Anticipated Rubber Stamp Of Upland General Plan Spurs Talk Of Referendum

The insensitivity of the city council, the planning commission and city staff to density concerns and several other land use considerations voiced by members of the public is pushing a group of Upland activists toward seeking a referendum on the city’s controversial proposed new general plan.
In 2008 the city of Upland undertook to update its general plan, the comprehensive blueprint for the city’s development which was last revised in 1992. That effort, which was being shepherded through the process by Upland’s development services director, Jeff Zwack, remained relatively dormant for nearly seven years, with three holiday/get together events in 2008 providing a forum where citizen input was sought followed by four planning department-sponsored workshops and one open house over the next six years where the public was invited to offer input on the city’s long term planning approach.
After crawling at a snail’s pace for more than a half dozen years, the update effort accelerated to near light speed earlier this year. A utility bill mailing to Upland residents in April heralded the general plan update, and a planning commission hearing on the subject was held on April 22. Zwack and other officials anticipated that another public review of the document would be staged in May and that it would then go to the city council for its review and approval in June.
At over 2,000 pages, the updated general plan presages changes in the nature of the city’s residential zones, with an upticking in housing density that will put as many as 55 units on a single acre while most of the city’s existing neighborhoods have fewer than eight homes per acre and the vast majority of those built more than three decades ago have fewer than six units per acre. In addition, the plan as drafted calls for what is referred to as mixed-uses, which include placing residential units atop commercial and office buildings.
A number of residents, alarmed that the changes envisioned in the newly drafted general plan would in large measure change the character and ambiance of what is known as “The City of Gracious Living,” appeared in droves at planning commission and council meetings, including those where the general plan update was and was not an officially scheduled topic for discussion. In overwhelming numbers those animated by the controversy expressed both general disapproval of how the public was being shoehorned into a very limited set of open hearings at which its input was to be obtained and specific elements of the general plan as pertained to density, land use and restrictions aimed at modifying transportation, circulation, recreational and entertainment options and resident behavior would be previewed.
In response, city officials lengthened the planned consideration and examination period for the document and added two public hearing dates – one for the city council and one for the planning commission – to allow for further public input.
Those efforts, however, failed to mollify those most animated by the proposed community character alterations layered into the plan. Over time even more city residents learned of the proposed changes in zoning and density codes and regulations relating to a host of matters previously considered to be the inviolate purview of property owners, such as landscaping and design choices in the city’s residential zones. This generated yet further resistance to the plan.
The city engaged in the faux pas of having the public comment period for the environmental impact statement accompanying the plan end the day before the last planning commission hearing on the plan was held on July 22. At that planning commission hearing, nearly two dozen residents, supported by an overflow crowd in the city’s meeting chambers, registered objection upon objection to specific elements contained in the proposed document.
The planning commissioners are to provide their recommendations on any changes to the land use blueprint they feel proper to the city council before that body’s final hearing at which approval of the new plan is to be voted upon. As a practical matter, however, the environmental impact statement will not include any of the input expressed at the planning commission hearing. This resulted in the perception of many of those residents participating at or attending the planning commission meeting that the city was not taking seriously or heeding in any way their input.
City officials further courted controversy by the seemingly complacent air all of them have maintained in response to the outpouring of resident discontent with the contents of the proposed general plan document. In particular, city officials came across as dismissive of objections to the higher level of density laid out in the plan versus what is currently permissible under the 1992 standards. Both Zwack and Mayor Ray Musser appear to be setting the tone for this escalation in density. Zwack is perhaps influenced by trends in general among urban planners responding to pressure for higher densities in Southern California, which historically has not embraced the dense residential neighborhood model popular in high population areas on the East Coast. Musser, a member of the county’s transportation agency, San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) and Southern California’s regional planning agency, Southern California Associated Governments (SCAG), has been swayed by those agencies’ emphasis on promoting mass public transportation and permitting high density residential development in and along those transportation corridors, including mixed uses which combine retail shops on the ground level with residential units on the second and third floor.
Some residents are opposed to the high density concept altogether, while others, who are perhaps willing to accept it in select areas such as within transportation corridors, are alarmed that the city is allowing the high density footprint to expand into parts of the city beyond those limited areas. Many have expressed frustration and despair over how Zwack and Musser, and by extension the rest of city staff and the city council, are unmoved by the protests relating to the density upsurge in Upland the plan calls for.
Crucial areas of concern are whether the sentiments expressed by residents will be disregarded altogether, whether they will be heeded by city officials in any degree and if so, how the residents’ input will be interpreted and converted into change to the document. City officials appeared reluctant to disclose anything related to those questions or to create sufficient timelines for residents to determine how their feedback has been evaluated and perhaps assimilated into the final planning document.
On July 22 residents broached the subject of a rumored “red lined” document that had been created by city staff, i.e., one containing staff’s emendations to the new general plan as originally drafted, which staff was refusing to release publicly. Expressed was the perception that city staff was being far too secretive about exactly what would be in the final draft presented to the city council.
Thus cornered, Zwack acknowledged a “red lined document” indeed existed, but he said it represented a work product that was not finalized, calling it a “midstream document. It is not appropriate to release it midstream,” he said.
It is unclear when the document finally generated based upon the “red lined” work in progress now undergoing revision will be available for public review. One indication was that the final general plan to be voted upon by the council will not be released until the Thursday evening before the Monday night city council meeting when the vote would take place.
The resistance to the city’s general plan revision process has resulted in the creation of a website by a group of residents using the slogan “Don’t Urbanize Upland.” According to postings on that website, “issues and specific requests pertaining to the new proposed general plan are being ignored… There are questions about the logic of high density housing projects while residents endure water restrictions… The city has attempted to minimize protest over the new general plan… Upland is going to be transformed into an urban city with high density housing with incentives to developers to build for low income residents, all based around anti-car transportation hubs – buses, bicycles and walking.”
Marilyn Mills is one of the prime movers in the organized resistance to various elements of the new general plan. In July, she provided to the city council a letter signed by 542 Upland residents who are opposed to the plan. She told the Sentinel this week that growing numbers of those she is in contact with have lost confidence that Zwack, the planning commission and the city council will make any substantive changes to the general plan as proposed in response to the opposition and protest rendered against it. Consequently, she said, a movement is coalescing around the goal of qualifying a referendum for the ballot that will, in essence, allow the city’s voters to override the anticipated approval of the new general plan by the city council.
Such a petition drive would require that the group seeking the vote obtain the valid signatures of at least ten percent of the city’s registered voters, a daunting task, but one that was accomplished late last year and early this year by a group seeking a citywide vote on allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to legally operate in the city. Residents skeptical about the new general plan said they believed there is a depth of passion about the future of the city and the prospect that the new general plan will erode its character which would provide the impetus to allow the petition gathering effort to succeed. They said the signatures Mills had already gathered for the letter represented a solid start toward that process.
Mills said that she was particularly concerned that “72 hours will not be enough time for everyone or anyone to read this final product that is supposed to evolve out of the red lined document they are working from. The council is not being responsible. They should let everyone have a chance to know what they are voting on before that vote takes place.”
Mayor Musser told the Sentinel that the city is on target to have the council consider the new general plan “at the second Monday in September.”
Asked about the growing belief among many Upland residents that staff, the planning commission and the council are not being responsive to their concerns about the general plan, Musser said, “I don’t see why they can’t wait to see if the commission addresses all of their concerns and makes all the changes necessary before they pass along their recommendation to us.”
Apprised of discussions among some residents about seeking a referendum on the general plan, Musser said, “I didn’t know about that,” but then offered an off-the-cuff reaction. “I don’t think that’s possible. If it is an item about taxes, that clearly goes to a vote of the people but this is about land use. The marijuana people did get their petition qualified, but how are they going to get 36,000 voters to make a decision on land use? That would be a disaster. They don’t have enough information. Most of them are commuters. They don’t know what is going on in terms of building or development.”

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