Highlanders & Mentone Neighbors File Suit Against City Over Harmony Project Okay

HIGHLAND—Public interest groups filed a lawsuit late yesterday challenging the City of Highland’s approval of the high-density Harmony development in the rustic area straddling the extreme extension of Highland into Mentone along the foothills at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains near the headwaters of the Santa Ana River.
Harmony, the remote development project sponsored by Upland-based Lewis Operating Company, is proposed for land at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Santa Ana River, directly adjacent to San Bernardino National Forest lands. It will cover 1,657 acres acquired by Orange County Flood Control in the Seven Oaks Dam project area with 3,632 houses and other improvements and amenities. The project area is currently home to numerous endangered species, rare habitats, wetlands and crucial wildlife connectivity corridors.
The new development calls for the construction of the more than 3,600 new housing units on 658 acres 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 residential neighborhood 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 in and around the project footprint 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.
“There’s nothing harmonious about the Harmony development,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Not only does this project threaten endangered species and some of their most important habitat but the city’s analysis did a lousy job of looking at how Harmony will affect air quality, traffic and the climate crisis.”
The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and the Greenspot Residents Association, who are represented by the law firm Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger. It argues the City of Highland City Council’s August 11 approval of the project violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
The proposed development site is far removed from Highland’s city services and is vulnerable to episodic fire, catastrophic flooding, and the San Andreas Fault, project critics contend. The suit maintains that the environmental review completely ignored that a bridge over Mill Creek – which would be required to access the development – will permanently alter that free flowing creek. The project will also harm rare and protected species, including critical habitat for endangered San Bernardino kangaroo ratsand federally threatened Santa Ana sucker fish as well as habitat for endangered southwestern willow flycatchers, the plaintiffs assert.
“It is developments such as this that push rare plants and animals to the brink of extinction,” said Drew Feldmann of the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society. “The amount of rare wildlife and habitat already existing on the site points to conserving it, not developing it.”
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.
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 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.
Earlier this year, 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.
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.”
On August 11, the Highland City Council held a meeting that was entirely devoted to considering the Harmony project. Ultimately, the council adopted the statement of overriding considerations, adopted the environmental impact report, amendments to the general plan relating to the project, approved the zone change, adopted the specific plan, approved the development agreement, and approved the subdivision of the property.
The Greenspot Residents Association is an unincorporated association comprised of concerned citizens within the area historically known as “Greenspot,” that covers much of the Mentone, Redlands, and Mill Creek Canyon communities. Dedicated to the historic, cultural, ecological and agricultural preservation of the area, the association was formed and is managed exclusively by local residents.
“The area has a long tradition of rural and agricultural living, not high density housing as is proposed with the Harmony plan” said Wendy Rea, executive director of the Greenspot Residents Association. “This development is precisely the sort of ill-conceived 1960’s leap-frog planning that has plagued this county for decades. Rather than focus on economic development and urban renewal, the city and an outside county have pushed an enormously unpopular development on a remote, annexed piece of land surrounded by unincorporated citizens. It is a fundamentally flawed and unsafe plan, built on a heritage of eminent domain and disregard for the community.”
Randall Lewis, the executive president of the Lewis Operating Company, this morning told the Sentinel, “I haven’t had a chance to look at the lawsuit but our team of consultants and attorneys will be examining it very closely. What I can say is that at this point we believe this is a good project that went through a very thorough environmental review and approval process.”

Leave a Reply