By Phill Courtney
This story begins in the early part of 2012. It was my first day substitute teaching at Citrus Valley High School in Redlands. Even before first period had begun, I had to struggle past the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the final half-mile approach to the school.
A friend had warned me about what she’d called the school’s terrible traffic “nightmare,” but it wasn’t until I’d been through this dramatic demonstration of what she was talking about and had experienced first-hand the teeth-grinding gridlock myself, that I understood just how right she had been.
That morning I’d traveled north on Orange Street, turned west onto Pioneer Avenue, and then began crawling along in a long line of cars until I finally reached the school at the corner of Pioneer and Texas. A distance I estimated would take under unclogged conditions less than a minute to drive had taken me fourteen minutes instead. I’m sure of this because I’d heard my friend’s warning and decided to time it.
When I subbed at Citrus Valley again, I filled in for a teacher later in the day. The “rush hour” was over and again I timed it. I’d been right. The distance from Pioneer to Texas took me less than a minute. It was clear that the people who had planned Citrus Valley had failed to make sure that the school’s surrounding traffic infrastructure—such as double-lanes in all directions and signaled intersections—were all put in place first in order to handle the kind of traffic that a large high school there would bring.
In a letter I fired off to the Redlands Daily Facts published on March 8, 2012, I pointed out that the already horrific traffic problems at Citrus would only get far worse if the proposed placement of a Super Wal-Mart near the school went through, and I decried the lack of foresight.
It seems my letter touched a nerve with at least one reader. A woman contacted the editor of the Daily Facts and requested my contact information because she needed to talk to me as soon as possible. When I called her back she agreed to a visit and an interview as long as her name was not included. I agreed to her request.
The woman began by telling me how distraught she was about the way the school traffic along Pioneer had turned her life upside down. She lived in a gated, self-contained community at the corner of Pioneer and Orange and she told me that during the two daily rush hours the residents were basically trapped inside their homes.
Although there are other emergency gates at the complex, only one entrance and exit is kept open all the time and she wasn’t sure what would happen if an ambulance needed to get in. “There’s a lot of retired people here,” she said, with obvious distress in her voice, “and I’d hate to think what would happen if they needed to get someone to the hospital.”
As we wound down our talk, I promised her that I’d attempt to find out how this situation came about; who was responsible; and whether or not there might be some way to solve it.
And so began what became five long years of trying to do just that.
I talked to Carolyn Laymon, who’d been on the Redlands’ Planning Commission, and while she told me that the commission had questions and even “objected” to the placing of Citrus Valley High School, the decision had been out of the commissioners’ hands. She suggested that I talk to the school board.
A few days later, I caught councilmember Pat Galbreath during the social hour at her church. Although Pat had always been extremely pleasant and welcoming when I talked to her, she couldn’t answer my question about who’d been responsible for placing Citrus Valley except to say that the decision had not been the responsibility of the council, nor the city of Redlands. She recommended that I talk to Oscar Orsay, whom I failed to reach.
Three days later I contacted city councilman Jon Harrison, who basically echoed Galbreath’s take on the location of the school. Don Young, the engineering manager with the city, added the interesting information that one of the complicating factors concerning the widening of Pioneer were some historic trees along the side of the street, which, because they are protected by the city tree commission, could not be removed. I was also told by another city official that I should read the environmental impact report on the school, which ran to some 100 pages.
I then began a series of frustrating calls to the Redlands School District office, which often ended in leaving a message to one or more employees who did not get back to me. Finally I was able to land an appointment with Brad Mason, the district’s information officer, who ushered me into his office, sat down a bit stiffly and basically told me that he was unable to give me the names of any people who authorized the placing of Citrus Valley.
“There’s just too many people involved,” he finally said, “to give you any specific names.”
From his body language, I could tell he didn’t much appreciate the question.
I also had the same feeling when I was finally able to have a few moments with Lori Rhodes, the superintendent of Redlands schools. Those moments, though, came in June 2012, after several unsuccessful weeks of trying to set up an appointment with her through her secretary, who often seemed to be out, or said she’d have to get back to me. Finally, I went in one day in yet another attempt to make an appointment, and while there, Ms. Rhodes walked by. I did not have my tape recorder.
When I identified myself, she stiffened up and asked what she could do for me. She didn’t invite me back to her office, so we stood there next to the secretary’s desk as I again got a run-around on the placing of Citrus Valley. What I remember most about the conversation was an exchange we had about the lack of sidewalks leading to the school.
“You know,” I said, “students are walking in the street along Texas Avenue so they can stay out of the dirt.” This is particularly true on days when it rains and the dirt turns to mud.
“Well,” she said, assuming a concerned expression, “they shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Of course,” I said. “But the point is, they are, because no sidewalks were built.”
From there the conversation dwindled off into vague statements thanking me for coming in and sharing my concerns.
I had a similar experience with Bernie Cavanaugh, the principal of Citrus Valley. In May I’d tried emailing him with my questions, but there was no response. Finally I caught him in the parking lot one day while I was subbing, asked him about the traffic situation, and he casually dismissed me with the assurance that the faculty and students had learned to adjust.
In June 2012, I also talked to then-city councilman and now congressman Pete Aguilar about the location of Citrus Valley, and he told me that the state architects were ultimately responsible for where the school was located.
On June 25, I emailed the Redlands school board members with my questions, and when I did not get an answer, attended their July 2012 meeting. After the meeting broke up, I approached long-time board member, Ron McPeck. He was immediately uptight as we stood there while he told me that he knew who I was, and basically explained that they’d had no choice—the school had to be placed where it is. No other explanations were offered.
That summer I also spoke during a hearing held at Citrus Valley in which citizens could express their feelings about the proposed Super Walmart along San Bernardino Avenue near the school. I passionately expressed my concerns about the traffic near Citrus Valley, which would only be increased by the Super Walmart, which the city council would later approve in October of 2012. Apparently my comments that day had some effect, because Don Young called me on July 20, 2012 to explain the city’s position on Citrus Valley.
Young also suggested that I read the traffic section of the environmental impact report on the school, and then went on to reiterate that the historic trees prevented a widening of Pioneer, and that ultimately the city had no “oversight” on the traffic; funds were limited and it was a matter of priorities; and that finally the school district decided that the streets were “good enough.” The city couldn’t require them to do more, he said.
From there my progress on this story bogged down for a while. I continued to substitute at Citrus Valley, and during the 2012-13 academic year the school tried placing its on-campus security officers in the middle of the intersection at Pioneer and Texas in the mornings, like traffic cops. It did seem to help for a while, until that solution was dropped when several of them were grazed by cars.
When I approached a couple of the officers one day, they told me off-the-record that it was a job they all dreaded to do, and after the grazings, got together and told their superiors that they weren’t paid enough to do it. After that, the officers began gathering groups of students at the corners, and then escorting them across the intersection.
On March 1, 2013, Dani Regnier, a student at Citrus Valley, published an opinion piece in the school newspaper, and noted two other factors that had impacted the traffic there: the dropping of busing because of budget cuts, and the closure of Alabama Street for improvements.
Regnier made several sensible statements: “I think that when they made this school they should have thought about the traffic, and made more lanes or parking areas to drop off students. This school definitely was not built nor prepared to handle this kind of traffic.” I hope Regnier might consider running for the school board some day.
In mid-2013, it finally occurred to me that I might be able to get the straight story about the locating of Citrus Valley from former mayor and city councilman Bill Cunningham, whom I know and had talked to before. After emailing him with the story of my quest, Cunningham quickly wrote back.
He informed me that “the ultimate decider” on the placement of Citrus Valley was the state department of schoolhouse planning and the local board. “City zoning has no voice in the process,” he wrote. In many ways, he said, “Citrus Valley can be considered a mistake,” which has “created monstrous traffic problems….” He added that Redlands East Valley was also ill-conceived, with many students commuting from Highland over Greenspot and Garnet, “two woefully deficient streets that have seen accidents and deaths of students.”
Cunningham predicted that the coming Super Walmart would only add to Citrus Valley’s traffic woes, and concluded that he “and many others strongly opposed the placement of both schools, but had little say in the matter.”
In 2013, the concerns I’d expressed to Lori Rhodes about the lack of sidewalks on Texas and the dangers from students who walk in the street came close to manifesting for me in a way I dreaded on a morning in December while my wife was driving me to school and almost hit a boy walking on the street to avoid the muddy field. Luckily she was able to swerve around him in time.
Ironically, during that same month, there was a glimmer of hope. An article in the Daily Facts revealed that a grant would pay for the placing of a signal at Orange Street and Pioneer Avenue. “We promise to get it done by the end of the year, next year,” Fred Mousavipou, then director of the municipal utilities and engineering department was quoted as saying.
In the meantime, though, the residents along Pioneer had to deal every day with the problems brought on by decisions made by people who don’t have to live there themselves. It occurred to me that it might be insightful if I interviewed some of those residents. So, one day I took a walk along the street with my recorder in hand.
Ann Marie Delao has seen the changes. Now, 34, Delao has lived at 309 W. Pioneer for 30 years and used to play outside when there were orange groves across the street. But now, she says, “With the high school and the traffic coming through here, I don’t even let my kids out in the front yard. There’s too much traffic going too fast and not stopping.”
As for getting in and out of her driveway during the rush hours, Delao admits she’s not aggressive enough to deal with it so she leaves it up to her husband. “My husband has to take one of our kids to school in the mornings and he has to force his way out of the driveway.” A new stop sign was placed nearby a while ago, she says, “but they just blow right through it.”
Eric Romo’s family has lived at 115 W. Pioneer for over 20 years and he says he’s seen no improvement in the traffic conditions. He’s also noticed a marked deterioration in the street’s condition because of the constant use. “I don’t know if it’s because so many cars have been passing by, but when you get to the stop sign, from there’s it’s all bumpy.”
The young couple who’ve lived at 310 W. Pioneer since 2004 in one of few historic homes left on the far north side say they’re committed to keeping the house and its grounds as close as possible to its original conditions. Carolyn and Todd Lawrence have noticed, though, that one of those conditions is certainly not the traffic. Like Delao, they, too, have seen how the stop near their home is ignored and the drivers who blast through it.
In fact, Carolyn says, “They get angry at us when we stop. We’re holding them up because we stopped!” Then, when the backup is bumper to bumper, Carolyn finds it easier to get into her driveway than out. She thinks it’s because “they realize that no one can go behind me until someone let’s me through.”
The Lawrences have also noticed the lack of sidewalks along Pioneer and adjacent streets, and wonder how that lack could comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Carolyn urged me to take a photo of one area where the sidewalk simply ends at a rutted hole between the sidewalk and the street. Carolyn notes that there’s room for sidewalks, and says “I just can’t see why a city like Redlands couldn’t put in sidewalks to get kids to school.”
“I’ll run in the morning,” Todd explains, and if he wants to avoid the dirt, there are just a few inches of asphalt available to go along.
Finally, in October of 2015, after so many delays, ducks and outright duplicity from so many people who call themselves “public servants,” I got my hands on the proverbial “smoking gun” that explained why the traffic situation at Citrus Valley High School is what it is: the 2004 environmental impact report, forecasting the effects that placing the school where it is would have on the surrounding community.
I obtained this report by filing a California Public Records Act request with the district, which it was required by law to show me. That day I was ushered into a back room and told that I must read the report there, although I would be permitted to photocopy all or parts of it if I so desired.
Titled the “mitigated negative declaration”—an excellent example of indecipherable “officialese,” the report was prepared by The Planning Center and the pertinent part of the report I was looking for I found in the section on transportation.
Although the report found that the school would have a “less than significant impact” on traffic, that assertion was strangely contradicted by this concession: that the school would lead to an increase in traffic volumes. But it immediately countered that with a rosy prediction that the school would eventually lead to “an over-all reduction in traffic” as students commute to a school nearer to them. Not only that, it would improve traffic at other schools when students were assigned to Citrus Valley.
Beyond that, the box that questioned whether the school would cause “inadequate emergency access,” was checked “no impact,” an assertion that the woman in the gated community at Orange and Pioneer might take exception to.
Nevertheless, despite all the impacts that came with the building and opening of the school, effects that could have been predicted by almost any high school student who might lack a Ph.D. in urban planning but does possess just a little common sense and would have been able to tell anyone who asked that placing a huge high school in the middle of old orange grove roads would lead to problems, Teri Shira, the facility and community services coordinator for the Redlands School District gave the green light.
“I find,” she wrote “that although the proposed project could have a significant effect on the environment, there will not be a significant effect in this case because revisions in the project have been made by or agreed to by the project proponent.”
In other words: if we build it, the promises of mitigation will eventually come to pass. We now know that those promises were based on smoke and mirrors and promises that proved to be empty.
In the final analysis, what happened at Citrus Valley High School is just one example of a problem prevalent throughout Southern California, the nation and much of the world: that projects will be built based on promises that the problems they might cause will be solved sometime in the future. This is why we now find our freeways hopelessly clogged; our water supplies dwindling; and our nuclear plants brimming with poisonous waste with no place to put it, while our quality of life continues to steadily decline.
Not one of the promised infrastructure improvements around Citrus Valley High has been put into place. The traffic signals at Pioneer Avenue and Orange Street that were promised by the end of 2014 are not there; the rural, one-lane streets have neither been widened nor double-laned; the areas in need of sidewalks still have no sidewalks; and students are still walking in the streets.
Once again the supposed wisdom of planners, too often bought off by big-spending investors and the politicians they’ve purchased, have not met the needs of the people who actually have to live with the results of those plans—people like the woman who responded to my original letter in 2012; the residents on Pioneer; and the students of Citrus Valley High School who suffer each day from the effects of poor planning.
It seems that beyond all those lessons they will learn in their classrooms comes another about how the world actually works, or—in the case of their school—doesn’t. Perhaps it’s a lesson they’ll take with them as they head off into a future they’ll create. One can only hope that they’ll do a better job than the ones who built their school.
By Phill Courtney