Suit Over Joshua Tree Residential Project Forces Approval Withdrawal 3 Years Later

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has rescinded the approval of a 248-unit residential development in Joshua Tree more than two-and-a-half years after its proponent was given clearance to proceed with the project.
While the Altamira at Joshua Tree gated community entailed an overall density that would have represented a land use that was less intense than far more dense projects deemed acceptable in the more urbanized areas of the county, the project provoked consternation in Joshua Tree, where lot sizes and the character of the environs is out of keeping with what the developer envisioned. YV 105 LLP, led by its managing principal, Ron Schwartz, had secured an option on the property, consisting of 105 acres near and around Friendly Hills Elementary School, because the zoning on the property, lying entirely within Section 33 and in most of Section 34, had been intensified in the early 1980s when its owner had been provided with a 25 percent density bonus because of a commitment to develop residential units exclusively for occupancy by senior citizens. That project was never undertaken.
When Schwartz and his partners came across the property and learned that up to 4.2 units per acre could be built on it, they submitted a plan for the Altamira gated community consisting of 248 homes built on 10,000-square foot (0.23 acre) lots. As originally envisaged, there would be a single entrance into the subdivision by means of a main street off of which a maze of lesser side streets connected to cul-de-sacs would branch. The entirety of the tract would have been enclosed with a wall or fence, creating an insular neighborhood within the Joshua Tree community. To retain the density concession of 4.2 units to the acre allowed for the property by the county in the 1980s, YV 105 LLP indicated, without making an etched-in-stone commitment, that the homes would be priced at around $250,000 and would be marketed to so-called “empty nester” retirees.
Locals, however, noting that the plan called for homes typical of an urbanized environment, including grass lawns, and the land in question consisted of an expanse as resplendent and visually striking as virtually any other landscape in the Mojave, one densely desert forested with Joshua trees, yuccas, creosote, cacti and an abundance of wildlife, bridled at the idea of the property being graded for blanket development.
A band of Joshua Tree residents let Schwartz and his cohorts as well as county land use officials know that they considered the proposal incompatible with its surroundings. Schwartz and his associates nevertheless engaged those in Joshua Tree in a running dialogue in an effort to convince them that the project would be of benefit to them. A primary goal in holding those discussions was to find at least a few local residents who would endorse the project to assist YV 105 LLP in making a case to the county that the project would be an acceptable addition in Joshua Tree.
In February 2009, YV 105 LLP hosted a community briefing on the development proposal, luring over 100 community members into attendance at the event, which included videotaping. Despite the best efforts of Schwartz and YV 105 LLP, they were unable to capture video of any local residents voicing support of the proposal.
Nevertheless, YV 105 LLP proceeded with its application to the county. Given that the 4.2 unit per acre density YV 105 LLP was proposing was relatively low in comparison to projects being built elsewhere, Schwartz and his team were able to convince county land use officials to process the application without requiring a full-blown environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act, which would have entailed significant expense. Rather, they greased the skids for the development by having the body responsible for the project review – in this case the county planning commission, green light the project by what is called a mitigated negative declaration, that is a determination by the commission that any impacts of the project on the environment or the local area would be mitigated by conditions to be imposed upon the developer in the final project approval.
With wary residents of Joshua Tree weighing in from time to time, YV 105 LLP nursed its proposal through the examination process by the county’s land use services division, simultaneously convening public meetings, informational exchanges and holding discussions with Joshua Basin Water District staff relating to the project proposal. Similarly, Schwartz and his associates engaged in dialogue and meetings with the Center for Biological Diversity, which was not in favor of the project, doing so to be able to convince the county that YV 105 LLP was sensitive to the environmental impacts the project would have.
In 2014, YV 105 LLP scored a crucial breakthrough when a study of the project done for the county returned a conclusion the project could proceed. This triggered another wave of community-based resistance, including a unanimous vote by the Morongo Basin Municipal Advisory Council endorsing a resolution in opposition to the project, and a flood of letters to the county opposing the project.
The march toward full county approval of the project continued. As an increasingly alarmed Joshua Tree populace inveighed against the plan, citing its inconsistencies with the county general plan, its development code and the Joshua Tree Community Plan, the county processed the tentative tract map and allowed the project certification to take place without an environmental impact report subject to the approval of mitigated negative declaration. On April 7, 2016, the county planning commission, on a 4-to-1 vote with Commissioner Paul Smith dissenting, passed the project design. This triggered a deluge of protests, which were compended in a petition against the project signed by 160 Joshua Tree residents. Reading the handwriting on the wall, concerned community members organized into a group, coined JT 105 in obvious answer to the corporate name of YV 105, dedicated to stopping the development. Anticipating its appeal of the project approval would not succeed with the county board of supervisors, JT 105 put together a 66-page outline of a contemplated California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit that would follow the board’s approval were that to take place.
All of JT 105’s forces were marshaled on September 13, 2016, when the project came before the board of supervisors for reconsideration. With speaker after speaker registering opposition to the project, both within the hearing chambers in San Bernardinio and by means of video hookup from the county government facility in Joshua Tree, the board voted, with Supervisor Josie Gonzales absent, to continue the hearing until September 27. At that meeting, with further public testimony being cut off because the hearing on the matter had already been held and with Gonzales unaware of the public sentiment expressed against the project, the board voted 3-to-2, with supervisors Gonzales, Curt Hagman and Janice Rutherford prevailing and supervisors Robert Lovingood and James Ramos dissenting, to reaffirm the planning commission’s approval of the project, which included the tract map to create 248 single-family residential lots; a community center, 41 lettered lots for private streets, landscaping and drainage facilities; and a conditional use permit for construction of a sewage package treatment plant to serve the residential development.
JT 105 Alliance and other project opponents thereafter retained attorney Babak Naficy and filed a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act on October 28, 2016, JT 105 Alliance v. County of San Bernardino, et al., San Bernardino Superior Court Case No. CIVDS161878. Based upon that suit, the expense that would be entailed in both contesting the legal action and the inevitable requirement of undertaking the environmental impact report the suit was calling for, YV 105 elected to withhold on pursuing the project. Schwartz and YV 105’s investors, casting about for a way to cut their losses, listed the land and the entitlement to build they had obtained for it on the market. So far there have been no takers.
On April 16, 2009, with the three-year anniversary of the project approval having elapsed, the three-year anniversary of the board of supervisors’ denial of the appeal challenging that approval approaching and no progress toward the project undertaking having occurred, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted to rescind all approvals for the project, including the approval of the tentative tract map for the 248 single-family residential lots, the community center, the lettered lots for public improvements and the sewer facility, the denial of the appeal upholding the planning commission’s approval the tentative tract map of the YV 105/Altamira Project and the adoption of findings for approval of the adoption of the mitigated negative declaration.
According to Terri Rahhal, the director of the county’s land use services department, in a report relating to the April 16 action “This item is submitted at the request of the property owner and applicant, YV105 LLP, to comply with terms of a legal settlement agreement.” After recounting the history of the project’s approval and the filing of the JT 105 lawsuit, Rahhal wrote, “Before any substantive decisions were rendered in the action, the project applicant and the petitioner reached a settlement, with one of its provisions requiring the project applicant to seek a rescission of all project approvals and environmental determinations. Consistent with the settlement reached in the action, the applicant has requested that the board rescind and set aside all action taken on September 27, 2016.”
YV 105 LLC still owns the property. It has yet retained the option, under the lawsuit settlement, to pursue another development project, but will be subject to undertaking the design and approval process, including an environmental study, to do so.
-Mark Gutglueck

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