Rain & San Manuel Hillside Mansions Grading Erosion Destroys Wildlife Sanctuary

Some 22 months after the San Manuel Band of Mission Indian’s initiated grading in the foothills above the northeast corner of San Bernardino to accommodate the tribe’s development plan for upwards of 30 hillside mansions, heavy rains this week brought hundreds of tons of mud cascading down into the neighborhood below, resulting in a potentially deadly situation and hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of dollars in property damage.
In the immediate aftermath of the erosion of the hillside, neither city, county nor tribal officials were willing to assume responsibility for situation.
In March 2017, residents with homes at the furthest northward extension of Orange Avenue and those lying alongside the road’s loop eastward which becomes Holly Circle Drive told tribal and city officials that the tribe’s developmental designs without accompanying mitigation efforts represented a clear hazard and unacceptable risk to the residents and properties south of and at an elevation below the project site. Tribal officials asserted the tribe, as a sovereign entity, had an absolute and indisputable right to develop property on the reservation. Thus, city, county and state officials have no enforceable land use authority with regard to the project. The sole control the city, county and state possess stems from the requirement that the tribe redress whatever impacts the mansion neighborhood construction undertaking will have on nearby land which lies beyond the reservation.
City and county elected officials, however, have proven themselves reluctant to interfere with the tribe, given its wealth based upon its lucrative casino operation. The income from the tribe’s gaming facility for more than a decade has provided it with tremendous political pull as a consequence of the application of that wealth in endowing the campaign war chests of local elected officials. The tribe’s ability to influence government bounded forward in 2012 when San Manuel’s former chairman, James Ramos, was elected county Third District supervisor overseeing the area at issue. Last year, Ramos was elected to the California Legislature as 40th District assemblyman.
With neither the City of San Bernardino nor the County of San Bernardino willing to use their governmental authority to confront the tribe on behalf of any residents who felt they were being put out by the development, the tribe’s contractors have been able to proceed with the hillside mansions project without having to answer to either the City of San Bernardino’s public works or community development divisions nor the county’s flood control division.
Of significance is that a substantial portion of the hillside was denuded of its vegetation, including a wildlife/riparian corridor which descended in what is an essentially south by southwest direction along a long-running gully. That gully previously during rainstorms served as funnel for water coming down the mountainside. Where it reached the north side of Holly Circle Drive, a small collection basin connected to a sizable culvert running below Holly Circle Drive was constructed decades ago. The culvert conveyed the water into a concrete channel south of Holly Circle Drive that then carried the water further downward from the foothills toward Highland Avenue in a south by southwest direction. That channel ran across the grounds of the Holly Haven Wildlife Sanctuary, a three-acre wildlife refuge built on what was formerly a residential estate, with nesting areas for birds and burrows for wildlife amidst a concentration of specifically cultivated flowers and foliage intended to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators maintained to serve as an open-air research laboratory to allow observation and determination of how a variety of species can fare in what is a protected natural ecosystem at the periphery of an urban district.
Because of the construction activity further up the hill, dirt and debris, along with gravel, small rocks and larger rocks, made their way into the basin, culvert and concrete channel. Despite past assurances by the tribe and its spokespeople that the construction companies and contractors working on the mansions project would do so, no effort to ensure that the pathway for the conveyance of water down the hill would be kept free of obstructions was made. As such, when the rainstorms began early this week, the natural groove in the side of the hill above Holly Circle Drive, the culvert beneath Holly Circle Drive and the channel below it were unequal to the task of accommodating the volume of water and mud coming down the hillside, which absolutely inundated the properties on the lower side of Holly Circle Drive, including Holly Haven Wildlife Sanctuary.
Holly Haven Wildlife Sanctuary Director Lorna Davide told the Sentinel, “What they have done is unbelievable and inexcusable. For months and years the tribe’s contractors, Sukot and AECOM, have been altering that mountainside, blasting with dynamite and removing on a scale that is unimaginable the natural vegetation that predictably would lead to the erosion and destabilization of the landscape wholesale. There is no place for that dirt, once it starts raining and turns to mud, to go but downward. The riparian corridor is now between 95 percent and 100 percent blocked with silt, sediment, debris and contaminants coming off of the reservation land. It is still being discharged into this corridor and down through the sanctuary. All of this has been documented and photographed repeatedly and provided to all of the conceivable authorities at the tribe and with the city and with the county, to no avail. The horror continues. The sanctuary is on the verge of being ruined. The swimming pool, which was part of the original estate and lies at the lowest level of the property in the ravine is entirely filled with mud and debris. You would not recognize the terrain. It looks like a bomb has been dropped on it.”
Davide continued, “When the mountain came down and the mud enveloped on the west side of Holly Circle right above the sanctuary’s primary structure, the animals and rodents scurried for shelter. They actually ate through the screens to get inside, or they would’ve died, which is another brand of damage. We can live with that, but by the irresponsible way in which this development to the north is being done, this place is going to be destroyed.”
Davide said that two years ago, when she protested about what was being done and insisted that some regard be given to what the development higher up on the hillside would do to the area lower down on the hillside, the tribe’s reaction was to simply make an offer to buy the properties that were potentially going to be impacted. She said it was obvious from the tribe’s approach that there was no intention to preserve the property as a sanctuary but to simply use it for debris collection and materials and equipment storage. That was unacceptable, Davide said.
Sukut Construction, Inc., the primary contractor on the project, in the late spring, summer and fall months maintained a practice of leaving much of the displaced earth from the construction site in place on the mountainside. With the advance of winter and the potential for seasonal rain, there was no discernible step-up in the effort to haul dirt away from the work site. With the heavy deluge this week, massive amounts of that dirt, converted to mud, came down.
In years past, the hillside property towering over Orange Avenue and Holly Drive Circle was formerly owned by Jack Widmeyer, a local insurance agent. When Widmeyer sought to develop the property, he ran into difficulty when he began grading, and the city halted his efforts and refused to provide him with the full range of grading permits and provision of entitlements to build the other elements of the infrastructure needed to render the property developable. Concern about the stability of the hillside was among the reasons for the city’s refusal to facilitate the development.
Ultimately, the property was sold to the San Manuel Tribe, which incorporated it into its reservation. The local civil authority with regard to the property no longer applied once the tribe had possession of it, as tribal land is sovereign Indian Territory. Based on the ruling in Worchester v. Georgia, which defined Indian Nations as “distinct political communities having territorial boundaries, within which their authority is exclusive,” neither the City of San Bernardino nor the County of San Bernardino can regulate the tribe’s effort to develop property in its possession within the boundaries of the reservation. According to the tribe, it is now engaged in constructing $2 million to $5 million homes on one-acre hillside lots as residences for tribal members who have now reached the age of majority, i.e., 18. Unverified reports are that the revenue generated at the San Manuel Casino provides each member of the tribe with roughly $100,000 per month.
The property at the north end of Orange Avenue is unincorporated San Bernardino County land, outside the bounds of the City of San Bernardino but within its sphere of influence.
Personnel with the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department have consistently been either unable, unwilling or not at liberty to disclose whether county planners had been consulted with regard to the ongoing project. James Ramos, the one-time chairman of the San Manuel Tribal Council, was until last month the county supervisor in the county’s Third District, which encompasses the project area and the eastern portion of the City of San Bernardino.
Previously, San Bernardino city officials said they had no knowledge of what the tribe had in store for the property or the tribe’s intentions to develop it.
San Bernardino Councilman Fred Shorett, whose council ward is immediately adjacent to the project site, said almost two years ago that he had been provided with a fact sheet relating to the tribe’s intention, but was not at liberty nor in a position to second guess what the tribe is doing. He said at that time efforts to modulate the tribe’s action would be futile. “What the tribe wants, the tribe gets,” he said. “It’s part of the golden rule: Them that got the gold, rule.”
In the aftermath of what occurred this week, which on Thursday necessitated the blocking of access onto Orange Street north of Highland Avenue at the site of the fire station there, Shorett told the Sentinel today, January 18, that he was aware that there had been some problems on Orange Street and along Holly Circle Drive. “I’ve been in touch with [city] staff,” he said. “I understand there was an overflow of the retention basin which resulted from the major rain that came down yesterday and the days before. I think we have everything under control other than, I guess, the debris flow that now needs to be dealt with.”
Queried as to whether the city or the tribe would pick up the tab for the cleanup and undoing the damage caused because of the neglect of the channels that were designed to handle the water flow, Shorett said, “I can’t speak to that exactly, but based on some previous issues in I think it was 2011 when there were major rains that flooded the area up there, I think we will work to help to get it cleaned up. I’m not sure I want to blame anybody. In that, I think we will also need the presence of the [San Bernardino] Flood Control Department.”
Previously, a tribal official, Bryan Benso, who is the director of real estate and development with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, said that concern and alarm that the grading of the hills would intensify flooding in the area below was misplaced. Benso said that on the contrary, the eventual completion of the project will result in benefits to nearby residents, making rainstorm flooding far less damaging and reducing the fire hazard potential.
Davide said the state of sanctuary grounds is proof that the tribe is misrepresenting reality.
“No one is taking action to alleviate this,” she said. “It has gotten even worse, with no relief in sight and more and more damage.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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