The inevitable development of Tres Hermanos Ranch remains fraught with uncertainty. That is the case even after the City of Industry, which recently reasserted ownership and control of the 2,450-acre property straddling Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, has declared its intention of converting the bucolic expanse into a 450-megawatt solar power generating field.
Chino Hills and Diamond Bar officials, who have for some time complained that the City of Industry has been far too secretive with regard to how it truly intends to utilize the property, continue to perceive an inexactitude to Industry’s representations that borders on the duplicitous. Meanwhile, City of Industry officials, whose predecessors in 1978 spent $12.1 million to acquire the property and subsequently transferred ownership of it to their redevelopment agency, in August agreed to reacquire the land at a cost of $41.65 million. That reacquisition was necessitated after legislation passed by the California Assembly and Senate in 2011 closed out municipal redevelopment agencies and left the property in limbo. Having now expended $53.75 million to gain control of it, Industry officials feel they have earned the right to put the property to use as they see fit. They claim using it to accommodate thousands of rows of solar panel arrays to generate renewable energy which can then be used to power both heavy, medium and light industrial operations in the City of Industry is a responsible use of the property and one now fully within its rights. They insist the property will simultaneously accommodate a 450 megawatt solar farm and creatively-used open space such as hiking trails and recreational amenities.
Industry officials put themselves into position to take back ownership of the property on August 24, when what is referred to as the oversight board – a Los Angeles County entity representing the various property tax revenue receiving agencies in that area which stood to receive a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the City of Industry’s former redevelopment agency assets, agreed to allow the sale to go forward, despite previous indications that there were other potential buyers willing to pay as much as $101 million for the 2,450 acres.
Residents in Chino Hills and Diamond Bar have grown accustomed to Tres Hermanos’ rolling hillsides, canyon creeks and oak woodlands beside verdant pastures for cattle as a picturesque backdrop for their own community. Many of them have assumed that the ranch, with its proliferating bobcats, mountain lions, skunks and opossum, exists as a wildland preserve. In reality the property has been subject to sale and eventual intensified use and development all along. Many of those residents are now disturbed to learn that it will in coming years be blanketed with solar panels. They are equally appalled at one of the alternatives to those thousands of panels that has been mentioned on and off: residential development.
Both Chino Hills and Diamond Bar officials in August initiated procedural efforts with the California Department of Finance to challenge Industry’s move to purchase the property for use as a solar farm, and on October 20 the City of Chino Hills augmented those challenges with legal action filed in Sacramento Superior Court. A fair sprinkling of residents from both cities are distrustful of that course of action, perceiving, if not entirely accurately, that those challenges, either intentionally or inadvertently, will result in what those residents consider to be the more ominous eventuality of the property being converted to residential subdivisions, with thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of residents being packed and stacked onto the land, and the thousands or even tens of thousands of cars those new residents drive adding to the morning and evening rush hour commuting nightmare current residents are already dealing with.
Chino Hills officials maintain the residential development they envisage on the property will at its maximum be less than one-tenth of the intensity postulated by those reflexively rejecting Chino Hills’ alternative plan for the property’s development.
On its website, the City of Chino Hills has officially stated “Industry has resisted any meaningful dialogue regarding development schemes.” On the same website, Chino Hills officials have claimed that the City of Industry and its officials have engaged in questionable activities and contracts relating to the property. The website references the $41.65 million sale, noting, “The latest appraisal for the property was $100 million, which Industry had agreed to pay. A restrictive covenant was added that would not allow the land to be used for any purpose other than open space, public use, and preservation. The covenant is meaningless however, because state law only allows a city to own property outside [its] boundaries for these types of public purposes anyway. Thus, the oversight board’s reduction of the price by $60 million for the covenant served no purpose. What the restrictions are, and the plan for the solar farm, are very low on specifics. Industry officials act as though they are saving the region from more housing and traffic woes, and providing hiking trails and open space for people to enjoy. Yet the amount of energy they want to generate on the solar farm would seem to require solar panels on nearly the entire 2,450 acres. They’ve spent $10 million dollars in the last year studying the project but they have no design, no footprint, no specifics.”
A subset of Chino Hills residents, nonetheless, is skeptical of Chino Hills City Hall’s show of resistance to the City of Industry plan. They fear that if the City of Industry is thwarted in its effort to develop the solar farm, its officials will retaliate by instead developing the property to accommodate some 10,000 to 15,000 homes or apartment units.
On its website, the City of Chino Hills propounds that worries that stopping the solar power juggernaut will result in the City of Industry transitioning to an even more aggressive residential development scheme on the property are misplaced. The website references Measure U, a voter initiative passed by Chino Hills residents in 1999 which prohibits zone changes increasing density designated in the Chino Hills Specific Plan, the Chino Hills General Plan, the city’s zoning map, or any finalized development agreements without approval by a majority vote of the electorate of the city.
“Some worry that developers will build tens of thousands of homes on Tres Hermanos Ranch,” the Chino Hills website states. “In fact, Diamond Bar’s general plan allows 624 units. Chino Hills’ general plan calls for a maximum of 675 housing units. Measure U prohibits the city from increasing residential units in the city without voter approval. The city’s general plan requires any future development of Tres Hermanos to be master planned. Chino Hills has used a master-plan process to cluster development and protect the maximum amount of open space. For zoning purposes, Chino Hills has slated most development on the mostly-flat parcel of approximately 50 acres located on both sides of Grand Avenue to meet state affordable housing requirements. The general plan includes 103 very high density units, 364 mixed use units, and 15 acres of commercial development allocated to the 50-acre parcel. In addition, there are 208 agriculture ranch units which allow one unit per 5 acres. Limited development has always been included in planning documents for Tres Hermanos: the County of San Bernardino’s Chino Hills Specific Plan (1982) identified the Tres Hermanos Ranch as one of the eight Chino Hills’ villages with a development potential of 358 residential units, 16 acres of commercial within a village core that also included a school and community center or library. The city’s first general plan retained the 358 residential units despite the City of Industry’s request to increase the number of units to 2,600, and included the commercial area and village core area of approximately 50 acres.”
Chino Hills officials, in particular mayor Ray Marquez and city manager Konradt Bartlam, have expressed the belief that what the City of Industry is attempting to do is use the general population’s abhorrence of densely packed residential development to stampede everyone into accepting the solar farm as an alternative. In that way, Bartlam suggested, the City of Industry is hoping to be able to saturate the property with solar arrays.
Former Chino Hills City Councilwoman Rossana Mitchell offered her view that neither City of Industry nor Chino Hills officials are being straightforward. Each side, she suggested, is offering only half of the story and somewhere between half and two-thirds of each side’s narrative is untrue or questionable.
“This discussion is not about maintaining open space,” Mitchell said. “If the City of Chino Hills was truly interested in doing what its residents want done, then they’d change the zoning. They could have done that a long time ago. They could have changed it to traditional agricultural use or open space. They’ve had plenty of time.”
Mitchell said, “I am not in support of a solar farm and I don’t think the residents of Chino Hills are either. What the residents want is no housing and no development, and as much open space as possible. So now there is a battle between Chino Hills and the City of Industry. If it comes down to a legal contest and, for the sake of discussion, Chino Hills prevails, what do we get? High density residential, commercial development and maybe a golf course. The residents don’t want that. So, for the sake of discussion, let’s say it goes the other way and after all that expensive litigation, the City of Industry wins. What do we get? A solar farm. How monstrous is that solar farm going to be? The residents lose that way, too. Where are the details? I haven’t seen them.”
Mitchell said there was some validity to what either side was saying. For example she said, Chino Hills City Hall’s claim that the City of Industry had been less than transparent with regard to its intentions was true.
“The solar farm was pretty much under the radar,” she said. “It snuck up on everyone suddenly.”
But that is not to say that the City of Chino Hills has the purest of motives and intents, she said.
“The City of Chino Hills hasn’t stepped up to the plate either,” she said. “The only thing I’ve heard them say is, ‘We want to build according to our zoning.’ That is what the city manager says. I don’t think Chino Hills residents support what is being pushed by the city [of Chino Hills], which is the city manager’s agenda to build out. What that means is more houses, more cars and more traffic and more aggravation for the residents who live here. No one is speaking on our behalf. I don’t think there is a win in this situation. Honestly, the City of Chino Hills should not be zoning that land as high density residential with a commercial component. How is that any better than solar panels? That is not what the city residents want.”
Moreover, Mitchell said, once even a portion of Tres Hermanos Ranch is converted into homes, “We’ll be heading down a slippery slope. Once we start building houses there, where is it going to stop? It can be rezoned piece by piece, a little bit at a time. How can you jump into a swimming pool and just get a little bit wet? It can’t be done.”
Mitchell conceded that preventing the development of Tres Hermanos Ranch is probably impossible. “Real property rights is a huge issue,” she said. And keeping the property from being developed would result in “losing a lot of revenue,” she said. Still, she said, “What really should happen is that land should just be left as open space. That’s probably a pipe dream.”
Mitchell said the residents were being treated to the spectacle of “Chino Hills officials calling the politicians in the City of Industry bad guys and the City of Industry saying Chino Hills’ leaders are bad guys. This isn’t the good guys against the bad guys. They’re all bad guys. The bottom line is the City of Industry is into this to make money, just like Chino Hills is going to put in there what it wants to make money. They’re both trying to profit.”
Mitchell predicted that the City of Chino Hills will spend a considerable amount of money on lawyers trying to stop the City of Industry from succeeding with its plan and “convince everyone that the City of Industry is lying and that there will be no open space left if the plan to put in the solar plant goes through. If the city [Chino Hills] wins, it will turn around and start building homes. When the residents find out what is really going on, it is going to be bad. It is going to get ugly.”
Mayor Marquez has dismissed Mitchell’s characterizations of Chino Hills city officials’ intent as inaccurate, suggesting that the city’s efforts, which include the procedural challenge of the sale of the land to the City of Industry and the filing of legal action with regard to the solar project, as a sincere attempt to ensure that the City of Industry does not overburden the property. He said that his vision was that a portion of the property could be preserved in something approaching its current state, as “a wildlife corridor with trails all the way from Diamond Bar and across Chino Hills and into Tonner Canyon.” He said a trade-off to effectuate that might be obtained by allowing housing within the city’s current density limits per its zoning restrictions on the northern portion of the ranch on one or both sides of Grand Avenue.
Bartlam told the Sentinel that the City of Chino Hills failing to stand by its current land use specifications, which include the zoning to allow for residential development, could prove disastrous. He said that acceding to the City of Industry’s plan to develop the solar farm as a “public use” quite possibly would mean that Chino Hills and Diamond Bar would surrender their land use authority over the property. “We’re pretty much convinced that the City of Industry can do as they please with respect to future land uses,” Bartlam said. “That is what we are most concerned with. It is one area that most people are assuming we control.”
Bartlam said a governmental agency does not necessarily have absolute land used jurisdiction and authority over the land within its borders. He explained, “The issue goes back to a 1962 [California] Attorney General opinion which in part states that cities and counties are mutually exempt from each other’s building and zoning ordinances when they are acting in government or proprietary activity. So, the City of Industry would be responsible for entitling the solar farm. They still have to do appropriate environmental review, which we would monitor closely.” The City of Industry would likely, though not necessarily, have less ability to dictate the terms and density of residential development on the property, Bartlam said. “The question about residential development is an interesting one. I have raised the possibility that Industry could argue it’s a ‘public purpose,’ particularly with the legislature spending so much time on housing recently.” Bartlam’s allusion was to legislation now being contemplated in Sacramento that would take away from local governments land use and zoning authority on “public purpose” residential projects intended for low- and medium-income homebuyers.
Bartlam took issue with Mitchell’s suggestion that he was intent on seeing the property developed and that the City of Chino Hills or its officials stood to in any way profit by such an eventuality.
“My personal preference is to see the property remain as is,” Bartlam said. “That said, the general plan of the city is the official document governing land use. The city council and I cannot formally say we want something different, as that can be seen as preempting the mandated review process and subject the city to an inverse condemnation claim, as Ms. Mitchell well knows.” With regard to standing by the land use and zoning standards that are in place, Bartlam asked, “How does the City of Chino Hills profit? The City of Chino Hills is not concerned about tax revenue coming from the property. Our share of property tax is extremely low. As it is, we receive a pittance of the property taxes paid by Industry on the site and are fine if that continues in perpetuity.”
Bartlam insisted that the City of Chino Hills was forthrightly, through the legal and procedural means available to it, working to mitigate to the degree possible the impacts of the development scheme the City of Industry is proposing. He said this had to be effectuated within the confines of the law and with obeisance to the City of Industry’s rights as the property owner. “It’s interesting that former council member and attorney Mitchell is suggesting we can just change the zoning. She never suggested such a move when she was on the council. As she knows, the city cannot reduce the value of the property without compensation. An inverse condemnation action from the City of Industry would surely follow. Moreover, State law prohibits jurisdictions from ‘downzoning’ residential property without replacing those units elsewhere in the city.”
Bartlam said Mitchell’s claim that initiating residential development on the Tres Hermanos Ranch property within the limitations of the current zoning would lead to a future uprating in the zoning and more aggressive development there was “misleading.” He said, “Measure U still would require a vote if the general plan is amended to increase the number of units.”
Both Chino Hills and Diamond Bar officials remain unapologetic over the review of the $41.65 million sale of Tres Hermanos Ranch to the City of Industry they have requested of the California Department of Finance. That agency, based in Sacramento, had made no findings at press time.
On the Chino Hills website, officials stated with regard to the solar project, “There is no roadmap for a project of this nature: one city (Industry), building a solar farm (a public benefit) in other cities’ jurisdictions (Chino Hills and Diamond Bar). There is very little case law to indicate the level of jurisdiction or control that the cities of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar may exercise in reviewing a project of this nature. It’s time for residents to pay attention. Do Chino Hills residents want a massive solar farm in the City of Chino Hills which continues north into Diamond Bar? Can a massive 444-megawatt solar project, one of the largest in California, be ‘unobtrusive?’ The Desert Sunlight solar project near Joshua Tree is a 550-megawatt project on 3,800 acres in the open desert. Would Industry’s proposed solar farm consume nearly 2,450 acres? Could this project truly protect open space and create recreation space for the public? Is a solar farm preferred over limited residential (208 agricultural ranch 5-acre lots, 467 units) and commercial (15 acres) development on property that always included some level of rights for the property owner to develop? It’s time to decide. As for the City of Chino Hills, we will continue to ensure that Industry and the oversight board are following the law in the actions they take. We will continue to press Industry for specifics on their solar farm project. The City of Chino Hills would prefer to leave the land as open space. However, the only way for the land to remain as is, is for the landowner to agree to leave it as is. The only way the City of Chino Hills could prevent anything from happening on the land is to buy it for the apparent sale price of $41.6 million.”
With regard to the development of Tres Hermanos Ranch, Industry City Manager Paul Philips, while deflecting questions about specifics, told the Sentinel, “The City of Industry is looking forward to exploring options for the land dedicated to open space, recreational space such as hiking trails and exploring public purpose projects that will benefit our region.”
Bartlam said, “In response to Mr. Phillips, I would ask him, ‘If your “plan” is for open space and hiking trails, why be so secretive? Why have you spent over $14 million “exploring?”’ Additionally, I would look to Industry’s history. The City of Industry was prepared to spend $100 million of taxpayer dollars for the property. It is time for them to be transparent as to their ultimate scheme. If anyone believes that they have suddenly found religion and are doing this out of respect or benefit for the region, then they may want to look at swamp land in Florida for sale… Finally I would say that if people are wondering who they should trust, look at the facts. The City of Chino Hills has over 3,000 acres of permanent open space we own and maintain. The City of Industry does not even have a park for their 200 residents to enjoy. If the City of Industry was serious about reducing traffic and congestion, they would not be decimating 650 acres at I-57 and Grand Avenue today in preparation for millions of square feet of industrial buildings. Their comments are hypocritical at best.”
The city is doing its part, Bartlam said, indeed all that it can, to either attenuate the development of Tres Hermanos Ranch or head it off completely. The most surefire way of achieving complete preservation of the ranch as it is or as dedicated open space is to acquire it and designate it as a preserve, he said. Chino Hills and Diamond Bar have discussed the possibility of combining their financial wherewithal and joining with others equally committed to preventing the development of the ranch to do just that. “If Ms. Mitchell was serious about preserving the property as open space, then she should be arguing for the purchase. She should be willing to open her check book and chip in to buy it,” Bartlam said.
Mitchell responded, “If the city council and the city manager want the residents of Chino Hills to have trust in them, they need to change the zoning on that property. They can give any excuse or explanation they want, but the city council has the authority to modify that., What it comes down to with Tres Hermanos is right now we need action, not words.”