Chino Residents Seeking To Counter City Bypassing Of Measure M Growth Check

A significant cross section of Chino residents, including past members of the city’s political leadership, are becoming increasingly alarmed that a majority of the current city council is on the verge of significantly undercutting a major bulwark against unbridled development in the county’s eighth largest city.
In 1988, Chino voters passed Measure M, a growth control initiative which attenuates the authority of the city council and by which land in Chino cannot be rezoned to allow more homes than is specified in the city’s general plan or zoning maps without a vote of the city’s residents. Measure M requires that the proponent of such a project looking to override the general plan or zoning code pay for the referendum on the land use standard change unless the proponent is able to gather the signatures of ten percent of the city’s registered voters first, thereby forcing the city to defray the cost of the election.
Chino is a traditionally agricultural community. It proved to be among the last of San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated municipalities and its more than 50 unincorporated ones to maintain any major vestiges of its agrarian roots. But the city has been subjected to accelerating urbanization since the late 1960s and with the break-up of the Chino Agricultural Preserve that was initiated in the 1980s and has been ongoing ever since, Chino is moving toward becoming indistinguishable in many respects from other local municipalities. Nevertheless, there are still substantial patches of land within the city limits and at its periphery and within its sphere of influence upon which development has yet to intrude. Developmental interests have pushed to intensify the level of development permitted to occur on that land.
It is widely assumed that Measure M has discouraged some would-be developers and landowners from seeking to override the city’s zoning and land use restrictions. But on a number of occasions landowners and developers have been able to work around or past Measure M’s limitations. Since 1988, on fifteen occasions developers have rolled the dice in seeking to up the density on property they were looking to develop. For the most part, Measure M has failed to prevent developers from getting their way. That is, the first 14 times a vote was held on development proposals calling for greater density or use intensity than was permissible under the general plan or zoning code a majority of Chino voters sided with the developers, allowing the projects to proceed. This was largely because in those cases, the developers spent considerable money on a promotional campaign in the weeks just before the vote, sending out electioneering material propounding the benefits of that particular development proposal to high propensity voters, that is, those voters who have demonstrated a tendency to participate in most elections, Those campaigns succeeded every time in driving more people to the polls to support the proposed projects than the low growth-advocates could muster to oppose them.
Thus, developmental interests were previously able to prevail in their designs upon the  city by appealing to residents who formerly had no strong feelings one way or the other about population growth within the city and convincing them that they should back the effort by builders to proceed with their more aggressive projects. There are unmistakable signs, however, that more and more Chino residents are becoming reluctant to go along with allowing their community to be crowded  with high density housing, and they are growing resistant to efforts to persuade them that the “economic development” this growth represents is necessarily a benefit.
In 2013 D.R. Horton, which represents itself as America’s largest homebuilder, in conjunction with several property owners including Chino residents Matt Evans and his father-in-law Ron Brewer, sought permission to erect 232 dwelling units on 33.5 acres south of Francis Avenue between Vernon and Benson avenues in north Chino, not too far from the Ontario city limits. That land is described as rural, and upon it there were already eight existing homes. The proponents were informed that the city’s general plan and zoning code listed that property as bearing RD1 zoning, which permits no more than one dwelling unit per acre. D.R. Horton, Evans and Brewer then undertook an effort to get enough signatures on a petition to qualify a vote on the matter under the Measure M requirement. Petition circulators, however, proved unable to achieve the threshold of signatures needed to get the city to fund placing a question on the matter before the city’s voters in time for the November 2014 election. 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 a total of 172 units, consisting of 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. With the existing homes there, the construction of the 164 new homes was still some 146.5 more homes on the property than was permissible under the general plan.
The city council agreed to waive the requirement that D.R. Horton, Evans and Brewer collect the required signatures to put the matter before the city’s residents, instead using its authority as the city’s legislative body to do so. That, however, entailed D.R. Horton having to defray the roughly $200,000 cost of the special election for what was designated by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters as Measure H. When the balloting was held four months ago, on July 11, 2017, the development proposal was overwhelmingly turned down. With 7,750 Chino residents casting votes, 1,245 or 16.06 percent supported the measure and 6,505 or 83.94 percent voted no.
As the first time under the Measure M process that a development proposal had been turned down, Measure H represented a profound change in the complexion and attitude in Chino vis-à-vis development. At present, two of the Chino City Council’s members are not elected, but rather appointed. In January, Gary George was appointed to fill for the next two years the council position vacated when Eunice Ulloa, an incumbent councilwoman elected to the council post 2014, was elected mayor in November 2016. In late July, the council appointed Dr. Paul Rodriguez to replace Glenn Duncan on the council following Duncan’s resignation in May brought about by his having been diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Duncan, along with council members Tom Haughey and Earl Elrod, was solidly pro-development in his orientation. George, having been supported by those three in his selection to the council in January, generally fell in line with their support of the development proposal by D.R. Horton. At the time of the vote on Measure H in July, Duncan had left the council and there were only four members in place. With the ascendancy of Rodriguez and the council now at full strength, it appears that the council is safely pro-development in orientation. This is borne out by the fashion in which the council in April accommodated a development proposal in a pocket of unincorporated county land on both sides of Pipeline Avenue between Riverside Drive and Chino Avenue. Newport Beach-based MLC Holdings, an arm of Meritage Homes, first sought clearance to construct 44 homes on an even dozen acres there, adjacent to Heritage Park, which is in the city. The land 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. When MLC went before the planning commission with that original 44-unit proposal, the planning commission balked. MLC then backed up and regrouped, reducing the number of proposed units from 44 to 38 – a density downscaling from 3.666 units per acre to 3.1666 per acre.
The planning commission again turned the proposal down, its rational being that the zoning on the surrounding or nearby property within the existing city limits calls for two homes per acre. The planning commission’s authority was not binding but advisory, however, and MLC, led by Lester Tucker, took the matter up with the city council. Tucker, calculating correctly that the pro-development faction of the council would prove more accommodating than the planning commission, resubmitted his 38-home proposal.
When the matter came before the city council on April 18, Tucker and the council were met with opposition similar, although somewhat less numerous and intense, to that which was then manifesting 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.
Mayor Eunice Ulloa opposed the project at the 3.1666 unit per acre density. That opposition did not carry the day. Councilman Earl Elrod said the difference between three homes to an acre and two homes to an acre was minimal. Councilman Glenn Duncan, in one of his last acts as a councilman, 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. Measure M applies only to property that falls within what was the incorporated borders of the city when the measure was passed in 1988, the council held. The council approved the project in a series of actions. It initiated the annexation application for 40 acres and approved a general plan amendment from two units per acre to up to 4.5 units per acre. The council also approved a pre-zoning of the property to 4.5 units per acres and approved a tract map for a subdivision of a part of the property to be annexed to allow 38 units.
The council’s action was seen as below-the-belt maneuvering by many Chino residents.
A confederation of Chino residents calling themselves Protect Chino organized during the run up to the Measure H election. They are still active and are augmented by the remnants of another grass roots effort, headed by Ed Layaye, which called itself the No on H Committee. Galvanized by the way the council conducted itself in allowing the MLC project to move ahead, they are now focusing on the city’s sphere of influence, where they believe the current city council has begun to chip away at Measure H.
The logical expectation is that the city will annex the areas within its sphere of influence eventually. The pro-development council appears willing to allow that land to be developed prior to or just as it is to be annexed, such that more houses per acre can be built there than would be eligible to occur on property already within the city.
It was in the 1970s that the county and the city arrived at a determination of what land fell within Chino’s sphere of influence. The current general plan was largely set by a vote taken by the city council in 1981. It was updated in 2010, at which point “advisory” recommendations relating to land use standards on property within the city’s sphere of influence were specified. Ultimately, however, the county has land use authority within the sphere of influence, though it pretty much defers to the wishes of the city with regard to the development standards to be applied there. With the pro-development council now in place, developers who want to build on the property within the sphere of influence stand a good chance of getting projects approved at densities slightly above, moderately above and perhaps even well above the densities laid out for property already inside the city limits. Usually concomitant with that development comes annexation to the city. Members of the Protect Chino and the No on H Committee have decried the city’s piecemeal annexation of the sphere of influence.
At present there are annexation proposals for land adjoining Chino Avenue between Serenity Trail and the 71 freeway; property at the northwest corner of Francis and Telephone Avenues; and property at the corner of Francis and Yorba Avenues. All of these carry with them density upratings or increases in the intensity of the use of the property which many nearby residents oppose.
A council majority that does not include Ulloa is working with the city attorney’s office to come up with a finding that Measure M’s provision that density increases are to be subjected to a vote of the residents need be applied only within the Chino City Limits as they existed in 1988 when Measure M passed. Walker, who is an attorney, scoffed at that suggestion.
The pro-development faction of the council is also hailing proposed but yet-to-be-passed state legislation which is being drafted to promote the creation of affordable housing throughout the state. Some of that legislation would suspend local land use authority and cities’ abilities to restrict density if projects proposed under the auspices of the legislation can be demonstrated as meeting the demand for lower-priced housing.
Something else that the solidly pro-development faction of Haughey, Elrod and George see as assisting them is a program called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, known by its acronym RHNA, which is carried out under the auspices of the California Housing and Community Development Department. RHNA mandates that cities provide a percentage of low income housing as part of their housing stock. The numbers of units needed to meet that mandate are specified every eight years. The RHNA mandate could be used by the city council to justify evading the Measure M restrictions.
Until former Mayor Dennis Yates elected to not seek election last year and the elevation of Ulloa to mayor created a council vacancy, thereafter followed by Duncan’s unanticipated resignation, there had been tremendous political stability in Chino over the previous decade-and-a-half. With the growing differences between a significant portion of the city’s residents and the council over growth issues and the discomfiture of low-growth and controlled-growth advocates in Chino over the council’s facilitating of projects which defy the density standards laid out for the city in its general plan and zoning codes, the prospect that a concerted effort will come in 2018 and 2020 to oust councilmembers seen as leaning too heavily in favor of the building industry is increasing.
Mark Gutglueck

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