Highland & Mentone Residents Bridle Over Subdivision Proposal Near 7 Oaks Dam

Controversy and widespread community protest over the proposal to construct a 3,632-residential unit subdivision southeast of Seven Oaks Dam in the area straddling east Highland and Mentone has resulted in a delay in the approval of the project, which had been anticipated as early as this week.
The Highland City Council was slated to hold a public hearing and vote on the massive planned residential community being proposed by the Lewis Group of Companies yesterday, July 21, but the hearing was postponed to an as-yet unspecified date in August.
Known as the Harmony Project, it is to be built southeast of the Seven Oaks Dam, between the Santa Ana River and Mill Creek on the east edge of Highland and continuing through to Mentone. The new development, covering approximately 658 acres, calls for the construction of 3,632 new housing units, as well as a neighborhood commercial center covering close to six acres, an additional 16 acres set aside for neighborhood commercial uses, community public facilities that include the development of one elementary school; a 1.5-acre site set aside for the development of a new fire station after 1,000 homes are built and water reservoirs, a water treatment facility, a sewage treatment plant, and pump station.
In addition to what has become routine resistance to development in California in general, a slew of specific issues are being raised by local residents who are contesting the project proposal, including environmental issues, ones pertaining to traffic circulation, the burden 3,632 homes will place on the school system, water use, the reliance on a Mello-Roos financing arrangement for the infrastructure on the project, which will impose on the future owners of the homes in the project assessment above and beyond the property taxes they will be obliged to pay, the consideration that some of the project property was taken from the previous owner by eminent domain, and public safety concerns stemming from the project’s location, its vulnerability to flooding and fire and inadequate routes of escape in an emergency.
Some of that opposition has coalesced under the aegis of a group, the Greenspot Residents Association. According to the association, there are significant flaws in the city’s resolutions proposed for the approval of various aspects of the Harmony Specific Plan. The association has retained the San Francisco-based law firm of Shute, Mihally & Weinberger in attempting to challenge the project approval. A central contention of the association is that the city’s environmental impact report for the project has been inadequate and does not meet the minimum requirements required in such a review under the standards set forth in the California Environmental Quality Act. Based upon the environmental impact documents, the city through its city council made findings with regard to potential flood water generation, the provision of public services to match the increase in housing, and substantial environmental damage in the form of injury to fish and wildlife or their habitat, declaring that the impacts from the development will be less than significant.
According to the association, those findings are not supported by the environmental impact documents and do not establish that the impacts are in fact insignificant. The impact report and the findings combined do not meet legal requirements in terms of specifying the problems or outlining how they are to be mitigated, residents unhappy with the project proposal and the city’s embracing of it contend. Moreover, the critics of the project point out, where the environmental impact report notes two significant and unavoidable environmental impacts, the report and the city’s findings fail to specify any mitigation or solutions. The report acknowledges the project will injure the dwindling population of the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat, that 88.8 acres of Riversidean alluvial sage scrub “will be lost through the project development,” and that the project will “permanently impact” 1.29 acres of surface waters and approximately 31.48 acres of streambeds and associated riparian vegetation.
Wendy Rea, a resident of Mentone and one of the prime movers in the association, told the Sentinel “There are a phenomenal number of problems with this project, public safety chief among them. This is a project to be built in an alluvial fan. Based upon the flood history of this canyon, it is obvious it is one of the most flood prone areas in our county. Past floods have deposited sediment that was 20 feet deep. In a flood the creek and its banks tend to fill up very quickly. We have already had many flash floods in the area. There have been significant floods in this area. The Seven Oaks Dam by its design was projected to be able to manage 45 percent of the flood risk from the Santa Ana River at this location. That means the majority of water during a heavy rainstorm will still come through Mill Creek.”
Rea continued, “At the southern border of harmony project is a levy that stands ten feet higher than where they plan to put in homes and commercial uses. That levy was built after the 1938 Flood, and it was reinforced in the 1990s, when it was made nine feet taller so it would be able to withstand a 100-year flood. That level of drainage applies to the current condition, which will change when the area is covered with roads and other paving. Yet the project is being built at a level ten feet below the levy, with no other flood mitigation measures. That means the project lies below the 100-year flood level.”
The term 100-year flood pertains to the most intensive water massing that is statistically likely to occur during a century.
“The Santa Ana River is what is called a broad channel,” Rea said. “Under the California Environmental Quality Act, there is not supposed to be construction around a board channel. The approval of this project would be irresponsible, neglecting the protection of residents, including citizens of Highland and those living just outside the city, who will live in that area when the project is completed.”
In addition to flooding, the area, lying at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, is also vulnerable to wildfire, Rea pointed out. This makes, she said, having adequate ingress and egress from the area crucial in the face of a disaster. “They are proposing putting 3,632 more homes into an area where there is but a single route of escape,” Rea said. “During a flood or fire, that would be a disaster. With that bottleneck, that amount of traffic would be unable to get past that choke point in time. The development plan calls for a small commercial nub near the fish hatchery at the farthest eastern extension of the project, and a stub of a road going nowhere. There is obviously the potential for a bridge at the east end of the project there, across the Santa Ana River. But Lewis has said it will not pay for it. There is no mention of the bridge in the environmental impact report. This is a classic example of a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. It is proof they intend to pursue project in this area piecemeal. It is absolutely irresponsible to put 3,632 homes into a flood and fire hazard zone that is hemmed in on two-and-a-half sides by a dam, the mountains and the river with only one way out if an evacuation had to occur rapidly. There would be nothing that could be done for the people caught in a fire or flood. The development should not be allowed to proceed unless the developer is willing to construct that bridge.”
Rea pointed out that a portion of the property to be used in the project was acquired by the San Bernardino County Flood Control District through eminent domain in 1997 because that property was necessary to host a conveyor belt to transport clay used to construct the dam to the dam site. With the dam completed, the county no longer needed the land and it was sold to Orange County, which owns the entire 1,650 acres upon which the Harmony project is to be built. “There was no effort to contact the property owner from which that land was seized by the use of eminent domain” Rea said. “Normally, the owner of property taken through eminent domain is given a first right of refusal once the property is no longer needed for a public purpose. That did not occur in this case.”
Rea said the project involves the wholesale disregarding of a host of quality of life issues, such as traffic circulation and density considerations.
“If you look at the historic zoning of that property, it has been equestrian-residential or estate residential, with homes to be built on several acre lots or, in the alternative, it was to be developed as a golf course,” she said. “With this project, the city made a shift to high density, with the removal of rural open space and agricultural land. This was a violation of the general plan.”
She said that none of the city council’s members live in or near the area slated for development, which is referred to as the “Greenspot.” Noting that a challenge of the city’s at-large electoral system had been made in the court system and that the city is now under a court mandate to dissolve that at-large voting system and put in place a ward system that will ensure the Greenspot will have a representative on the council by next year, Rea said the fix was in now to quickly approve the Harmony project before a new council can replace the current members.
“That is indicative of a city with an agenda, and that agenda is not consistent with what is in the best interest of its citizens,” Rea said.
Rea said “We feel there are enormous financial, health and safety, and quality of life issues at bear here. It’s a huge project, and it’s fantastically time-consuming to sort through the details to get to what it will really really mean. I believe the environmental impact reports filed in conjunction with this project are designed to obfuscate facts and cumulative impacts. The California Environmental Quality Act exists so cumulative impacts can be evaluated. While we respect the need for housing and understand the Lewis Group is not some villain, we and many other organizations firmly believe there could not be a more disastrous choice of locations for this development.”
Another Highland resident, Angie De La Rosa, told the Sentinel, “The boulevard is already a death trap. We have had many deaths on the Highway 38. The poor circulation of the traffic from this huge Harmony Project is a heart attack ready to happen.”
DeLaRosa said the city needed to ensure the bridge over the Santa Ana River is constructed if it is to allow the project to proceed.
“I used to live in the High Desert when major housing developments were going in,” De La Rosa said. “Go up there even today and see all the traffic on Bear Valley Road.  Victorville was to build a bridge at Nisqually to take some of the traffic off of Bear Valley Road. I have been gone from the High Desert for over 16 years and the bridge has yet to be built. We don’t want this traffic nightmare to happen to our highway.”
Randall Lewis, one of the Lewis Group’s vice-presidents, said he would respond in detail to the questions raised about the project after he has an opportunity to discuss those issues with Orange County officials.

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