Redlands Balks Before Developing One Of Its Last Agricultural Properties

One of the last remaining patches of agriculturally zoned land in Redlands escaped being slated for conversion into a housing tract this week, though that evasion of what appears to be the inevitable is very likely only temporary.
The city’s planning staff had laid the groundwork for the Redlands Planning Commission on Tuesday night to make a recommendation to the city council that it eliminate the agricultural zoning on 20 acres north of Lugonia Avenue and South of Pennsylvania Avenue an eighth of a mile east of Judson Street, and deem it suitable for residential development.
Such recommendations by the planning commission are routinely complied with by the city council, which has the ultimate administrative authority in the city. Though there are Redlands residents who decry the ongoing eradication of the remaining vestiges of Redlands’ once-thriving agricultural operations, as section after section, quarter section after quarter section and acre after acre give way to both commercial and residential development, the momentum toward urbanization in Redlands, as virtually everywhere else in San Bernardino County, the Inland Empire, Southern California and California in general, appears unstoppable. What temporarily saved roughly 30 acres in Redlands from the earthmovers this week was not any sentiment on the part of the planning commission members to preserve what was once a citrus grove, but rather a concern that an archaeological study relating to the property in question and a cataloging of what might be buried beneath it was not thorough enough.
The terms of and rationale for the proposed zone change, which is intended to facilitate the development of 105 single-family homes on just under 39 acres, were delineated in a report by Emily Elliott, a senior planner with the city. The 38-plus acres, according to Elliott, are comprised of four parcels, two of which are zoned agricultural and two of which bear “residential estate” zoning.
Elliott called upon the planning commission to accommodate the project applicant, Newland Homes, LLC, so that, Elliot said, “two contiguous parcels totaling approximately 19 acres (identified as Assessor’s Parcel Numbers 0168-161-06-0000 and 0168-161-07-0000) will change from agricultural (A-1) zoning to planned residential development/residential estate (PRD/R-E) district zoning; two adjacent parcels (APNs 0168-161-04-0000 and 0168-161-05-0000) totaling approximately 19.5 acres will change from residential estate (R-E) zoning to planned residential development/residential estate (PRD/R-E) district zoning. The four parcels making up the project site are owned by multiple individuals not affiliated with the developer, and the applicant has each property in escrow or under contract. One parcel (APN 0168-161-07-0000) is a citrus grove owned and operated by the City of Redlands. The applicant has entered into an option agreement and purchase and sale agreement with the city to obtain this parcel with the intent of incorporating the citrus grove into the planned residential development where the grove would continue to be preserved. Upon recordation of the tract map, the agreement states that ownership of the parcel will be transferred back to the City of Redlands. The agreement further stipulates the ongoing maintenance of the citrus grove parcel will be funded by the project via annexation into the community facilities district.”
Assessor’s Parcel Number 0168-161-06-0000 is not currently being used for agricultural purposes but has a remnant dwelling unit and accessory structures related to the prior agricultural use. Both that parcel and the active grove property are zoned for agricultural use.
There is some degree of unresolved contradiction in the planning commission’s recommendation. The planning commission recommended that the city council carry out an “agricultural preserve removal” for Assessor’s Parcel District 0168-161-06-0000, the dormant agricultural land. And the panel also called upon the city council to carry out a “Williamson Act removal for an approximately 10-acre parcel, Assessor’s Parcel Number 0168-161-05-0000,” which currently carries the residential estate zoning.” Despite the zoning designation, that property is currently restricted from development by its status of inclusion under the Williamson Act, a 1965 law that was intended to preserve California farmland and to serve as a hedge against urban sprawl. The law granted substantial tax breaks to property owners agreeing to restrict their land to agricultural uses for at least 10 years. Assessor’s Parcel Number 0168-161-05-0000 is also known as the Patel property
According to Elliott, “In order to allow for development of the project, the agricultural status of the land must be changed to allow for the proposed residential use. The first step toward designating the site for residential use is the cancellation of the existing Williamson Act contract on the Patel property (APN 0168-161-05).” Significantly, that property lies outside the property currently zoned for agricultural use.
Thus, under the planning commission’s recommendation, the city will allow roughly two thirds of approximately 29 acres currently zoned or otherwise preserved for agricultural use to lose its status as agricultural property and be developed. Simultaneously, Elliott asserts that the grove will be preserved into “perpetuity.” In a codicil to the staff report, Elliott stated, “Staff received an offer from Newland Homes, LLC to purchase a 9.33 acre city-owned citrus grove (APN 0168 161-07) in June 2017. Concurrently, the applicant submitted a development application to subdivide approximately 39.84 acres into 103 residential lots for future single family development. This application was later revised to 105 lots as a result of finalizing transaction negotiations. The applicant’s intent is to include the citrus grove property in the tentative tract map application, thereby incorporating the grove into the project. With recordation of the map, the grove would be dedicated back to the city and the city would continue to farm the grove in perpetuity. On November 15, 2017, the city council authorized quality of life [division] staff to prepare an option agreement and purchase and sale agreement. The option agreement provides Newland Homes with exclusive rights to purchase the property from the city.”
At the December 5, 2017 Redlands City Council meeting, according to Elliott, the city approved the option agreement and the purchase and sale agreement “The option agreement grants Newland the exclusive right to purchase the property by June 1, 2018 [at a] purchase price of $1.9 million, [a] due diligence period of 60 days [with a requirement that] the property must close prior to December 31, 2018, a farming easement granted to the city to allow continued farming operations following the purchase of the property; and [an understanding that] the property would be dedicated back to the city after the final map is approved and or if/when the tentative map were to expire,” Elliott wrote in the codicil to the report. “In addition to the city council entering into the option agreement, the council also moved to authorize staff to process the development application. This is necessary to allow processing of the development application prior to Newland Homes taking ownership of the city’s property.”
Rather than requiring Newland to carry out a full-fledged environmental impact report detailing what the various effects of the project will be and the ecological implication of going forward with the development proposal, Elliott called for the city through the planning commission and the city council to use what is called a “negative declaration” to provide environmental certification for the project. Without cataloging those impacts, the negative declaration preempts doing a survey of the state of the property and laying out with considerable precision what measures the developer must take to redress those impacts.
“An initial study/mitigated negative declaration has been recommended for the project, as there are no environmental factors that cannot be mitigated to a level of less than significant,” according to Elliott. “Mitigation measures have been included in conditions of approval for the project.”
While paperwork prepared for the planning commission contains a recommendation that the approval of the Newland development proposal contain a commitment “in perpetuity” that the orange grove be preserved intact, the panel’s erasure of the Williamson Act protection and the adjacent property’s agricultural use preserve status has given rise to a belief that a future city council will abrogate that “in perpetuity” commitment and allow the property to be developed at some indefinite point.
The overall density of the proposed development would be 2.64 units per acre, including the grove property. The project would preserve 9.35 acres of the land for the continuing growing of citrus trees and a total of 11.2 acres of open space.
One Redlands resident, Amanda Frye, decried the city’s piecemeal eradication of its once thriving agricultural districts.
“There is no replacement for valuable agriculture soil which took millions of years to make,” said Frye. “Just because a field is fallow, it does not lose agricultural value. A negative declaration on the Newland Homes project is fraudulent and misrepresentation by staff who obviously does not understand the nature or value of agriculture land. Houses can be built on already-built areas. This project is inappropriate.”
Frye said there are economic reasons to keep land traditionally used for raising food intact.
“Agriculture is a $40 billion to $70 billion annual business,” she said. “The land is like a bank, which with appropriate management can be very prosperous with high interest yields. Changing the zoning is against trends. If you read the Wall Street Journal or other national news, you can see top dollar is being paid for residents to live in agricultural-based communities and agricultural share areas emphasizing locally grown food. The trend toward local grown food is everywhere.”
Maintaining a modicum of agricultural property in an increasingly urban environment contributes to the overall quality of life by keeping neighborhoods and municipal district more livable, Frye said.
“Redlands is becoming an extremely unpleasant place to live, guided by bad management and inappropriate planning,” she said. “Destroying more agriculture land and replacing it with built structures is against the cutting edge trends which involve reviving local agriculture.”
Undoing the Williamson protection for the area is shortsighted, Frye said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released yet another soils map, which obviously planning staff does not use,” she said. “Williamson Conservation easements must be approved by the state. Removing this land from agriculture status is bad planning according to the California Code.”
Commissioner Steve Frasher was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioner Conrad Guzkowski did not participate in the discussion with regard to the Newland proposal, saying he was purchasing a parcel across Pennsylvania Avenue near the proposed development site.
While the planning commission ultimately held off on validating the mitigated negative declaration prepared for the project, the panel’s rationale for not endorsing the project was not made in accordance with Frye’s sentiment against forsaking agricultural uses.
Commissioner Donn Grenda took issue with statements in the staff report relating to the Newland proposal that “There is a low potential for prehistoric sites to be found within the boundaries of the property” and “The archaeological field survey did not locate any cultural resources within the project area.” Grenda countered, “This is wrong and clearly refuted by the photographs and text on the following pages.” He then quoted from the report: “‘Four abandoned cobblestone and lined irrigation ditches were also noted during the survey,’” he quoted. “They have pictures of these resources. ‘They were generally located along the eastern boundary of all four parcels. Each ditch terminated in the southeast corner of their respective parcels at a cement and cobblestone collection box/weir.’ They go on to say ‘Previous studies have found that ditches and weirs do not qualify as historic resources under the California Environmental Quality Act and City of Redlands Register of Historic and Scenic Resources criteria.’ Again they cite the code. Not accurate. That is simply not true. I question whether they surveyed this property. They got photos. Somebody must have gone out there, but they pretty much missed everything. These resources need to be mapped. They need to be evaluated. Neither has occurred in this study. My assessment is that the cultural resources evaluation is inadequate and needs to be completely redone. This inadequate study led to a misleading and in fact wrong assessment of no impact on cultural resources in the initial study conducted by the city.”
The city’s environmental review committee was recently disbanded by an act of the city council. As a consequence, the city hired a third party environmental consultant to compare the initial study for negative declaration with technical studies provided by Newland Homes. City staff reviewed the initial study, made edits and corrections, and sent it back to the consultant. Redrafted, It was released for public review. After input from the public was accepted, staff, led by Elliott, passed the mitigated negative declaration along to the planning commission.
Grenda said it appeared to him that those who drew up the archaeological and cultural resources survey done for the project property last year “relied on a 2005 report they never read. Since 2005 there has been a national [historical] registration application and approval of a ditch very close to the project area.”
Though commissioner Robert Botts, the most stridently pro-development member of the planning commission, did not seem convinced that Grenda’s expressions sufficed to offset Elliott’s call for the commission to certify the negative declaration of any unmitigateable impacts from the project, the two other members of the commission present, Julie Rynerson-Rock and commission chairwoman Carol Dyer, showed absolute deference to Grenda. An archaeologist practicing cultural resources management for 30 years, Grenda has a PhD. in anthropology and archaeology and was for eight years a member of the State of California’s Historical Resources Commission. “It is shocking to me that there were that many ditches on this property that were not evaluated,” Grenda said. The ditches he referenced were ones which were likely trenched by Native Americans during the 19th Century, he said. “The cultural resources report was done very hastily and just missed virtually everything on the property,” Grenda said.
Rock said, “Information we have received invalidates the California Environmental Quality Act review. They have to start over. We cannot vote on it… One of our first findings is that this particular environmental documentation is valid and we at this point have pretty technical information that says it is not.”
“Dyer said, “There are certainly questions on the validity of this report. There’s been shadow of doubt cast on the cultural resources report and I feel a continuance would be in the best interest to such time the questions Mr. Grenda raises are adequately answered. The staff report and the applicant can provide that. Depending how complex those answers are, that may retrigger the California Environmental Quality Act notification process and push the project out further.”
The applicant, through Elliott, sought to have the commission approve that night the portion of the staff recommendation pertaining to initiating the process to undo the Williamson Act protection for the approximately ten acres the Act still applies to. Dyer, however, said “I don’t feel comfortable pulling the Williamson Act portion of it unless we’re able to approve the tentative tract map. We can’t approve the tract map if the cultural resources are part of the environmental review.”
The commission continued further consideration of the matter until May 8.
Mark Gutglueck

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