Upland Council Again On The Verge Of Using Closed Meeting To Blast Past Project Opponents’ Objections

The Upland community is abuzz with concern and informed speculation that for the second time this month the city council will use the restriction on social gatherings to conduct a virtual public hearing at which resident objections will get short shrift and a controversial project will be given approval.
FH 11 LLC is seeking an entitlement to construct the Villa Serena project, 65 single family detached residential units on 9.2-acres that lie within the footprint of the 15th Street Flood Control Detention Basin.
The project is intended to fit within what remains as some of the last open space at the north end of Upland’s long-existing Foothill Knolls neighborhood, what has been described as San Bernardino County’s most exquisite upscale working class district. From shortly after FH 11 LLC, which is a subdivision of Frontier Homes, made its application for the project on July 26, 2018, there have been objections to it, primarily relating to the density it entails being inconsistent with its surroundings, that the two-story nature of the homes will interfere with both the privacy and mountain vistas of the existing homes to the south and the intensification of traffic circulation problems in the area it will create. An overarching issue is that the project is located on land intended for flood control alleviation.
There is a storied history to the land on which the project is to be built. Two decades ago, the property was conceived of as an intrinsic element of an elaborate flood control network. The Colonies Partners, headed by Dan Richards and Jeff Burum, had acquired the property, part of a 20.3-acre parcel, to have it serve as a repository for water that would be channeled away from the Colonies at San Antonio subdivision to the north. On September 24, 2002, the city council approved a development agreement with the Colonies Partners allowing the development of the Colonies at San Antonio Project. A section of that agreement entailed the city paying the Colonies Partners $5 million as the city’s fair share cost for increasing the capacity of various streets and the capacity of the city’s storm drains and sewer facilities. Included in that section of the agreement was that the 20.3 acres near 15th Street would be utilized as a flood water basin. The city council on December 22, 2003 voted to modify the cash-strapped city’s agreement with the Colonies Partners by paying Richards’ and Burum’s company $1.5 million and making up the remaining $3.5 million it had agreed to pay by granting the Colonies Partners a 10-year term for their first right of refusal to explore and identify a potential project in the area before the 15th Street Basin Property was dedicated to public use. The city council extended the Colonies Partners’ first right of refusal after the ten year period had passed.
Subsequently, Madole & Associates, a company involved in development services, civil engineering, project management, surveying and mapping, provided a drainage study for the 15th Street Basin in which it concluded that only 11.1 acres of the 20.3 acres were needed for future flood control purposes based on the assumption that previous construction of an additional storm water retention basin upstream and the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction of a concrete drainage channel along the eastern edge of the Colonies at San Antonio project would adequately handle storm water flows. Based on the Madole & Associates study, 9.2 acres of land in the flood control basin was transferred to the Colonies Partners for future development.
The Colonies Partners subsequently arranged with Frontier Homes to allow its principal, James Previti, Jr, to handle the development of the property.
The Upland Planning Commission has thrice held hearings on the Villa Serena project, continuing its initial hearing on December 11, 2019, at which the majority of those residents addressing the proposal opposed it, to its next meeting on January 22, 2020, at which point the commission voted 3-to-2, based upon a motion worded by Commissioner Gary Schwary, to recommend to the city council that it deny approval of the project. Schwary and commissioners Linden Brouse and Alexander Novikov went on record as being against the project and commissioners Robin Aspinall and Yvette Walker voted in favor of it. The commission then took up the project as an issue once more, at its February 25, 2020 meeting. On this occasion, all six of the commission’s members were present, including the previously absent Carolyn Anderson, at which point the vote to recommend to the city council that it deny the applicant permission to proceed registered at 4-to-2. Of note was that Commissioner Aspinall, who had previously voted in favor of the development plan, reversed herself, this time joining with her colleagues Anderson, Brouse and Novikov in opposing the project. However, Schwary, who the previous month had made the motion to advise the city council against allowing the project to proceed, reversed himself, joining with Walker in endorsing Frontier Homes/FH 11, LLC’s proposal for the development of the property.
Reports are that city staff is militating heavily in favor of the project and that Councilman Ricky Felix is already on board to see the project approved when it comes before the city council next Monday night, April 13.
Of concern is that the project will substantially reduce the property set aside to serve as an intrinsic part of the flood control system that will become increasingly crucial as further infill development takes place in Upland. Converting the land once slated for handling storm water run off into relatively densely-packed residential uses, some observers say, will render the remaining 11.1 acres of land adjacent to it that remains devoted to dealing with water flow generated during a deluge inadequate to the drainage task, and finding land to support that flood control function in the future will prove either impossible or prohibitively costly if the basin land converted to homes must be replaced. Simultaneously, the residents of Foothill Knolls have repeatedly made clear they consider the project Previti is pursuing to be inconsistent with the ambiance of their neighborhood and tenor of life, which the planning commission twice acknowledged with its vote. The prospect that the city council is going to disregard their sentiments and the recommendation of the planning commission has resulted in no little disquiet among Foothill Knolls homeowners.
Some see in next Monday night’s meeting agenda a reflection of what occurred on April 1, when the city council convened a special meeting to consider another controversial project unpopular with the lion’s share of the city’s residents who weighed in with regard to it, that being Bridge Development Partner’s 201,096-square foot distribution center for on-line retail giant Amazon. In that case, the planning commission had originally voted to recommend against the city council giving that undertaking go-ahead, followed by Schwary’s reversal of his vote at a subsequent meeting, which resulted in the commission recommending that project’s passage. The April 1 meeting, just as the upcoming one on April 13, was conducted, as a consequence of the safeguards put in place to ward off the potential spread of the coronavirus, in a virtual context, that is, with no actual physical meeting taking place, and the interchanges among those involved taking place by means of an audio-visual hook-up in which the council members heard the proponents’ audio advocacy of the project and staff’s input, and the public’s participation was limited to telephonic statements that were not heard in real time but rather following an approximately 30 second delay. In this way, the Upland citizenry’s ability to petition the city’s political leaders to have them heed the sentiment of those they represent was compromised, and the council on April 1 in a 4-to-1 vote overrode those citizens’ objections and approved the Amazon distribution center project. With the council insulated and isolated from its constituency again this coming Monday night, residents of the Foothill Knolls district have expressed the belief that the city council will again ignore their will, and be swayed by the presentation of city staff members and the project proponent whose financial interest in maximizing the profit he can derive through the completion of the project clashes with the existing residents’ conception of the character of their living environment.
-Mark Gutglueck

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