Without Notice, Commissioners Rescind Their February 12 Vote Denying Amazon Center Site Plan

In a move that has widened the gulf of distrust between the City of Upland’s top managerial and land use planning echelon and a growing contingent of community activists opposed to on-line retail behemoth Amazon’s proposal to establish a distribution center north of Foothill Boulevard and South of Cable Airport, the Upland Planning Commission this week without any explicit notice beforehand reversed its February 12 vote rejecting the site plan for the massive facility.
Beginning at least two years ago, representatives with Amazon began confidential discussions with Upland city officials relating to what was referred to as a “warehouse” or “warehouse/distribution facility” to be developed on the 50-acre site north of Foothill Boulevard and east of Central Avenue owned by the Bongiovanni Family Trust. As is routinely the case with Amazon projects, there was an understanding that no direct or public acknowledgment or confirmation of Amazon’s involvement was to be made, although in situations where there was potential that the prospect of an Amazon operation would be positively received, there was no hesitancy in hinting at who was behind the proposal. To effectuate this cover, Amazon utilized El Segundo-based Bridge Development Partners as its cut-out to serve as the project proponent.
In June 2019, during a so-called workshop involving city officials and Bridge Development Partners, the project was previewed as a proposal for a three-building warehouse complex involving 977,000 square feet under roof. Over the next several months, as objections to the scope of the proposal manifested, the tentative site plan was modified several times until in October, a revamped conception of the project was presented, one that was reduced to a single structure of 276,250 square foot. When the environmental review documentation for the project was posted on December 16, it came in the form of a negative mitigated declaration as opposed to a full-blown environmental impact report. In that documentation, the project was shown as a 201,096-square-foot distribution center to be located north of Foothill and south of Cable Airport. After feedback from the public was accepted in conjunction with the processing of the negative mitigated declaration, which some residents said was marred by the city’s failure to post all of the public input and commentary submitted to it, the planning commission met on February 12 to consider the project. As it turned out, Commissioner Alexander Novikov was absent that evening. Five votes/determinations/findings with regard to the project were slated for that night. On one, a determination of whether the project as proposed constitutes a use compatible with the city’s zoning codes and general plan as set out in the airport land use compatibility plan, the planning commission was joined by Airport Land Use Committee members Ronald Campbell and Howard Bunte. Together, the commission members including Chairwoman Robin Aspinall, Carolyn Anderson, Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker, along with Campbell and Bunte voted unanimously to enter a finding that the project as proposed constitutes a use compatible with the city’s zoning codes and general plan.
The commission then moved on to the critical issue of the project’s environmental certification. With Commissioner Yvette Walker dissenting, the panel voted 4-to-1 to ratify the mitigated negative declaration for the project, making what was essentially a finding that any untoward environmental impacts would be offset by the conditions of approval imposed on the project. The panel voted 3-to-2, with Schwary and Walker in opposition, to recommend approval of the development agreement, by which Bridge Development agreed to provide the city with $16 million to make up for the project not involving the collection of sales tax and to offset the city’s infrastructure costs to accommodate the development, including repair to streets worn down by the trucks and vans that will operate out of the facility. The planning commission then voted 4-to-1 to approve a lot line adjustment for the project, with Walker dissenting. With regard to the action the commission was to take that would be the most crucial to the project, the acceptance of its site plan, the panel’s discussion led to the formulation of a tortuously worded motion, one which called not for the acceptance of the site plan but rather the rejection of it. Commissioner 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, Schwary and Brouse prevailing and Chairwoman Aspinall and Commissioner Anderson dissenting. In this way, the commission’s proceedings were recorded as having denied the site plan. Subsequent to the meeting, however, Brouse claimed he had misunderstood the motion, believing that by voting “yes” he was voting to approve the site plan. He indicated he wanted to rescind his vote.
The commission’s vote as it was recorded complicated the Bridge/Amazon agenda. It was similarly problematic for those members of city staff – in particular City Manager Rosemary Hoerning, Community Development Director Robert Dalquest and the city’s contract planner, Mike Poland, who perceive the $16 million infusion of funding into the city’s operations that Bridge is offering as something too good for the city to pass up.
This week, the planning commission was again scheduled to meet. What appeared to be the most striking item on the agenda was a proposal for a restaurant with an outdoor dancing and entertainment area that was to include a hookah, through which, presumably, cannabis and tobacco smoke could be inhaled. That issue looked to be the one that would garner the major attention of the public. The agenda also featured what appeared to be a more routine item that seemed to call for simply confirming the planning commission’s February 12 vote with regard to the Amazon distribution center.
The relevant section of that item read:
Adoption of a resolution with findings in support of the planning commission’s recommendation to the city council regarding Site Plan No. 19-09 and Design Review No. 19-17 for the Bridge Point Upland Project.
On February 12, 2020, the Planning Commission voted to recommend that the city council deny Site Plan No. 19-09 and Design Review No. 19-17 for the Bridge Point Upland Project located at the northeast corner of Foothill Boulevard and Central Avenue. In order to finalize this recommendation, the planning commission must adopt written findings. Staff has accordingly prepared the attached draft resolution including proposed findings based on the commissioners’ comments for the planning commission’s consideration and action.
A. Resolution to recommend that the city council deny Site Plan Review No. 19-09 and Design Review No. 19-17.”
When the planning commission, in this case including Commissioner Alexander Novikov, on Wednesday evening took up the item, rather than adopting a resolution with findings in support of the planning commission’s February 12 vote, the commission took the item as license to revisit the vote entirely. The vote was retaken, this time with Novikov participating. Not only did Brouse change his vote from denying the site plan to approving the site plan, so did Schwary, who stated he had reviewed the site plan and was now comfortable enough with it to support it. Thus, the site plan passed, this time 4-to-2, with  Aspinall, Anderson, Schwary and Brouse voting to accept it, and Walker and Novikov dissenting.
A considerable number of Upland residents are opposed to the project on the grounds that it will generate a significant degree of traffic, negatively impact the city’s roads and other infrastructure, involve diesel trucks and vans of multiple sorts that will generate a substantial degree of air pollution, entail internet-based sales which will generate for the city no sales tax revenue, and will monopolize as a logistics-based operation property along the Foothill Corridor better utilized for commercial and service-provision businesses. Many of those residents weighed in against the project at the February 12 planning commission meeting as well as at other public meetings in Upland at which the project was a topic. Virtually all of them were caught unawares by the commission’s action.
While Brouse’s suggestion that he wanted to change his February 12 vote was no secret, there was no indication provided to the public that the February 26 planning commission meeting would provide him with a forum to actually do so.  The Sentinel twice reported, in its February 14 and February 21 editions, that Linden Brouse had given indication he was confused with regard to the wording of the motion to deny the site plan that he voted upon with his colleagues at the February 12 meeting. In this way, that a movement toward making the rescission of the February 12 site plan denial vote was not wholly unanticipated. Nevertheless, the item on the February 26 planning commission agenda pertaining to the February 12 site plan denial vote did not use the term “reconsideration.” Accordingly, the rescission of the February 12 vote and the way the commission went about doing so precipitated a firestorm in Upland on Thursday morning as word spread over the grapevine among the city’s residents about what had occurred the previous night. Numerous residents who contacted the Sentinel indicated they objected to what the commission had done, and not merely because they disagreed with the substance of the vote but because of the lack of clarity as to the action that was going to be taken, precluding them from registering an objection beforehand. Repeatedly referenced was that there was nothing in the language of the agenda item to suggest a vote to rescind the February 12 vote was to take place. Some asserted that this constituted a breach of the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law which requires that all action to be taken by a public body must be clearly noticed to the public 72 hours in advance of any such vote. There was no clear conveyance of what the commission was to do ahead of time, several residents suggested.
Residents offered more than a few uncharitable descriptions of what occurred on Wednesday evening. Duplicitous was among the most polite of those descriptions. Some residents used stronger language than that.
Residents also expressed dismay that a do-over of the commission’s vote was allowed to take place. One resident expressed skepticism about Brouse’s claim that he had misunderstood the motion he was voting upon on February 12, suggesting that he was rather caving into pressure exerted upon him after the fact by city officials and Bridge/Amazon advocates. She pointed out that Schwary, a far stronger personality than Brouse, appeared to have likewise buckled under the strain.
Another theme emerged in the questioning of the commission’s Wednesday night action, that being whether a vote that has been officially recorded – as the February action by the commission was – can be altered. On February 12, Schwary painstakingly clarified what the motion was – a denial of the site plan- before the vote occurred. With evident deliberation, he at that point cast his vote to deny the site plan. By his action and statements beforehand, Schwary clarified what was being voted on prior to the vote, precluding himself from being able to stake a claim that his vote was cast in confusion, as is Brouse’s contention. Allowing Schwary to now reverse his vote creates a circumstance, it is now being argued, in which every vote the commission will take from here on in, or has ever taken, is subject to similar equivocation.
The Sentinel was caught flatfooted by the Wednesday evening action, having not anticipated a rescission of the February 12 commission vote was to take place. By the time the Sentinel was able to fully determine what had occurred and assimilate its meaning, it was mid-afternoon on Thursday. It was not until 4:16 pm that an email of inquiry was dashed off to Hoerning, asking if she knew in advance that the rescission vote was to occur, if she believed the agenda made adequate disclosure beforehand of the action the planning commission took, whether she believes the city will be able to withstand a legal challenge if some individuals with standing undertake to contest what occurred, and whether the city’s administration intends to allow the planning commission’s action from Wednesday night to stand.
In the email, the Sentinel asked if the city’s records reflected that there was a precedence for the rescission of a commission vote such as had occurred on Wednesday night, and invited Hoerning to provide a justification of the rescission vote.
Upland municipal operations are conducted from 8 am until 6 pm Monday through Thursday. When Hoerning did not respond by the close of the business day on Thursday, hope was extended that she would do so on her weekday off today. She had not done so by press time.
-Mark Gutglueck

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