County & Environmental Groups Sue Fontana Over Warehouse Approval

Fontana’s March 12 approval of the West Valley Logistics Center, a 3.4 million-square-foot complex at the city’s extreme southeastern corner, has resulted in San Bernardino County and a coalition of environmental groups filing two separate lawsuits against the 212,000-population city and its political leadership.
For many of the reasons proponents touted the massive warehouse complex as a boon to the city, the project’s opponents found it to be antithetical to the interests of those upon whom it will have the most direct impact: residents of the unincorporated community of Bloomington and city of Jurupa Valley, which lies south of the San Bernardino County border with Riverside County.
The West Valley Logistics Center is to entail seven high cube warehouses for a total space of 3.4 million square feet, to be built within the West Valley Logistics Center Specific Plan Project Area, bounded on the north by a Southern California Edison (SCE) Utility Corridor, on the west by the Jurupa Hills, on the south by residential properties within the City of Jurupa Valley, and on the east by residential uses within Bloomington.
The project applicant, Red Rock Development, obtained a recommendation on the project from the planning commission on January 15 by a vote of 4-to-1, with Commissioner Laura Vasquez dissenting. The commission’s majority voted counter to planning staff’s call for the project to be rejected.
At the council level, the project was approved by a 3-to-1 margin, with Mayor Acquanetta Warren and her council allies, Jesse Armendarez and Phillip Cothran, Jr., supporting it. The project was opposed by Councilman Jesse Sandoval. The project would have been supported by Councilman John Roberts, another Warren political ally, but he recused himself because he owns property within a stone’s throw of the project.
Either by coincidence or prearrangement, the separately filed lawsuits were lodged on Friday, April 12, one month to the day after the project was approved. Both suits accuse Fontana of running roughshod over state environmental laws in its approval of the project.
The project upon completion will result in some 6,000 daily vehicle trips or more through the immediate area, with a significant number of those entailing delivery by means of heavy trucks, resulting in even greater air pollution, noise and traffic than those living in the area are already subject to. This impact is a primary issue taken up in the lawsuits, one of which was filed by San Bernardino County and the other by a coalition of the Center for Biological Diversity, The Sierra Club and The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
The county’s suit deals in the main with land use issues, zoning and use compatibility and the intensity of use, while the environmental groups’ suit broadens to include impacts of the project that go beyond how it will affect residents to include harm to both fauna and flora in the area and their habitat.
In the seven-year time frame during which the project has been under discussion and on the drawing boards, county officials, including those at the administrative, legal and land use levels, had contact with both the project proponent and the City of Fontana, which included discussion about scaling the project down and limiting the truck traffic that would burden the district’s streets, according to the county’s suit. The city made no tangible response to the overtures to lessen the impacts, according to the county.
In addition, the county, which is represented by the law firm of Meyers Nave, also claims Fontana violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meeting statute by “undisclosed revisions to the project’s development agreement prior to the city council meeting.” Also, the city failed “to provide adequate notification to the general public of these substantial revisions before considering and approving the project,” according to the lawsuit.
The county wants the court to direct Fontana to rescind or otherwise vacate its approval of the project and undertake an adequate environmental impact report, subject to the California Environmental Act.
County officials indicated they felt it regrettable that legal action against another governmental entity had to be taken, explaining that the decision was necessitated by the extremity of the situation brought on by the City of Fontana’s intransigence. “The county considers litigation filed against another public agency, especially a neighboring city, as something to be avoided unless all other options have been exhausted,” according to a statement from the county.
According to the environmental groups, the city paid no heed to the harm the project represents to critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher, an imperiled bird, and destruction it will do to a wildlife corridor along which animals indigenous to the area move between the Jurupa Hills and Rattlesnake Mountain, two of the last remaining refuges for animals increasingly encircled by a hostile urban environment. The city was equally disregardful of the health risks to humans associated with the project, the coalition’s suit propounds.
“The cities of Bloomington and Fontana continue to face the onslaught of diesel emissions brought forth by warehouse development, causing residents to contract asthma, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects,” said Andrea Vidaurre, a policy analyst at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. Vidaure said it was “unconscionable that the city is adding to the pollution burden for this community in order to line the pockets of a developer.”
Fontana offered no reaction to the suit. Last week the council made a further refinement of the plans for the West Valley Logistics Center, relating to seven warehouses to go onto 290 acres.
According to real estate industry analysts, despite the sharply escalating square-footage of warehouse space in the Inland Empire, the demand for that space is increasing. Some local politicians, such as Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, advocate meeting the demand for ever more warehouse space, maintaining this is boosting the economy. Others have disputed that claim, pointing out that employment opportunities in the warehouse industry carry with them low pay. They say by continuing to cater to those building warehouses, local politicians are turning the Inland Empire into a magnet for the underpaid, creating a class of citizens working full time who are yet living below the poverty level, requiring that they and their families’ incomes be augmented with social services paid for by taxpayers. This class of residents, those critical of warehouse construction contend, has created a population base with virtually no disposable income and very little purchasing power, which is causing the local economy to stagnate. For politicians like Warren, however, such differences and debate are irrelevant, as she, as is typical of other local politicians, has accrued a campaign war chest exceeding $300,000, which has rendered her virtually invulnerable at the polls. Much of that money has come from those interested in further warehouse development. The sobriquet “Warehouse Warren” has been applied to her, disdainfully by those who coined the name and are most likely to use it. Warren, however, considers the label to be one of accomplishment and advantage, as it signals to those wishing to develop warehouses that her votes for them can be counted upon, which brings in for her ever more money in terms of political donations.
Status hearings on the case brought against Fontana by the environmental groups are set to be heard on June 12 in Department S-23 in San Bernardino Superior Court and on June 17 in Department S-26 in San Bernardino Superior Court. A status hearing on the case brought against Fontana by the county is set to be heard on June 11 in Department 26.
-Mark Gutglueck

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