San Manuel’s Grading Of Hillside Mansion Pads Alarms Nearby SB Residents

The sudden initiation of grading to accommodate the San Manuel Tribe’s development plan for upwards of 30 hillside mansions on property adjacent to the unincorporated county land at the northeast corner of the City of San Bernardino has upset nearby property owners.
The tribe, which has kept its intentions close to the vest, has autonomous land use authority over the property in question, and ultimately will be able to develop the property to whatever intensity it deems suits its purpose. The only external governance on those development plans is the requirement that the tribe redress whatever impacts the undertaking will have on neighboring land which lies beyond the reservation.
Contrary to the alarm the grading triggered, the tribe’s spokesman said the eventual completion of the project will result in benefits to nearby residents, making rainstorm flooding far less damaging and reducing the fire hazard potential.
The lack of public disclosure as to the tribe’s intent, however, taken together with its effort to utilize the impacts of the development on the neighboring properties to induce those properties’ owners to sell their land, has raised the ire of several of those impacted, many of whom are wealthy or well-fixed and want to maintain their residences in what has become a sanctuary for birds, butterflies, pollinators and other wildlife. A recent move to prevent homeowners in the area from accessing their property exacerbated the issue. What is more, because of the wealth of the tribe based upon its lucrative Casino operation and the political pull it now possesses as a consequence of the application of that wealth in endowing the campaign war chests of local elected officials, to say nothing of the consideration that the tribe’s former chairman is now the county supervisor overseeing the area at issue, neither the City of San Bernardino, nor the County of San Bernardino appears willing to use their governmental authority to confront the tribe on behalf of any residents who feel they are being put out by the development.
The area concerned is that lying at the furthest northward extension of Orange Avenue, which then winds in a loop eastward to become Holly Circle Drive. The hillside property towering over Orange Avenue was formerly owned by Jack Widmeyer. Widmeyer, a local insurance agent, had sought to develop the property, but ran into difficulty when he began grading the property without permits and was caught attempting to bootleg other elements of the infrastructure needed to render the property developable. The city refused to provide him with permits or an entitlement to build. Ultimately, the property was sold to the San Manuel Tribe, which incorporated it into its reservation.
What was previously reported and now confirmed is that the tribe is looking to construct $2 million to $5 million homes on one-acre hillside lots as residences for tribal members who have now reached the age of majority, i.e., 18. Unverified reports are that the revenue generated at the San Manuel Casino provides each member of the tribe with roughly $100,000 per month.
Tribal land is sovereign Indian Territory, based on the ruling in Worchester v. Georgia, which defined Indian Nations as “distinct political communities having territorial boundaries, within which their authority is exclusive.”
The property at the north end of Orange Avenue is unincorporated San Bernardino County land, outside the bounds of the City of San Bernardino but within its sphere of influence.
Personnel with the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department were either unable, unwilling or not at liberty to disclose whether county planners had been consulted with regard to the ongoing project. The immediate past chairman of the county board of supervisors is Third District Supervisor James Ramos, who was formerly the chairman of the San Manuel Tribal Council.
Previously, San Bernardino city officials said they had no knowledge of what the tribe had in store for the property or that there was any current plan to develop it. Councilman Fred Shorett, whose council ward is immediately adjacent to the project site, had been provided with a fact sheet relating to the tribe’s intention, but was not at liberty to disclose what had been vouchsafed to him on confidential terms by the tribe. Oliver Mujica, the planning division manager for the City of San Bernardino, this week told the Sentinel he had no information about the project. Repeated efforts by the Sentinel to get in touch with San Bernardino Community Development Director Mark Persico that began last week and included seven phone calls and attendance at this week’s city council meeting were unsuccessful.
In June of last year, after surveying of the property intended for development had taken place and displaced earth and mud had made its way into storm water channels and culverts designed to prevent flooding of the properties along Holly Circle Drive and upper Orange Avenue, thereby clogging them, representatives of the tribe approached at least some of the homeowners. Noting that those properties were threatened by flooding, the tribal representatives made offers to buy the properties.
Earlier this month, massive earth moving vehicles wended their way up Orange Avenue and Holly Circle and ultimately into place near the sites slated for development. No formal announcement was made to the nearby landowners that the project was imminent. Nevertheless, the landowners surmised what was to come. At one point, Orange Avenue and Holly Circle were choked closed with grading and earth compaction vehicles. Local residents seeking to get back into their neighborhood were informed by the equipment operation crews that they would not be able to pass.
Sensing or anticipating discontent among nearby residents, a tribal official approached City of San Bernardino officials and provided a document prepared by Bryan Benso, the director of real estate and development with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. In that document, Benso maintained the tribe intended to build somewhere between 30 and 40 homes. City officials were informed by the tribal elders within the last two weeks that grading equipment was being staged in the area, but that grading would not begin until March 17. The tribe then jumped the gun, beginning to grade in earnest on the Ides of March.
On March 23, Jacob Coin, the public affairs director for the San Manuel Tribe, spoke with the Sentinel.
“Currently, there is preparation of sites for future home development,” Coin said. “We anticipate the home site preparation phase will last for the next 18 to 24 months. Our plan is to create sites for 30 to 40 homes. That land was placed into a federal trust for that express purpose.”
Coin said, “We have a number of young members of the tribe seeking their own homes. There is no opportunity for them to build in the current reservation because all of the home sites there are allocated and preserved. This process is to develop proper home sites for future homes.”
He said the tribe has coordinated with local authorities.
“We did have conversations with the city many years ago,” Coin said. “We have been planning it. This should not have crept up on anyone. We are a government, and our responsibility is to deal with our neighboring jurisdictions on a government-to-government basis. We have notified the city of our plans to develop homes on that portion of the reservation. As we get closer to development, we are looking to sit down and deal with the people who live in this neighborhood. We anticipate this will be of great benefit to the neighbors of the reservation. First, it will improve the drainage issues. Secondly, this will create a fire buffer that is not there currently. This will provide a fire break along the reservation on the south side.”
Coin said the land being prepared totals roughly 80 acres. He said that the property will “not be divided equally,” meaning the homes will be custom built and will involve different designs and floor plans. “Once site development is completed, we will make assignments,” he said. “I’m not sure what process will follow. We are assuming there will be individual initiatives.” –Mark Gutglueck

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