At Special Meeting W/O Public Input, Highland OKs 3,632-Unit Harmony Project

After a several-years-long buildup and the accrual of the opposition of scores of nearby landowners and residents, the Highland City Council on August 11 approved the Harmony residential project, which will place more than 3,600 homes on 1,650 acres below and to the side of the headwaters of the Santa Ana River.
The Lewis Operating Company was the project proponent for the Harmony project undertaking, which 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 a pump station.
The 3,632 homes will be confined to 658 acres of the land. The commercial and public infrastructure and utility uses, including the school site and wastewater and water treatment facilities will monopolize around 100 acres. Some 1,900 acres will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, as open space.
Homes will range from 1,500 square feet to estate homes of almost 4,000 square feet.
Nearby residents, including those within the Highland City Limits and those outside the city, have not embraced the project. Beyond objecting to the development of what is rustic property at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains and the headwaters of the Santa Ana River, other specific issues were raised by local residents who contested the project proposal, including 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 that 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.
Two groups, the Greenspot Residents Association and the Alliance for Mill Creek, registered opposition to the project. The association retained the San Francisco-based law firm of Shute, Mihally & Weinberger in attempting to challenge the project approval, contending there are significant flaws in the city’s resolutions proposed for the approval of various aspects of the Harmony Specific Plan and that the city’s environmental impact report for the project has been inadequate. According to opponents, the environmental review signed off on by the city council did not meet the standards set forth in the California Environmental Quality Act. They maintain the environmental review made false 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. In accepting the report, the council accepted the report’s findings 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, and 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.
With regard to issues of public safety, project opponents pointed out that the project is to be built in an alluvial fan which has proven to be one of the most flood prone areas in San Bernardino County, with past floods having deposited sediment on the land in question that was 20 feet deep. Though the Seven Oaks Dam by its design is projected to be able to manage 45 percent of the flood risk from the Santa Ana River at that location, in a flash flood circumstance the project area would be inundated with a level of water that would overwhelm the yet-to-be-built housing. At the southern border of the Harmony project site is a levy built after the 1938 Flood that was reinforced in the 1990s, when it was made nine feet taller to be able to withstand a 100-year flood. The levy stands ten feet higher than where homes and commercial uses will be constructed. With the construction, including roads and other paving, the present level of drainage will be compromised, dropping the project area far below the 100-year flood plain in that area, according to project critics.
The term 100-year flood pertains to the most intensive water massing that is statistically likely to occur during a century.
The area, according to project opponents, lying at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, is also vulnerable to wildfire. As the project was proposed and approved, there is but a single route of ingress and egress to the project site, with a tight choke point. This would give residents in the area an inadequate route of escape from the area in the face of a disaster, putting many of the residents who will occupy the project’s 3,632 homes in critical danger, those opposing the project say.
While 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 dead-ending at that point, the project does not include a bridge across the Santa Ana River, with Lewis having refused to pay for bridge construction. Project proponents characterized the city’s willingness to allow the project to proceed without the construction of that bridge as both irresponsible and a further violation of the California Environmental Quality Act requirements.
In general, residents are upset that the historic zoning of the property in the environs of the dam – equestrian-residential or estate residential calling for homes to be built on several acre lots – was improperly and inappropriately converted into a land use designation that will permit a project featuring a density of over five-and-a-half units per acre on 658 acres. This conversion, eliminating rural open space and agricultural land, is a violation of the city’s general plan, they contend.
None of the city council’s members live in or near the area slated for development, which is referred to as the “Greenspot.” The city’s at-large electoral system had been challenged in the court system. That challenge succeeded and the city is now under a court mandate to dissolve its current 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. Many Greenspot residents feel the city council rushed the approval process for the project before a new council can replace the current members.
Also upsetting opponents of the project is that Lewis will not pay upfront for much of the infrastructure needed to accommodate the development. Rather, Lewis induced the city to create a community facilities district that will be supported through a Mello-Roos financing scheme. The Mello-Roos arrangement will impose on future homeowners assessments beyond their normal property taxes, likely in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $7,000 per year to pay for that needed infrastructure. Project opponents say this is an illegitimate way of transferring the costs of the development from Lewis to unsuspecting future property owners.
The project is to be built on property owned by the Orange County Flood Control District. Orange County took control of the land years ago as a means of preventing entities in San Bernardino County from diverting the water in the Santa Ana River. The Santa Ana River winds through San Bernardino County, Riverside County and then through Orange County before reaching its ultimate terminus in the Pacific Ocean. Some of the land Orange County obtained, including a portion of the property now purposed to be developed by Lewis as the Harmony project, was obtained from private landowners through the San Bernardino County Flood Control District’s use of its eminent domain authority in 1997.
. Since the completion of the Seven Oaks Dam, Orange County now considers the land surplus and has partnered with Lewis Operating Company to have the property developed.
In response to the opponents and critics of the project, city staff, led by city manager Joseph Hughes, public works director Ernest Wong, community development director Lawrence Mainez and assistant community development director Kim Stater, generated a report, essentially justifying staff’s collective recommendation to the council to approve the project. In that response, at least some of the opponents’ points were addressed.
The suspension of the general plan and the previously enacted zoning codes was okay, the report suggested, because a development agreement with Lewis was being put in place to supersede those restrictions. In the words of the staff report, the agreement “provides certainty to the developer that their project will be isolated from changes in the jurisdiction’s zoning laws over the course of development, but it also contracts the developer to provide benefits to the city, such as public improvements, public open space, or monetary payments into funds, such as ‘in lieu’ fees.”
With regard to meeting the proper development and safety standards for the project, the report maintains that a draft environmental impact report was circulated amongst nearby property owners between March 21, 2014 and May 5, 2014 and after 50 comments from the public were received it was amended and re-circulated once more, this time with changes to the air quality, biological resources and traffic issues. A final environmental impact report was completed and made available to the public on March 17, 2016.
While the staff report conceded that “In some instances, mitigation measures for the project could not reduce the level of impact to less than significant [in the areas of] air quality, transportation and traffic,” the city council had the legal authority “to determine whether the benefits of the project outweigh significant environmental effects” and that the council was entitled through its authority to “adopt a statement of overriding considerations stating the reasons supporting the approval notwithstanding the significant environmental effects.”
The staff report said that “Developer Lewis and Orange County hosted numerous meetings and made themselves available at Highland events to answer questions about the project. They staffed information booths at the Citrus Harvest Festival each year since 2012 and Discover Highland Night since 2011.”
The staff report continues, “The City of Highland annexed the Seven Oaks Community Policy Area in 2000 with the intention of having a positive influence upon its development and preserving the quality of life of existing residents. The general plan polices adopted for the Seven Oaks Area recommend that future development be mindful that 1) local and regional trail systems are maintained and planned for, 2) open space linkages within the site connect to adjacent open spaces, 3) close coordination with the City of Redlands and County of San Bernardino occurs, 4) sufficient access supports future development, 5) it tensure adequate public services and facilities, 6) provide habitat corridor linkages and habitat conservation planning, 7) implement development guidance via a specific plan or similar device, 8) hillside development should limit alteration of natural landforms, 9) limit grading to the amount necessary to provide stable areas, 10) minimize import and export of material during grading, 11) consider cluster development in connection with recreational amenities, and 12) maintain the Greenspot Agricultural Preserve until such time that development occurs. Staff is confident that each of the policies has been achieved with the Harmony Specific Plan and related entitlements.”
The report states that “During the course of processing the Harmony Specific Plan, staff heard many concerns. Most frequently they related to traffic, environmentally sensitive habitats, wildlife corridors, schools water and sewer services. These are discussed in detail within the finale environmental report.” According to the report, sensitive status, special status or otherwise present flora and fauna included riversidean alluvial fan sage scrub, southern cottonwood, will riparian forest and southern will scrub, mulefat scrub, the kangaroo rat, the Santa Ana Sucker Fish ( in Mill Creek and the Santa Ana River), woolystar, white-bracted spineflower, Parry’s spineflower, Plummer’s mariposa lily, Cooper’s hawk, white-tailed kike, loggerhead shrike, yellow warbler, yellow-breasted chat, southwestern willow flycatcher, least Bell’s vireo, Los Angeles pocket mouse, northwestern San Diego pocket mouse, San desert woodrat, and black-tailed jackrabbit. “The project was designed to minimize impacts to sensitive species and habitat that supports them,” the report states. “The areas around Morton Creek and Deep Creek will be maintained as natural open space. A total of 582 acres of the site will be devoted to natural open space. The project proposes a variable width corridor from a minimum of 900 feet to a maximum of 1,800 feet. It will be located at the project’s eastern boundary and will continue to support the wildlife movement between the National Forest and Crafton Hills. It will also provide connectivity between the eastern end of the Santa Ana regional corridor along the northern boundary of the project, and down to Mill Creek.”
With regard to the impact of the project on local schools, the report states, “The Harmony project is located within the Redlands Unified School District. As the boundaries are drawn today, students from Harmony would attend Mentone elementary School, Moore Middle School and Redlands East Valley High School. Given the established rates, Harmony would generate 872 elementary, 436, middle and 581 high school students at build out. There is available capacity at Mentone for an additional 120 students and also at Cram for an additional 63 if necessary. There is capacity at Redlands East Valley for an additional 392 students. Moore Middle School is over capacity by approximately 58 students. The Redlands Unified School District is currently planning to build a new middle school in Loma Linda. It is the city’s understanding that in the event a school meets its capacity, the district may address it in a number of ways.”
Furthermore, according to the report, “Water and sewer service is provided by the East Valley Water District. The East Valley Water district has provided a ‘will serve’ letter for the project. East Valley Water District has indicated that they have sufficient water supply to service the project now and in the future. San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District currently plans to construct a wastewater treatment plant within the City of Highland which would have the capacity to service Harmony.”
The staff report states that “The Harmony Specific Plan has identified a site for a city fire station, located adjacent to the proposed community park. The developer has agreed to construct the new city fire station for the city with appropriate reimbursement as outlined in the agreement, inclusive of necessary furniture, fixtures, and equipment.
With regard to the imposition of the Mello-Roos arrangement and concern that the use of community facilities districts as a tool to help finance infrastructure may be a burden on the eventual homebuyers in the Harmony project, the staff report stated, “Staff agrees that local governments need to exercise caution in their use of Mello-Roos financing, as land-backed securities are inherently risky and may pose an excessive burden on taxpayers when coupled with other taxes and assessments. The proposed Harmony Development Agreement includes provisions for the city and developer to cooperate in the establishment of one or more community facilities districts pursuant to the Community Facility District Act. That being the case, a formal application and study is required to determine the actual cost and eligible facilities for a proposed community facilities district. Furthermore, a detailed community facilities district study cannot be initiated until a project is approved, such as a specific plan or master tract map which will be used to determine the cost of eligible infrastructure improvements to be included in the community facilities district. The city council finance subcommittee will review any proposal to establish a community facilities district with final approval made by the full city council.”
The city further referenced a 1991 publication of the California Debt Advisory commission, which at that time was chaired by then- state treasurer Kathleen Brown, titled “Guidelines For Mello-Roos Financing.”
The city made no defense of the use of eminent domain 19 years ago to put the property into the hands of Orange County, which has at this point forsaken public use of the property and is participating in profiting from the development by its sale of the land.
According to the staff report, “The proposed Harmony Development Agreement was negotiated in good faith at arms-length and scrutinized by the attorneys from the City of Highland, the Orange County Flood Control District, and LCD Greenspot, LLC to ensure compliance with the California Government Code and to ensure the project was a public benefit consistent with the city’s general plan and to ensure the city was not relinquishing its police powers.”
During the city council hearing on August 11, which was a specially called one to deal exclusively with the Harmony project, Patrick Loy, regional project manager for the Lewis Operating Corporation, gave an overview of the project to the council. The council did some relatively minor tweaking to the project, including moving the planned fire station to a more central location in the project, requiring that there be adequate fire protection before any three-story structures are built, eliminating campgrounds adjacent to wildlife corridors, requiring security lighting in line with requirements of the Highland Building and Safety Code, disallowing the construction of carports and instead insisting on garages, and calling for walls and rails to discourage use by skateboarders.
Mayor Larry McCallon precluded the public from participating in the hearing, asserting such testimony had already been offered at the June council meeting. He did, however, allow the Lewis Operating Company to make its pitch. Upon the conclusion of the presentation, the council held its brief discussion and then adopted the environmental impact report, amendments to the general plan, approved the zone change, adopted the specific plan, approved of the development agreement, and approved the subdivision of the property.

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