Orange County, Lewis & Highland Committed To Harmony Despite Legal & Citizen Resistance

In the wake of recent actions, there is considerable confusion with regard to the future viability of the Lewis Group of Companies’ Harmony housing project, which had been approved in 2016 but for which the Highland City Council last week withdrew the entitlement.
Yesterday, the developer of the project deferred to the property owner in response to a question as to whether the development effort would continue.
“We don’t own the property, so I would direct you to speak with Orange County,” Randall Lewis, the Lewis Group of Companies’ vice president in charge of marketing, told the Sentinel.
This morning, a spokesman for Orange County gave indication the project remains in play, insisting the project will proceed as previously presented, despite a Superior Court judge’s ruling that elements of the project’s environmental safeguards and assessment are inadequate.
The Lewis Group of Companies some five years ago floated the concept of the Harmony project being developed on 1,657 acres that Orange County purchased for, but did not utilize in, the construction of the Seven Oaks Dam, situated at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Santa Ana River, directly adjacent to San Bernardino National Forest lands. Harmony was to entail 3,632 houses and other improvements and amenities. The project area is host to numerous endangered species, rare habitats, wetlands and crucial wildlife connectivity corridors.
A draft environmental impact report was circulated among nearby property owners between March 21, 2014 and May 5, 2014. After 50 comments from the public were received, it was amended and recirculated once more with changes to the air quality, biological resources and traffic issues. A final environmental impact report was completed and made available to the public on March 17, 2016.
In 2016, Highland city staff, led by city manager Joseph Hughes, public works director Ernest Wong, community development director Lawrence Mainez and assistant community development director Kim Stater, generated a report essentially justifying staff’s collective recommendation to the council to approve the project. That recommendation ran counter to the sentiments of a sizable contingent of Highland residents, whose objections were largely ignored by the project proponents and city officials. Among those concerns were harm to the area’s ecology and what they said were inadequacies in the project’s environmental impact report.
In its presentations, Lewis said the 3,662 homes would confine themselves to 658 acres within the total project area, and that a neighborhood commercial center would be contained on another six acres, and an additional 16 acres would be set aside for neighborhood commercial uses and community public facilities including the construction of a single elementary school and a fire station on a 1.5-acre site, which would come after 1,000 homes are built. Other infrastructure to accommodate the development would consist of water reservoirs, a water treatment facility, a sewage treatment plant, and a pump station.
Harmony was proposed to be developed in the rustic area straddling the extreme extension of Highland into Mentone along the foothills at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains near the headwaters of the Santa Ana River. The proposed development site is far removed from Highland’s city services and is vulnerable to episodic fire, catastrophic flooding, and the San Andreas Fault, project critics contend.
Though city staff’s report relating to the project proposal conceded that “In some instances, mitigation measures for the project could not reduce the level of impact to less than significant [in the areas of] air quality, transportation and traffic,” staff nevertheless emphasized that the city council had the legal authority “to determine whether the benefits of the project outweigh significant environmental effects” and that the council was entitled through its authority to “adopt a statement of overriding considerations stating the reasons supporting the approval notwithstanding the significant environmental effects.”
On August 11, 2016 the Highland City Council held a meeting that was entirely devoted to considering the Harmony project. Ultimately, the council adopted the statement of overriding considerations, adopted the environmental impact report, amendments to the general plan relating to the project, approved the zone change, adopted the specific plan, approved the development agreement, and approved the subdivision of the property.
Though advocates for some environmental groups, the Greenspot Residents Association and a handful of disparate other residents were vocal in their opposition to the project proposal, it is unclear whether city officials fully appreciated the depth of the opposition to the project and whether they considered the potential that any of those entities would leap into the breach by filing legal action.
Indeed, two lawsuits ensued. One was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and the Greenspot Residents Association. It maintained that the environmental review for the project completely ignored that a bridge over Mill Creek – which would be required to access the development – will permanently alter that free-flowing creek. The project would also harm rare and protected species, including critical habitat for endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rats and the federally-protected Santa Ana sucker fish as well as habitat for endangered southwestern willow flycatchers, the plaintiffs, represented by the law firm Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, asserted in the lawsuit.
The Greenspot Residents Association is an unincorporated entity comprised of concerned citizens within the area historically known as “Greenspot” that covers much of the Mentone, Redlands, and Mill Creek Canyon communities. Dedicated to the historic, cultural, ecological and agricultural preservation of the area, the association was formed and is managed exclusively by local residents. Its members were so outraged by the city’s action with regard to the Harmony project that they undertook a signature gathering effort among city residents to endorse a petition to subject the project to citizen review. While that was ongoing, the association joined with Center for Biological Diversity and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society in filing suit over the project.
In the same timeframe, the Sierra Club, Crafton Hills Open Space Conservancy, Tri-County Conservation League and Friends of Riverside Hills also filed suit. Both lawsuits were heard by Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez.
Initially, the city council and city staff, assuming the procedural hoops the project opponents faced to be too daunting to overcome, aligned themselves with Lewis. But as the intensity of the effort against the project manifested and the numbers of city residents with misgivings over the development became evident, chastened city officials, in an effort to appease the project opponents, consented to putting the Harmony master planned community before voters in the November 2018 election. Those politicians, who were bankrolled in large measure by money put up by the Lewis Group of Companies and its employees, calculated that in two years the anti-Harmony fervor might attenuate, and they were hopeful that Lewis could mount a “public information” campaign of its own to persuade the city’s residents to support the project during that two-year period.
Over that span, the lawsuits, which alleged that the Lewis Operating Company’s environmental impact report for the project was “inadequate” and had engaged in faulty analysis of both certain elements and the totality of the project, proceeded.
Less than two months ago, on June 26, Judge Alvarez finalized and signed his rulings, finding merit in some, though not all, of what the plaintiffs in both suits alleged.
In particular, Alvarez ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Center for Biological Diversity/Greenspot Residents Association/Audubon Society suit by determining the city and developer improperly defined the project, and that the environmental impact report was flawed in that it failed to properly analyze or mitigate downstream flooding impacts as well as the potentially deleterious impacts to regional water resources and wildlife habitat.
Another finding favorable to the plaintiffs was that the environmental impact report was flawed by virtue of having left out of the equation the volume of fill required to elevate that portion of the project in a flood zone to a level high enough that the foundations of the structures to be built would be at least one foot above the level of maximum flooding statistically likely to occur every 100 years, and that the environmental impact report further failed to reckon the impacts downstream of the grading at the south end of the project. Judge Alvarez indicated this phase of the planning suffered because it had been carried out prematurely, that is, prior to the Federal Emergency Management Agency having done a hydrological analysis of the project area.
In that part of his ruling siding with the city and the developer, Judge Alvarez found unpersuasive the suits’ contentions that the environmental impact report’s assertion that the greenhouse gas emissions to be generated by the completed project were less than significant were inadequately supported by data. Judge Alvarez said the environmental impact report relied upon proper metrics and methods for deriving data to indicate the project was in compliance with state emission regulations.
Judge Alvarez ruled in the Sierra Club/Crafton Hills Open Space Conservancy/Tri-County Conservation League/Friends of Riverside Hills suit that the project’s environmental review violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not adequately analyzing water resources, wastewater and energy impacts from the development.
In essence, Judge Alvarez’s ruling invalidated the project approval and introduced a requirement that if Lewis is to resubmit an application for the project an adequate environmental impact report is to be carried out.
Two of the current Highland City Council members, Jesus “Jesse” Chavez and Anaeli Solano, were not members of the city council that approved the project. In 2016, after the project approval, Larry McCallon, who is now the mayor, was reelected to a four-year term in the city’s then-newly created District 5, without having to face a coordinated opposition. Also elected to a four-year term in District 1 was Chavez. Solano and incumbent Councilman John Timmer, in District 4, were elected and reelected to two-year terms. No one has come forward to oppose Solano in this year’s election. Timmer, on the other hand, is being opposed by Gilda Gularte, who was a leading foe of the Harmony project.
McCallon, Timmer and another long time member of the council, District 3 Councilwoman Penny Lilburn, find themselves in a political bind, with the juggernaut of opposition against the project, which they so nonchalantly dismissed two years ago, ominously threatening to end their ascendancy in Highland.
Nevertheless, Lilburn, Timmer and McCallon continue to breezily move past the controversy the project birthed, seeking to signal that business as usual is being conducted. One move they made, which some perceive as yet a further miscalculation, was to convene a special meeting on August 8 and vote to ask the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters to cancel its November 6 referendum on the project and further cancel the council’s previous approval of the Harmony housing project.
While project opponents were in favor of the cancellation of the project approval, hundreds of the project’s opponents, who were confident that the referendum vote would have gone their way in November, were angered with the cancelling of the referendum on the project.
City officials, meanwhile, huddled with Orange County officials who are intent on recouping some of the money their county expended on creating the Seven Oaks Dam, which collects water for downstream use, primarily in Orange County as the Santa Ana River wends its way to the Pacific Ocean.
City officials asserted that the project was not dead and that both the landowner, Orange County, and developer, the Lewis Group of Companies, were regrouping and were preparing to proceed with the project once more.
Orange County Real Estate Services Director James Campbell wrote a letter supporting the Highland City Council’s decision to repeal the project approval and cancel the referendum. When that letter was learned of by the public, it confirmed for many project opponents that city officials are in cahoots with Orange County in support of the project and cannot serve as honest brokers representing the residents of Highland. Campbell’s letter stated, “The county [Orange County] remains committed to the Harmony project and has enjoyed a tremendous working relationship with the city, staff, council and the community of Highland. We look forward to continuing that effort, complying with the law and moving the Harmony project toward final approvals. Orange County will work with the city to amend the Harmony EIR [environmental impact report] and specific plan in compliance with the court opinion.”
A major issue facing the project is the single bridge across Mill Creek to Highway 38, which will provide and limit both ingress to and egress from the subdivision. This represents a significant hazard, one set of critics contend, in that a fire, to which the area is prone, could create a situation in which the bridge becomes a jammed and nearly impassable chokepoint not allowing residents to flee or firefighters in, or, in the event the fire sweeps onto the bridge itself, preventing all vehicular travel to or from the subdivision, leaving no alternate route of access. Conversely, multiple bridges will have a deleterious impact on the ecology of the creek beds and riparian habitats of the area, another set of project opponents believe. These considerations provide an argument for abandoning the project altogether, project opponents say.
In his ruling, Judge Alvarez granted a writ of mandate relating to a second bridge at Fish Hatchery Road or Newport Road, the addition of which he said was supported by statements from both the city’s public works director and the community development director, and which was envisioned as an enhancement to the city’s circulation plans as far back as 2006. This conflicted with the environmental impact report certified by the council incidental to the approval of the project, which stated that the bridge “is not required or proposed as part of the Harmony Specific Plan from any perspective.”
Thus, Campbell’s assertion that a second bridge across Mill Creek to Highway 38 was not a condition of approval for Harmony previously, not a required mitigation for the project, nor contemplated in any resubmission of the project to the city appears to run head on into one of Judge Alvarez’s rulings.
Indications out of the city are that the proponents need to merely resubmit the project proposal to the city and simply amend those elements of the previous environmental impact report which Judge Alvarez ruled were lacking. At least three city officials – Lilburn, McCallon and Timmer – are still hopeful of an infusion of campaign cash from the Lewis Group of Companies and its employees that will assist them in overcoming the negative publicity they have sustained as a consequence of their support of the project. They believe the ploy of cancelling the referendum will inspire even greater generosity from those donors than they were banking upon previously.
The Sentinel sought to obtain direct input with regard to this circumstance from Randall Lewis. “We are letting the landowner handle all public statements,” Lewis said on August 16. He referred the Sentinel to Molly Nichelson, the public information manager for Orange County.
“The Orange County Flood Control District (county) and Lewis remain committed to the Harmony project and to working cooperatively with the city to achieve a project that is good for the community and the environment,” said Nichelson. “Currently we are focused on complying with the court’s decision and working to make sure the project complies with all environmental and land use laws. Lewis and the county have a contract to work on the Harmony project and our collective goal is garnering final successful approvals for Harmony from the city. There is an existing planning application with the City of Highland and it is our intention to work with the city to modify the Harmony plan and environmental documentation to comply with the court’s ruling. This will be accomplished under the existing specific plan and the EIR [environmental impact report] that has been circulated. It is not a new project.”
Nichelson said cancelling the city voter referendum on the project was justified.
“Regarding the referendum, the county is attempting to comply with the judge’s ruling, which requires recession of the current approvals,” Nichelson said. “This makes the components of the referendum a moot point. Referendums cost the taxpayers money and a referendum was no longer necessary. The wildlife corridor was proposed by the county and Lewis in the Harmony plan and was not part of the court ruling. The court also did not make any ruling regarding ingress and egress.”
Mark Gutglueck

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