Judge’s Ruling Rescinds County Approval Of Joshua Tree Dollar General

(March 12) A Superior Court judge has suspended, at least for the time being, the county’s approval of a permit to construct a chain discount store in Joshua Tree.
In January 2013 the county planning commission by a 4-1 vote approved a proposal by Dynamic Development in conjunction with the Goodlettsville, Tennessee–based Dollar General Corp. to establish a Dollar General store at the corner of Twentynine Palms Highway and Sunburst Avenue in Joshua Tree.
Maintaining that they prided themselves on the rustic character of their town, a number of people in the community including the entire membership of the Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance,  resisted the proposal to build the 9,100-square foot Dollar General. They said the presence of a national corporate retail establishment would compromise the Old West ambience of a desert town that relies on tourism. They appealed the planning commission’s approval to the board of supervisors.
In June 2013, the board of supervisors held a public hearing to consider the appeal that incorporated a video hook-up with the meeting room at the Joshua Tree Community Center, allowing Joshua Tree residents to lodge their protests without having to make the 200-mile round trip to the county seat to be heard.
Gus Romo and Ernie Perea, planners with the county’s department of land use services who previously recommended that the commission approve Dynamic Development’s conditional use permit application, set the groundwork for their boss, Terri Rahhal, the planning director for the county, who was tasked with reiterating the planning division’s earlier analysis and findings and building a case to justify the store at its proposed location.
Romo and Perea maintained the 1.45 acre site is compatible from a land use standpoint with the applicant’s plans. Romo and Perea stated in a jointly authored report and recommendation, “This area of 29 Palms Highway is designated for commercial development and intended to cater to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The project is considered a general retail use permitted within the Joshua Tree Community Plan zoning designation subject to approval of a use permit. Therefore, the proposed development and retail use are considered compatible with the surrounding land uses and general plan land use designations.”
The board of supervisors denied the appeal and approved the project.
Joshua Tree residents and the downtown business alliance filed a lawsuit the following month, asserting the county’s land use services division did not fully examine the negative impacts of the project, including cutting into the profitability of preexisting businesses and upsetting the rural character of the district.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez sided with the plaintiff, ruling that the county needs to rescind Dynamic Development, LLC’s permit for the Dollar General retail store while county undertakes the preparation of an environmental impact report which Alvarez directed should specifically analyze the potential economic effects on surrounding businesses.
The county’s mitigated negative declaration of any untoward impacts of the project was insufficient, Alvarez ruled, in part because the analysis of the possible economic effects to existing businesses, which could result in urban decay, had not been done previously.
In reaching his conclusion, Alvarez relied upon a 29-year-old case pertaining to proposed new development in a less-than-highly-urbanized setting, the ski-resort community of Bishop. In that case, the court determined the California Environmental Quality Act called upon the governmental agency overseeing the project to “consider the secondary or indirect environmental consequences of economic and social changes.”
Though Alvarez said the California Environmental Quality Act is “not a fair competition statutory scheme intended to protect against economic competition,” he said the impact on preexisting businesses “must be considered if the loss of businesses affects the physical environment by causing or increasing urban decay.”
David Fick, speaking on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Sentinel, “The Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance commends Judge Alvarez’ decision that requires the county to do an environmental impact report for the approval/disapproval of the Dollar General project according to California Environmental Quality Act requirements.”
Dynamic Development has given indication it will very likely appeal Alvarez’s ruling to the state appellate court in Riverside. Mark Ostoich, an attorney representing Dynamic Development, said the project met all the criteria of an acceptable property use.
The land uses surrounding the project site consist of single-family residential uses located within commercial zoning to the south across 29 Palms Highway, single-family residential uses within multi-family zoning to the north across Commercial Street, vacant commercial land to the east across Sunburst Avenue, and vacant commercial land to the west across Mountain View Street.
Opponents of the store alleged the project was inconsistent with Joshua Tree’scommunity plan, which encourages small businesses. The lawsuit also raised the issue of the project requiring a traffic study. Alvarez did not find in favor of the plaintiffs on those issues.
Rahhal said that the county was not bound by the Joshua Tree Community Plan and its precepts, and that it could not be cited as the grounds for keeping a business such as Dollar General from locating in Joshua Tree. “The Joshua Tree Community Plan articulates a vision of the community,” Rahhal said. “lt sets their vision. It is not the sole source of regulation for land use, though.”

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