Measure M Loophole Lets Uprated Density Into West Chino Without Referendum

Less than a month after the Chino City Council jockeyed around having to make a decision on a residential development project in one of its rural neighborhoods by deferring the decision on approval or disapproval to the city’s voters, it embraced another controversial subdivision proposal on property that has historically hosted low density agricultural uses.
At a population of 77,982, Chino is no longer the quaint farming community it was two and three generations ago or even a generation ago. Nevertheless, it is still home to four dozen dairies in its now defunct agricultural preserve and several pockets of occasional chicken ranches, pig, goat and sheep farms, not to mention equestrian estates. There is a core of hangers-on who want to preserve that. There are some others who do not own agricultural operations themselves who nevertheless see keeping them in place as a hedge against the encroaching urbanization, with newer neighborhoods in which upwards of eight, ten, twelve or fourteen single family homes are being shoehorned onto a single acre, or a like number or even more attached condominiums are sprouting up, or apartment units of two, three and even four stories into which well over 100 people might dwell on a single acre.
A generation ago in 1988, Chino voters passed Measure M, which mandates that if a developer wants to proceed with a project of greater density than provided for in the city’s zoning codes, the city council does not have on its own the authority accommodate the developer’s request. Rather, a majority of voters throughout the city must give their consent for such a project to proceed. In this way, Chino, while experiencing growth, to be sure, has not seen the same concentration of density in its new neighborhoods that many of the communities in Southern California have experienced in the same time frame. Measure M has made developers looking to work in Chino reluctant to seek more density than has been predesignated. All the same, when developers are committed enough to roll the dice and spend money on a promotional campaign, they have prevailed. On 14 separate occasions since 1989, developers have turned to the voters for approval of their uprated density requests. None has been turned down.
In 2013, D.R. Horton, which was founded by Donald R. Horton and bills itself as the “largest homebuilder in the United States,” signaled its intention to develop the rural land south of Francis Avenue between Vernon and Benson avenues in north Chino not too far from the Ontario city limits. D.R. Horton was purposed to do so at an intensity far in excess of the property’s current and longstanding RD1 zoning, which permits no more than one dwelling unit per acre. D.R. Horton’s initial proposal extended to 33.5 acres, upon which the company wanted to erect 232 dwelling units in addition to the eight existing homes already there. To achieve that goal, D.R. Horton needed to score a trifecta, getting the consent of not just the planning commission and city council, but the city’s voters, as per Measure M. An effort to get enough signatures on a petition which was first circulated late in 2013 did not achieve the threshold needed to get a question on the matter placed before the city’s voters on the November 2014 ballot.
In December 2014, the city council told D.R. Horton that if the company was serious, an environmental impact report would be needed. D.R. Horton in 2016 moved forward, reducing the footprint of the project from 33 acres to 30 acres and 232 units to 12 single-family homes on 7,000-square-foot lots, 87 detached single-family units on 4,500-square-feet lots, and 73 detached condominiums in addition to the eight existing homes.
Many of the residents of the area were galvanized into resistance. They opposed putting 170 units on property zoned for 30 units. They said D.R. Horton’s plan amounted to “spot zoning” that would interrupt the flow of horses on off-street trails to surrounding property and would present a clash between “country” rural life with farm-like settings including animals if the urban condos that were contemplated were allowed to be built. They also maintained that the density did not conform to the surrounding area, that the project did not include bridle trails, that it would impact the area’s already near-capacity schools and that it would impact traffic. Ontario residents living in proximity to the project complained that their input was being ignored.
On March 6, thirty-four of the overflow crowd at City Hall offered the planning commission their views on the project, with 22 speaking against it and 12 speaking in favor. The six commission members present – Brandon Blanchard, Kathleen Patterson, Harvey Luth, Steve Lewis, Walt Pocock and Sherman Jones – voted in unison against recommending approval of the project as is, saying it was out of step with the city general plan, out of compliance with the applicable zoning and incompatible with the existing neighborhood.
The planning commission’s recommendation was not binding, however, and on April 4, the matter came before the body with the ultimate – or in this case the penultimate – decision-making power, the city council. Anticipating a massive turnout, the council met in the community room at the senior citizens’ center, which has greater seating capacity than the council chambers. That hearing proved to be an encapsulation of Chino’s competing cultures. Those in favor of the development, referred to as the Brewer Site Project, want the district to be entirely citified. Pointing out that little more than a half mile away is the Chino Promenade, the project proponents and supporters said that those who want to keep the land and density consistent with the agricultural uses of the last century are fooling themselves and those resisting need to wake up, smell the coffee, get real and welcome themselves into the Third Millennium. Development is coming and there is no use resisting it, they insisted, saying the project would make the neighborhood safer by bringing in additional street lighting, sidewalks and roads suitable for vehicular traffic. Some local entrepreneurs said having more people living in proximity to their businesses will mean more customers for them.
Nevertheless, the project proponents were significantly outnumbered by the project’s opponents, who said they felt they had a right to retain for themselves the rural ambience of their neighborhood, with a more countryfied laidback ambience. They said putting more homes into the area will intrude on what remaining serenity the neighborhood retains. It was pointed out that the average size of the lots D.R. Horton was seeking would be roughly one-eighth of an acre, which is half the size or less than most of those plots on which now sit homes that were built in that area in 1960s or earlier, meaning an infusion of at least 900 and as many as 1,400 new residents such that the serenity the neighborhood now features will be a thing of the past, along with its bridle trails.
The meeting lasted over four hours, during which 33 speakers weighed in. Pushed to make a decision, the council deflected the controversy that was brewing by making a non-decision that, in and of itself, neither approved nor denied the project. After council members Earl Elrod, Glenn Duncan and Tom Haughey said they were favorably disposed to the project, it was noted that Measure M’s requirement was yet in the way. One way or the other, the matter would need to be decided by the city’s voters. The only question remaining was whether the council would use its authority to place the question with regard to the Brewer Site Project on the ballot or would the council stay out of it, forcing D.R. Horton to circulate petitions calling for the question. If ten percent of the city’s registered voters signed the petition, the vote would be held.
Something like $200,000 in taxpayer funds was riding on the decision. If D.R. Horton circulated the petitions and obtained the required number of signatures, then the city would need to bear the cost of the election. If the city council put the measure on the ballot at D.R. Horton’s request, then the company would have to cough up the roughly $200,000 the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters will charge to stage the election. At the suggestion of councilman Gary George, the council voted to use its authority. Mayor Eunice Ulloa, asserting that D.R. Horton’s development plan is too aggressive, said she would not support advancing the project in any way. “The general plan calls for half-acre or one-acre lots,” she said. “We need to protect that.” She called for having D.R. Horton circulate the petition. That motion did not get a second. The council then voted 4-1 to put the matter before the voters. That election will take place on July 11.
Across the city west and a little further south, a pocket of unincorporated county land on both sides of Pipeline Avenue between Riverside Drive and Chino Avenue stands at the city’s doorstep.
Newport Beach-based MLC Holdings, an arm of Meritage Homes, now wants to construct 38 single family homes on 12 acres there. Previously, MLC was hoping to construct 44 homes on the dozen acres. When MLC went before the planning commission with that original proposal, the planning commission balked.
The land, adjacent to Heritage Park, which is in the city, lies within Chino’s sphere of influence and the county has deferred to the city with regard to land use issues on property that will inevitably lie within the Chino City Limits. After being denied on its 44 house proposal – a density of 3.666 units per acre – MLC backed up and regrouped, asking the planning commission to approve 38 houses on the 12 acres – density of 3.1666 per acre. The planning commission again turned the proposal down. The panel’s rational was that the zoning on the surrounding or nearby property within the existing city limits call for two homes per acre. Again, the planning commission’s authority was not binding but advisory.
MLC, led by Lester Tucker, took the matter up with the city council. Tucker, calculating correctly that the prodevelopment faction of the council would prove more accommodating than the planning commission, resubmitted his 38-home proposal.
The matter came before the city council on April 18.
Tucker, and the council, on April 18 were met with opposition similar, although somewhat less numerous, to that which was advanced against the D.R. Horton project. Among those inveighing against the proposal was former Chino Mayor Larry Walker. Walker, who went on to become San Bernardino County supervisor for the Fourth District and later the auditor-controller and tax collector for the county, is also an attorney. He said that under the law and under the provisions of Measure M, Chino residents are entitled to “a dependable definition” of the land use standards to be applied to their properties and the properties surrounding them. He said the city’s zoning codes in the Pipeline District restrict density to no more than two units per acre.
Consistent with her previous stance, Ulloa opposed the project at the 3.1666 unit per acre density.
That opposition did not carry the day, however.
Councilman Earl Elrod said the difference between three homes to an acre and two homes to an acre was minimal. Glenn Duncan said one-third of an acre lots qualified as “good-sized” and “reasonable” in his view. Haughey said the opposition to the project had to be more realistic. He said that no developer in Chino had undertaken to build homes on half acre lots for more than a decade.
In the end, the council used a loophole in Measure M to approve the project.
Chino’s community development director, Nick Liguori, explicated how that loophole worked. “Measure M only applies to property within the incorporated borders of the city when it was passed in 1988,” he said. Liguori went on to explain, “The project was approved by the city council in a series of actions. One, they initiated the annexation application for 40 acres. Two, they approved a general plan amendment from two units per acre to up to 4.5 units per acre. Three, they approved a pre-zoning of the property to 4.5 units per acres. Four, they approved a tract map for a subdivision of a part of the property to be annexed to allow 38 units.”
Liguori said the project has still not obtained final approval. The application to the San Bernardino County Local Formation Commission should take at least four to six months to be processed, he said. Moreover, he said, multiple issues with regard to the tract map must be finalized, design review on the houses themselves has yet to be carried out by the planning commission, the plan check process will need to be completed, and both grading and off-site improvements must proceed before the project on the ground will commence in earnest. He said that anticipating that the project will commence by August was likely overly optimistic.

Leave a Reply