Uncertainty As Upland Awaits Council’s Second Guess On Amazon Center

Confusion is reigning in the aftermath of Wednesday night’s Upland Planning Commission hearing for Amazon’s proposed 201,096-square-foot distribution center north of Foothill and south of Cable Airport, with four-fifths of the panel’s votes in seeming favor of the project. As recorded, however, the commission did not give its collective consent to one crucial element of the proposal, that being the project’s site plan.
The planning commission made five votes pertaining to the Amazon facility. Only one of those votes carried with it the force of applicability and finality: that pertaining to a finding, rendered unanimously and joined in by Airport Land Use Committee members Ronald Campbell and Howard Bunte, that the project as proposed constitutes a use compatible with the city’s zoning codes and general plan.
The planning commission’s other votes made the evening of February 12 were not binding and are only considered advisory to the city council, which is to take up the matter itself for actual approval, action which is likely to take place as early as next month.
Still the same, the planning commission’s responsibility was to make a consideration of the details of the project and whether it fits within the context of the city’s zoning, its impact on existing infrastructure and support mechanisms as well as currently existing surrounding land uses and its compatibility with anticipated future development plans and livability arrangements in the immediately surrounding area going forward. Under normal circumstances, the planning commission’s positive recommendation on any project gives the city council political cover to itself give go-ahead to such undertakings. Given the controversy that has erupted over the Amazon distribution center, however, the city council will not have the luxury of merely rubberstamping the planning commission’s vote, and will now be called upon to re-vet the proposal in full when it is presented with the project, potentially running a political risk if indeed the project proves as unpopular with a wider section of the community as it was clearly demonstrated to be with a vocal contingent of the city’s residents who were in attendance Wednesday night before the planning commission. Those present packed the 268-capacity city council chambers to well beyond the limit permissible under the city’s fire code. Despite that, the proceedings went on, with a number of those in attendance standing in the aisles or at the back of the gallery.
There were contradictory currents in some of the planning commission’s votes, and three were made on a less-than-unanimous basis, all of which leave several of the issues pertaining to the project less than clearly settled. In addition, city staff appeared to be militating on behalf of the proponent, which galvanized further the already-energized opposition to the project.
Before the meeting was held, there was controversy over whether the commission was properly constituted to allow a consideration of the project and a vote with regard to it to take place. Last year, the terms of commissioners Linden Brouse and Shelley Verrinder had expired. The city council extended their tenures until August while considering either replacing them or reappointing them to the commission. Ultimately, it was decided in August as a matter of principle that Verrinder and Brouse remaining in place for more than the normally allotted two terms should not be permitted while so many others had applied for membership on the seven-member panel. The city council, however, was not able to reach a consensus on their replacements. Verrinder, in the spirit of the two-term limitation, departed, though Brouse elected to stay on the basis of a bylaw that allows a member to stay in place until his or her replacement is chosen.  The council since August, and as recently as February 4, has been unable to choose among 16 applicants for the two positions. The vote Wednesday night took place with Brouse participating. Some members of the community feel Brouse’s participation is improper, as he is not acting as a designee of the current council. Wednesday night, Commissioner Alexander Novikov was absent. Thus, the decision was rendered by five rather than seven commissioners, one of whose charter is under question. Indeed, Brouse’s participation in the proceedings would prove noteworthy for another reason.
Upon taking up the environmental review of the project, a critical issue which is likely to prove of some legal significance at a future date, the commission voted 4-to-1, with Commissioner Yvette Walker dissenting, to accept the environmental certification, which included the designation of a mitigated negative declaration, essentially a finding that any untoward environmental impacts would be offset by the conditions of approval imposed on the project.
In considering the site plan for the project, yet another crucial element of the proposal, the vote was made as part of a tortuously worded motion, one which called not for the acceptance of the site plan but rather the rejection of it. Commissioner Gary Schwary, who for a decade previously was the commission’s chairman, endeavored to make clear before the vote that a “yes” vote meant voting down the site plan and that a “no” vote was one cast to approve the site plan. When the votes were registered, the tally was 3-to-2 in favor of the motion, with Walker, Brouse and Schwary prevailing and Chairwoman Robin Aspinall and Carolyn Anderson dissenting. In this way, the commission’s proceedings were recorded as having denied the site plan. Subsequent to the meeting, however, Brouse claimed that he had misunderstood the motion, and he is seeking to rescind his vote.
Having passed the zoning map for the project unanimously, the commission voted 3-to-2, with Schwary and Walker in opposition, to recommend approval of the development agreement. It voted 4-to-1 to approve a lot line adjustment for the project, with Walker dissenting.
The development agreement is another controversial element of the project. Though the project is intended to house an Amazon distribution facility, the project proponent is Bridge Development. Bridge Development had originally offered the city $10 million in so-called deal sweeteners that were to include $5.7 million dedicated to road maintenance needs throughout the city at a rate of $370,000 annually; $400,000 to beautify, maintain and enhance four nearby parks, with $100,000 going to Cabrillo Park, $100,000 going to Citrus Park, $100,00 going to Baldy View Park and $100,000 going to Greenbelt Park; $100,000 to each of Upland’s 14 public schools, for a total of $1.4 million; $400,000 to the Upland Police Department to address homelessness; and $50,000 to support local businesses through the Upland Chamber of Commerce’s Shop Upland initiative. That money was to be paid in addition to the $2.25 million Bridge Development is shelling out in development fees.
When opponents of the project pointed out that the money Bridge Development was offering was tantamount to bribes to the city and the city’s institutions, and that over the 50-year life of the lease on the property upon which the project is to be built and the possible 50-year lease extension thereafter that the damage to the city’s streets and infrastructure would exceed a cost of $500 million, Bridge Development increased the $10 million offer to $16 million.
According to the city, Bridge will provide a “sales tax in-lieu fee” of $13.5 million, which the city maintains will offset the consideration that Amazon’s operation won’t involve the collection of sales tax nor the provision of sales tax proceeds to the city.
Heather Crossner, senior vice president of Bridge Development Partners, said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Upland.” Crossner said that her company’s proposal represented “likely the first and last opportunity for Upland to do something with”  property that “is naked land except for the dirt and rock crushing operation there that generates dust and has numerous pollution issues.” Crossner said the project will be an “improvement to the Foothill Corridor” and “a huge catalyst for the community. Upon completion, it will provide 300 permanent jobs, not including the 700 to 800 jobs it will provide during the grading and construction phase. This will transform that now-blighted property into something that is much more attractive than it is now, fitting to be the gateway to Upland.”
A total of 57 people addressed the commission during Wednesday night’s five-hour meeting. With only a few exceptions, the city’s residents were opposed to the project. An even thirty people gave discourse to that opposition. More than 20 individuals, however, most of them construction workers, representatives of the construction industry or others who had a financial interest in the project proceeding, voiced support of the project. Chairwoman Robin Aspinal antagonized a cross section of the public in attendance when, after an hour-and-a-half presentation by Bridge Development and Mike Poland, Upland’s contract planning manager, in which they comprehensively touted the project, she changed the ground rules pertaining to public input before the commission, and member of the public had their maximum speech time reduced from the customary five minutes to three minutes.
Both Upland Development Services Director Robert Dahlquest and Poland are heavily in favor of the project and have been pushing the imperative of having the project approved. One report previously was that Bridge Development is in a race to get the project approved and construction on the project initiated at once so that the facility can be up and running in time for Amazon to be distributing merchandise from by the 2020 Christmas season.
City officials were emphasizing by Thursday morning that the commission’s vote nixing the site plan was not a binding one and that the city council would have ultimate discretion on whether Amazon/Bridge will get go-ahead to proceed with the project as proposed. Thereafter, word broke that Brouse was pressing to change his vote on the site plan issue.
On social media, there has been considerable questioning of whether the planning commission’s decision with regard to the approval or disapproval of the site plan can be undone.
In response to those questions, City Manager Rosemary Hoerning put out a statement that Table 17.43-1 found in Section 17.43.050.E of the Upland Municipal Code designates the planning commission as “the decision maker for ‘development review’ applications” and that development review is synonymous with site plan review. “However, the table designates the city council as the decision maker for development agreements,” Hoerning said. “In this case, the project includes both a site plan review application and a development agreement. So the applications must be acted on concurrently by the city council. The same is also true of the lot line adjustment. The planning commission’s actions on these are recommendations which go to the council automatically without the need for anyone to file an appeal. The only action from Wednesday night that won’t be combined and sent to the council was the airport land use compatibility determination, because the Cable Airport Land Use Plan leaves the decision to the Upland Airport Committee.”
It thus appears the ultimate decision on the Amazon project will come back to the city council, perhaps as early as next month.
That a large segment of the most vocal and politically active members of the community are opposed to the project has pushed the current members of the council, several of whom have ongoing or higher political ambition, into a discomfort zone. Mayor Debbie Stone, who has already expressed support for the project, must stand for reelection later this year to remain in office. Stone has not announced her intention for November, though many believe it is unlikely she will make an effort to remain in office. Councilwoman Janice Elliott is believed to be interested in seeking the mayoralty. Councilman Bill Velto, who was appointed to the council last year, must stand for election in the city’s First District in November to remain on the council. He is also rumored to be interested in running for mayor. Councilman Rudy Zuniga has been mentioned by some as a favored candidate for mayor, though his longer term political aspiration runs toward the county supervisor position that will be up for election in 2022. Councilman Ricky Felix is interested in running for Congress. Despite the certain opposition of many of their constituents to the project, all five council members find themselves under pressure to allow the project to proceed. The precise provenance of this pressure is unknown; nevertheless, that Dahlquest and Poland are pushing for the approval of the project is widely interpreted as a sign that the project has majority or unanimous council support.
An issue is the integrity of the city’s processing of the project’s environmental certification and the accuracy of its project description.
Instead of doing a full-blown environmental impact report for the project, the city permitted Bridge Development to utilize a far less extensive and less expensive mitigated negative declaration process for the project’s environmental certification. It is the contention of the project opponents that the mitigated negative declaration for the project was less than comprehensive and in some respects misleading. Initially, Bridge Development identified the facility as having 150 truck bays and well over 1,000 parking spaces. It has since reduced the number of truck bays to 25. Nevertheless, the facility is yet slated to have at least 1,328 parking spaces. This potentially indicates Amazon’s intention of eventually running some 1,200 deliver vans out of the facility on a daily basis. This is not consistent with the mitigated negative declaration.
It has been noted by some residents, including Roger Stevenson, a civil engineer, that there will be highly active loading areas on the north and south sides. Others observed that property adjacent to the building is to be covered with awnings. Those areas should be, opponents of the project contend, included within the overall square footage of the building, boosting it into the neighborhood of 300,000 square feet.
A source the Sentinel deems reliable has indicated that upon the city council’s anticipated approval of the project, an environmental lawsuit challenging that approval will, without question, be filed, and that preparations for the suit are now under way.
Mark Gutglueck

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