unanimously directed the city manager to cancel the VIP reception, ordered the city attorney’s office to look into the misuse of public funds Valdivia has engaged in, recover the money billed to the city for the reception and asked for an independent review of expenditures from the mayor’s office since January 2019.
Valdivia had his lawyer, Rod Pacheco, fire off a letter to the city, accusing City Attorney Sonia Carvalho of directing the action against the mayor and threatening legal action against her and the city.
This provoked a pointed public denial from Carvalho. Valdivia’s sally against Carvalho appears to have pierced the veil of invulnerability that Best Best & Krieger had formerly wrapped him in.
As significantly, by bringing his donors, most of whom are are developers, under a microscope, this made it difficult or even impossible for Huntley, to stand by him and militate on behalf of those developers in the future.
The action Valdivia provoked the city council into taking against him with the use of public funds to conduct political fundraising now involves the city manager, Field, in an inquiry that is contrary to the mayor’s interest.
Perhaps most telling and significant of all is that Figueroa, Valdivia’s last link to power, joined with his council colleagues in ordering the city attorney’s office and the city manager to bring the curtain down on Valdivia’s depredations.
At this point Valdivia appears entirely isolated and under siege in the city of 214,706.
Those on opposite sides in the debate over what the permissible height of buildings in Redlands should be appear to be headed for a battle royal for the hearts and minds of that element of the population who are on the fence over the matter.
At the heart of the matter is whether the city’s current political leadership, which has embraced what is essentially a pro-development stance, is philosophically in tune with the city’s residents, who historically, at least over the last three decades, have demonstrated themselves more interested in maintaining a relaxed tenor of life in keeping with the city’s traditional serene university town character.
The city council, militating on behalf of developmental interests intent on making a very intensive transformation of a decade-long dormant piece of property at the city’s core into something more typical of an urban setting than that to which Redlands is accustomed, finds itself in a footrace against activists seeking to preserve Redland’s small town ambiance through the use of the initiative process.
In 1977, Redlands, which was then the premier residential community in San Bernardino County, welcomed the advent of the Redlands Mall, which was created by Ernest W. Hahn, a major American shopping center developer who was at the top of his game. Hahn located the mall on about 11 acres on Orange Street between Redlands Boulevard and Brookside Avenue, in doing so clearing the property of some existing, but relatively insignificant, retail units as well as the historic La Posada Hotel.
In addition to a 12,586-square-foot freestanding retail building, the mall provided 173,000 square feet of enclosed leasable space. Hahn succeeded in tenantizing the mall with Harris’ Department Store and Sav-on Drugs, along with a slew of smaller but generally upsclale shops and stores.
What Hahn had created was considered to be a well-planned revitalization of the city’s historic downtown area. There was confidence that in time other major retailers would locate into the mall, leading to its augmentation with modern structures.
For a time, Harris’ thrived, but the promise of more major retailers never manifested. In 1998, the Harris’ Company reached the end of its nearly-century long existence, closing its Redlands location, which was very shortly thereafter reacquired by the Harris’ Company’s corporate successor Gottschalks. Gottschalks failed to achieve the success it had hoped for in Redlands, and the mall, already struggling in the early 2000s, suffered an unsustainable hit with the advent of the Great Recession in 2008. Gottschalks closed and on September 30, 2010, all leases at the mall were terminated. The only survivor was CVS Pharmacy, the successor to Sav-On, in the stand-alone building.
While efforts to prevent the mall from falling fall into a state of blight have kept it from becoming an outright eyesore, its empty and forlorn state in what was once the most resplendent central core among the Inland Empire’s cities has been an embarrassment to the Redlands community as a whole and in particular to Redlands’ elected city leadership. As the members of that panel, which has had a degree of changeover in the last decade, have grown more and more desperate to see the mall property redeveloped, they have shown a willingness to compromise the city’s traditional development and aesthetic standards in the city’s discussion with potential developers.
In 2014, San Diego-based Brixton Capital LP, the private equity investment arm of BruttenGlobal, purchased the mall. After a series of fits and starts, a plan emerged to convert the mall from one entirely dedicated to retail uses to a mixed-use undertaking blending residential and commercial structures. Ultimately, Village Partners Ventures LLC has obtained control of the property, either through an option to purchase it or outright ownership, and it began preparations toward the eventual development – or redevelopment, as it were – of the property.
An implication of the push to redevelop the mall property was that the new construction there would very likely include structures of multiple stories, well above the two-floor height of the existing mall.
Redlands residents, alarmed at the fashion in which city officials are seemingly prepared to depart from the traditional standards that have attended development of the city, have banded together in multiple permutations in an effort to keep outside development interests from dominating the city’s planning process.
Paralleling the impetus for the city accepting the terms upon which an entity, any entity, is willing to redevelop the Redlands Mall is the city’s move toward accepting two intensive developmental mandates.
One is the Transit Villages concept which has yet to be fleshed out in the Transit Villages Specific Plan and associated Environmental Impact Report documents scheduled to be processed and circulated for public review under the California Environmental Quality Act and ultimately to be approved by the Redlands City Council sometime later this year. The Transit Villages Specific Plan mixed use zoning and high density residential development was originally contemplated but then removed from the 2017 general plan update final documents by former City Manager Nabar Martinez. The Redlands Passenger Rail Project/Arrow Line currently under construction by the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority is scheduled to begin operations by Metrolink/OmniTrans in 2022. Those train stations are to be located proximate to the New York Street/Redlands Boulevard intersection, the Downtown Redlands station at the historic Santa Fe Depot at the convergence of Orange Street and Shoppers Lane and the rail line terminus at University Station at University Street and Park Place.
The second intensive development impetus in Redlands consists of a state mandate based upon what is referred to as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, known by its acronym RHNA, which at present calls for the cities in San Bernardino County constructing 162,154 new dwelling units over the eight-year planning cycle beginning this year. According to the Southern California Association of Governments, a regional joint powers agency consisting of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties, Redlands must construct 4,487 dwelling units between now and the end of 2028, of which 1,248 are to be priced to be affordable to those with very low income, 789 for those with low income, 830 for those with moderate income, and 1,620 for those with above moderate income. Both inside and outside of Redlands, there are Californians intent on resisting those mandates being dictated from Sacramento.
In September, the grassroots group Friends of Redlands, working in conjunction with Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, began gathering signatures to force a vote on what the allowable height limit on Redlands buildings is to be. The proposed Friends of Redlands’ initiative calls for disallowing buildings taller than two stories next to single-story homes without the consent of the owner of the single-story home, limiting the height of buildings downtown, which involves the University of Redlands Transit Villages Area, to no more than 50 feet, and the permitting of buildings to a height of no more than 62 feet – tantamount to four stories – in the New York Street/ESRI Transit Village Area. The initiative would further require that the city council unanimously approve making any density intensifications on projects, and it would layer greater parking provision requirements on developers seeking project approvals. To qualify the initiative for the ballot in 2022, the petitioners needed ten percent of Redlands’ 42,000 voters to affix their signatures to the ballot application. To force the election to be held this year, within 109 days of the requisite number of signatures being verified, Friends of Redlands needs 15 percent of the city’s voters – 6,409 – to sign the petition.
In April, the Redlands Planning Commission made a recommendation that Village Partners Ventures LLC be allowed to transform the largely vacant 11.15-acre Redlands Mall, into a melange of mixed-uses including residential, retail, office professional quarters, restaurants, recreational facilities and a six-story parking structure around a pedestrian plaza and swimming pool, with multi-story residential buildings of three, four and five vertical levels.
On Monday, June 7, 2021, representatives with Friends of Redlands and Redlands for Responsible Growth Management, including 95-year-old former Redlands Mayor Bill Cunningham, wheeled into Redlands City Hall three huge boxes containing petitions calling for a special election to stop tall and dense development to which 7,715 signatures were affixed. Those petitions were turned over to City Clerk Jeanne Donaldson.
Donaldson is to count and verify the signatures to determine if the referendum on high rises will take place this year or next year.
City officials, who are in favor of Village Partners Ventures’ proposal, have been working behind the scenes to facilitate that plan. They are hoping against hope that Donaldson will find grounds to discard as invalid at least 1,307 of the signatures, which would mean that the high rise limitation referendum will not be held until next year – November of 2022 – which will be long enough for the council to fully process Village Partners Ventures’ project application, have the council approve it, and allow ground to be broken on the project, rendering the outcome of the vote on the high rise limitation initiative inapplicable to the Redlands Mall replacement project.
Running parallel to all of this is the consideration that for years, the City of Redlands has been seeking an economical way to deal with the overcrowded quarters in its police and fire departments. In 2008, structural and seismic stability problems with the city’s safety hall building, which was built in 1961 and had served for more than 45 years as the police department headquarters, led to a decision to have the police administration function out of a building in the city’s downtown and have the rest of the department function out of makeshift quarters elsewhere, including for a time a fire station. At present police personnel work out of a temporary structure at the city’s corporate yard.
This week, the city council secured an option to buy the 40-year-old Redlands Federal Bank Building.
The City Council on Tuesday, June 15, approved a tentative purchase and sale agreement for the Citrus Center, formerly known as the Redlands Federal Bank Building, at 300 East State Street. Built in 1981 to house Redlands Federal Bank, a major Redlands institution, it stands at six stories, the highest structure in the city. It is owned by one of Redlands’ leading citizens, Jack Dangermond, the owner/founder of the digital mapping corporation ESRI, and his wife Laura, through one of their corporate entities, Redlands Community Investment Corporation.
The city purchased for $500,000 the option to purchase the building, using capital available from the account the city has created for a future City Hall/Civic Center/Safety Hall. The option locks in the city’s opportunity to purchase the edifice for $16 million. The half million dollars paid to secure the option will go toward the purchase if the acquisition is made before the option’s expiration. The building is large enough to house both the fire department administration and all of the police department, as well as parts or all of some other city departments, city officials maintain. City staff is to now undertake a two-month exploration of whether the building can be easily adapted, through various tenant improvements, to essentially serve as City Hall, which is to include the police headquarters and offices for the fire department administration.
The city council’s action taken Tuesday on a 4-to-0 vote with Councilman Paul Foster absent, came two weeks after the full council, meeting in a closed session on June 1, voted to send a signal to the Redlands Community Investment Corporation that it was willing to make the purchase if the price could be kept no higher than $16 million.
Unstated by the city council was that the purchase of the Citrus Center clears the way for the development of Village Partners Ventures’ project, since it would seem to draw to a close any possibility that the city might locate a future civic center onto all or a significant portion of the 11-acre mall property.
Fred Dill, a city resident and local attorney who maintains a law office on Brookside Avenue, sought to dissuade the city from committing to the purchase of the Citrus Center.
Dill rather suggested that the city could make a more economic use of the mall property, if it could acquire it, by converting it to civic use.
“For many years, the big problem for the historic downtown has been the almost empty mall,” Dill wrote to the city council in a letter dated June 14, one day before the council met. “For a decade, at least three different ‘would-be developers’ have ‘owned the mall.’ They have sought to tear it down and replace it with a combination of one-story commercial and high rise residential. The second ‘would-be developer’ wanted to build on the 907 associated parking spaces. The then-council obligingly sold it the spaces. The council realized there were zoning problems with the would-be developer’s plans and placed Measure G on the ballot to solve those troubles. The voters overwhelmingly defeated Measure G.”
Measure G sought to liberalized building standards in Redlands.
Dill’s letter further noted, “The majority of the council chose to ignore the vote and recently gave a tentative approval to a development that would use all the mall and all the parking spaces and include a six-story parking garage and multistory residential units. Tearing down the mall building would be very expensive and take up a great deal of space in a landfill. A group of Redlands voters has a referendum petition pending which would limit the height of buildings which could be built on the mall land. The proponents believe there are enough signatures to require a special election to vote on the referendum. If the referendum passes, the pending developer’s proposal would not be possible.”
The city is going in the wrong direction, Dill said, and should examine more fully the options it has before it.
“With very little notice, the council now appears poised to purchase the 40-year-old six story building at 300 E. State Street for needed ‘space for city facilities.’ The city would pay $16 million with the initial deposit from funds ‘designated for the provisions of a future City/Safety Hall.’ The money received from the sale of the safety hall was pledged to be used for a new safety hall not a City Hall.”
Dill continued, “A great part of the space in the 300 E State Street building is rented to various tenants and the agreement with the owner says the city ‘will assume all leases and rents from the property.’ Little space would be available for the ‘city facilities.’ The building is in no way suitable to replace the safety hall, although the Redlands Police Department is in temporary facilities at the city yard along with the garbage trucks and the like. The city offices are spread around in the old bank building and offices formerly used by the telephone company. While the city no longer owns the mall and the 907 parking spaces, the unoccupied portions of the mall could be quickly, easily and inexpensively converted to a police station and adjoining City Hall and office space.”
The city needs to carefully assess what it is buying into with the purchase of the Citrus Center, Dill said.
“The building at 300 E. State Street can have all sorts of problems, particularly with the large number of tenants with leases,” Dill wrote. “The city needs to do an exhaustive investigation of all aspects of the property and parking before seriously considering its purchase.”
Before the opportunity eludes the city and citizen opposition to the high rise aspect of Village Partners Venture’s proposal dooms it, Dill said, the city should seriously consider the advantages of acquiring the mall property for use as a comprehensive civic center.
“The city doesn’t own the mall and parking places,” Dill acknowledged, but asserted that the property will likely be available at a relatively affordable price, given that those who now control it are unlikely to get clearance to proceed with the intensive uses they have hopes to achieve there.
“The ‘would-be developer’ who owns them may be waiting another ten years with no income or development from most of its investment,” Dill said. “Before racing forward to buy 300 E. State Street, the council should explore acquiring the mall and parking for a real police station and a real City Hall.”
Lawyers for both the City of Upland and Bridge Development Partners this week provided cryptic signals possibly indicating that the proposal to construct a 201,096-square foot distribution center for on-line retail behemoth Amazon at the western end of Upland approved by city officials last year but stridently opposed by a citizens group is dead in the water.
On June 14, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge David Cohn held a thrice-delayed hearing on a petition for a writ of mandate challenging the approval of the project. The hearing came after Judge Cohn issued a tentative ruling granting the petition on relatively narrow grounds. Monday’s proceeding provided the city and Bridge Development Partners a last opportunity to present a rationale for Cohn to reverse or otherwise depart from his tentative decision, which would require that the city rescind its approval of the project granted last year and that it be required to perform a more thorough environmental analysis of the project than was completed for the undertaking before it is to be reconsidered by the city.
Paralleling, and perhaps more significant than, the legal sparring between the two sides on the warehouse development project is Bridge Development Partners’ resolve to pursue in neighboring Rancho Cucamonga a warehouse ten times the size of the one it proposed in Upland but so far has not been able to proceed with.
Indeed, the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup seem to indicate Bridge Development Partners is abandoning the Upland project proposal. Bridge has made no confirmation of that, however.
After first being previewed to the community in June 2019 as three buildings comprising 977,000 square feet, what was dubbed the Upland Bridge Point Project was downscaled from what was originally proposed to be a single 201,096-square foot facility involving 25 dock high loading bays for 18-wheeler trucks, another 32 bays for delivery vans and trucks, along with 1,438 parking spaces around the building. The facility was slated for a 50-acre site in Upland north of Foothill Boulevard slightly east of Central Avenue and south of Cable Airport.
Controversy dogged the project early on. The city allowed the project to proceed toward approval without being subject to a comprehensive environmental impact report, which many Upland residents believe should be carried out for a project of such size, intensity and complexity. Rather, the city elected to use a mitigated negative declaration to complete the environmental review process.
An environmental impact report is an involved study of the project site, the project proposal, the potential and actual impacts the project will have on the site and surrounding area in terms of all conceivable issues, including land use, water use, air quality, potential contamination, noise, traffic, and biological and cultural resources. It specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts. A mitigated negative declaration is a far less exacting size-up of the impacts of a project, by which the panel entrusted with the city’s ultimate land use authority, in this case the city council, issues a declaration that all adverse environmental impacts from the project will be mitigated, or offset, by the conditions of approval of the project imposed upon the developer.
A cross section of the city’s residents disputed the city council’s declaration that all impacts from the project had been adequately mitigated, based both on the magnitude of the project and the consideration that the city council lacked land use and environmental expertise. There were questions as well as to whether the zoning at the project site would allow a distribution facility to be established there. Moreover, many people found it highly disturbing that Bridge Development Partners consistently refused to officially acknowledge that Amazon was to be the eventual tenant at the warehouse for the initial 50-year life of the completed project. Bridge/Amazon has an option to renew the lease on the property for another 50-year period, potentially making the project an issue in the city for the next century. There was and remains a suspicion that the project will be subject to substantial expansion, without any further environmental analysis, perhaps to as large as the 977,000 square feet originally proposed, since 1,438 parking spaces is far in excess of what would normally be needed for a 201,096-square foot warehouse. Another major concern was that the project proposal offered no provision for offsetting the sales tax revenue loss that would come about as a consequence of Amazon’s on-line operational model or remunerating the city for infrastructure damage that would inevitably occur over a 50-year or potentially a 100-year period if the project were to proceed.
On February 12, 2020, the Upland Planning Commission, with three members present, voted 3-to-2 to recommend that the city council not approve project. Two weeks later, the commission met again with six members present and in a move unprecedented in Upland’s history, reversed itself, voting 4-to-2 to recommend that the city council approve the project. Two of the members who had voted against the project on February 12, 2020 changed their votes.
On April 1, 2020, the Upland City Council by a 4-1 vote approved the project, in doing so accepting a $17 million development agreement offered by Bridge Development Partners. That approval included the council’s mitigated negative declaration rather than an in-depth environmental impact report.
Thereafter, a contingent of Upland citizens banded together, taking on the name Upland Community First. The group’s members retained attorney Cory Briggs, who then filed a petition for a writ of mandate, seeking from the court an order that the city revisit the environmental review process for the project, make a determination that the mitigated negative declaration was inadequate and require that a full-blown environmental impact report for the project be carried out before the project is allowed to proceed.
A writ of mandate is a court order to a government agency to follow the law by correcting its prior actions or ceasing illegal acts.
As a consequence of the Upland Community First legal filing, any action toward the completion of the project, including site grading, has been suspended.
In the meantime, Bridge Development Partners seemingly recruited Bill Velto, who voted in April 2020 as a member of the city council to approve the project and who in November 2020 was elected Upland mayor, to serve as its agent in approaching members of Upland Community First in an effort to get that group to end its challenge of the project approval. To that end, Velto indicated via text messages that Bridge Development Partners had expressed a willingness to more than double the $17 million in project impact offsets the company had agreed to pay in the development agreement for the project approved in April 2020 to $40 million. That offer was conditional upon Upland Community First dropping its demand for a comprehensive environmental impact report and accepting an environmental review that would allow the project to proceed, without any of the changes that would typically be required by an environmental impact report. Upland Community First spurned those offers, insisting that the matter be resolved though the writ of mandate proceeding,
On June 7, Judge Cohn delivered his preliminary ruling on the writ of mandate petition. While he rejected outright fifteen of the points that Upland Community First raised in its petition, and placed a third issue in an unresolved category, he made a finding against the city on two points, those being that the city had used an erroneous greenhouse gas threshold meant for stationary sources and did not include mobile sources such as delivery vans in its analysis of what would be permissible emissions at the facility, and that the mitigated negative declaration was therefore flawed and an unacceptable means of providing the project with its environmental certification.
Cohn sided with the city in rejecting Upland Community First’s contention that the mitigated negative declaration underestimated traffic counts anticipated from the distribution center and that the anticipated vehicle trips to the distribution center were understated, and he took issue with the citizen group’s assertion that there is a difference between a high-cube parcel hub warehouse and a fulfillment center, and that the project should have been classified as a fulfillment center.
Cohn further considered Upland Community First’s contention that there is a fair argument the project will have significant land use and planning impacts because the project conflicts with the Upland’s general plan and zoning code. Specifically, Upland Community First argued that distribution centers are not allowed in an area zoned for commercial/ industrial mixed-use, and are only allowed in industrial zones.
Judge Cohn rejected that assertion.
“Upland Community First’s consistency argument amounts to a contention that any zoning ordinance or general plan violation results in an environmental impact because of these general purpose statements about the intent to support environmentally responsible development and reduce greenhouse gases,” Judge Cohn wrote in his tentative decision. “But the California Environmental Quality Act does not provide that ‘any inconsistencies necessarily constitute significant environmental impacts.’ Noncompliance with an existing general plan or a zoning ordinance is not itself substantial evidence in support of a fair argument the project may have a significant impact on the environment.”
Judge Cohn ruled that any conclusions Upland Community First’s members may have drawn based on the number of parking spaces included in the project plans were speculative.
Even if Upland Community First were to establish that the project is inconsistent with the zoning of the property upon which it is to be built, that did not in and of itself establish a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act, he found. “[T]hat the project is not a permitted use is not substantial evidence in support of a fair argument of environmental impacts,” Judge Cohn wrote.
At any rate, Judge Cohn tentatively ruled that according to city documents “Allowable uses within this land use category include commercial and industrial” development.
He rejected Upland Community First’s assertion that the zoning issues relating to the project invalidated the project’s approval and entered “an express finding the project is consistent with the general plan and zoning ordinances as a permissible use.”
Judge Cohn in his tentative decision ruled Upland Community First did not have adequate grounds or authority to dispute the terms of the development agreement the city entered into with Bridge Development Partners and he said the city council had the authority and discretion to enter into that arrangement.
Furthermore, Judge Cohn found, Upland Community First’s contention that the city had failed to adequately define the project was unsupportable, and he ruled that the project as truly defined by the city – a “warehouse/parcel delivery service building” – was an allowed use.
“The city’s conclusion that the project is allowed as warehousing is reasonable and entitled to deference,” Judge Cohn wrote.
Judge Cohn also found unpersuasive Upland Community First’s argument that the mitigated negative declaration should be rescinded because the April 1, 2020 city council meeting at which the project was given go-ahead was conducted in an electronic and remotely-held forum that did not give Upland residents adequate opportunity to provide input with regard to the project.
Nevertheless, Judge Cohn was driven to the conclusion that the city had wrongfully used a greenhouse gas threshold of ten thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in calculating emissions from the distribution facility on a yearly basis as a maximum allowable limit. Since the city had sought to use an inoperative maximum threshold for emissions, he said, the mitigated negative declaration was flawed, and had to be done over.
“The failure to provide substantial evidence to justify the single quantitative method used as the greenhouse gas threshold of significance constitutes a prejudicial abuse of discretion,” Judge Cohn ruled. “The public and decision-makers have not been provided sufficient information necessary to understand the threshold or the data used in the analysis establishing the threshold and reason for the significant change in baseline emissions in the subsequent greenhouse gas analysis. Accordingly, the city’s approval of the mitigated negative declaration is set aside.”
Cohn did not, however, accept Upland Community First’s contention that the maximum emission level should be set at three thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
“While Upland Community First has presented sufficient argument and evidence to conclude that substantial evidence does not support the 10,000 MTCO2e used, it fails to provide substantial evidence supporting the use of a 3,000 MTCO2e threshold,” Cohn wrote.
Upland Community First and the project’s opponents indicated that if Judge Cohn abides by his determination in the tentative decision in his final ruling, they will consider that to be a victory.
Still, the terms of the victory might be relatively narrow, as the full-fledged environmental impact report Upland Community First has been gunning for all along might not be forthcoming.
“The court grants Upland Community First’s petition on the sole ground that substantial evidence does not support the ‘threshold of significance’ chosen for greenhouse gas emissions,” Judge Cohn wrote. “As a result, the city’s finding that there will be no significant effect on the environment with respect to greenhouse gas emissions is without adequate support. This does not mean, necessarily, that an EIR [environmental impact report] is required. The city has discretion to choose an appropriate “threshold of significance” and to determine under that standard whether an EIR is required.”
On June 14, Judge Cohn listened to Ginetta Giovinco, the attorney representing the city, Amanda Monchamp, the attorney representing Bridge Development Partners, and Cory Briggs, the attorney representing Upland Community First. Giovinco deferred primarily to Monchamp in letting her seek to dissuade Judge Cohn from finalizing his tentative findings. Briggs, while encouraging Judge Cohn to stay on track with his ruling regarding the proper greenhouse gas threshold for the project, endeavored to move the judge away from his conclusions denying the grounds for the petition with regard to several other issues.
Monchamp’s less than precisely focused argument relating to the greenhouse gas threshold left some with the impression that Bridge Development Partners is losing its commitment to move forward with the Upland warehouse project.
Such a theory has further support in the consideration that Bridge Development Partners is now pursuing an entitlement from the City of Rancho Cucamonga to construct two new contemporary warehouse buildings with a combined building area, including the mezzanine space, of approximately 2,175,000 square feet consisting of 2,134,000 square feet of warehouse uses and 41,000 square feet of ancillary office space. There would be approximately 2,136,200 square feet of ground level floor space and approximately 38,800 square feet of mezzanine in the complex, which is to be built on 91.4 acres located at 12434 4th Street in the City of Rancho Cucamonga, bounded by 4th Street to the south, which is also the jurisdictional boundary between the City of Rancho Cucamonga and the City of Ontario, and 6th Street to the north, and generally located between Etiwanda Avenue to the east and Santa Anita Avenue to the west.
While Bridge has not identified the tenant that will locate into those structures, representing ten times the square-footage proposed in Upland, a logical assumption is the facility is intended for Amazon. Initially, when Bridge undertook its efforts in Upland, it did not identify Amazon as the building tenant.
On June 14, Judge Cohn took the input from Giovinco, Monchamp and Briggs under submission, indicating he will provide his final decision in writing shortly.
The Highland City Council earlier this month waived a key safety provision normally applied to developers seeking permission to build structures of three stories or higher in the 18.89 square mile city of 55,529 population, letting TREH Partners avoid the payment of over half of a million dollars a year for the next several years to ensure adequate fire protection existed at the 200-residential unit/nine-store mixed use project until tax revenue from the completed project became available to the city.
TREH Partners has done work in Highland previously, having built the shopping center anchored by Lowe’s Hardware located at 27847 Greenspot Road, i.e., on the south side of Greenspot. Records indicate that TREH still owns that shopping center, and is seeing a return on its investment and development of that project by its leasing of the Lowe’s Hardware.
The project approved unanimously by the four city council members who were present, Mayor Penny Lilburn Councilmen Larry McCallon and John Timmer, and Councilwoman Anaeli Solano, fits within the Greenspot Specific Plan Area, which was defined and ratified by a previous city council in 2013, falling within the district locally referred to as the Golden Triangle, roughly 104 acres on the north side of Greenspot Road east of State Route 210.
The project approved on June Tuesday June 8, known as Greenspot Crossings, is the second development proposal given clearance under the Greenspot Specific Plan, the first being a 200-unit townhouse development by Rexco at the southeast extreme of the specific plan area, which was given go-ahead by the city council in September 2020.
The 73.4-acre Greenspot Crossings project is divided into a 39.7-acre commercial component near the northeast corner of Greenspot and SR-210 and a 33.7-acre residential development adjacent to and northeast of the shopping center. The project was revamped from one that originally called for a 43.6-acre commercial component and a 29.8 acres devoted to residential use.
A mitigation agreement was approved in 2020. TREH Partners requested the number of acres for housing go up by 3.9 acres from original plans, and the amount of commercial land go down by that much to adjust for demand.
The commercial element consists of some 85,316 square feet of commercial space, anchored by a 37,000 square foot store; what is slated to be a 11,877-square-foot, eight-pump gas station/convenience mart with a car wash; a 19,000-square-foot store; a 6,000-square-foot store; a 5,600-square-foot store; three 2,500-to-3,000-square-foot stores, at least one of which is to have a drive-through; and a 2,024-square-foot store. The commercial center is to include two outdoor plazas and 362 parking stalls.
The 200-unit residential complex will be made up of four types of dwelling units, those being two-story single-family town homes and two-story studios along with 14 multi-family buildings that involve two-story condominiums and three-story apartments. In addition, there is to be a clubhouse and fitness center, a swimming pool, a wading pool, an outdoor kids zone with artificial turf, a dog park, a basketball half-court and a pickleball court. There are to be a total 380 parking spaces on the residential side of the development, including attached garages and 142 open spaces.
The council signed off on a design review for the project, a conditional use permit, tentative parcel maps, signage permits and alcohol sales licensing in giving the project approval.
In its approval, the city council adjusted the boundaries of the Highland Marketplace planning area and they went along with eliminating the village paseo from the Residential Village, as well as eliminating the open space for studio units.
The Highland Planning Commission at its May 18 meeting voted to recommend that the city council approve the project pursuant to the Greenspot Specific Plan. The planning commission called for conditions of approval inherent in the specific plan, which included dual requirements that TREH Partners fund the full cost of the fire department employing a firefighter on the its ladder truck until such time as the revenues to be generated from the project can cover that cost. The combined cost of the firefighter and equipage of the ladder truck ran to $550,000 per year.
According to Highland Community Development Director Lawrence Mainez, the Greenspot Specific Plan requires the provision of the ladder truck capability when a development project entails a three-story building. Optimal fire protection for buildings three stories or higher cannot be provided without a ladder truck, according to the fire department.
TREH Partners Principal Tom Robinson, however, pleaded financial hardship, telling the four members of the city council who were present on June 8 that the added expense of $1.1 million over two years or $1.65 million over three years would increase the Greenspot Crossings’ early phase cost and create a lack of profitability that would prevent the company from securing financing to proceed. He requested that the city remove the conditions of approval relating to ensuring that the city be reimbursed for its costs in having the personnel and equipment to maintain the ladder truck.
Robinson pointed out that the city already has an arrangement with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians by which some revenue from the casino the tribe runs is diverted to the city to ensure that it has a ladder truck on standby. He asked, essentially, that TREH Partners be permitted to piggyback on the service already defrayed by San Manuel. He said if the city insisted on adhering to the specific plan requirement, TREH would reduce the three story structures to two stories, but would not reduce the number of residential units, instead spreading them over a larger portion of the project footprint, and thereby eliminating or radically reducing open space.
Councilman John Timmer, a retired firefighter, noted the importance of having the ladder truck available. When he indicated that he was willing to risk allowing the project to proceed without TREH Partners having to cover the cost of outfitting and manning the ladder truck, the rest of the council went along. Timmer said the city was taking a risk. “If, for whatever reason, we cancel it [the arrangement with San Manuel to provide the ladder truck], we, as a city, are going to have to make significant decisions on service reductions because we will have to provide a ladder truck. We have to be aware of that, even if it is highly unlikely.”
Timmer motioned that the conditions of approval relating to the ladder truck be suspended, and the Greenspot Crossings project be approved. Councilman Larry McCallon seconded the motion, and the vote was passed unanimously, with the support of Lilburn and Solano.