By Mark Gutglueck
The rubber is now meeting the road with regard to a controversial proposal by University Realty LLC to construct 350 houses on 209 acres that currently fall within the City of Loma Linda’s jurisdiction at that city’s furthest extension westward. The property in question lies proximate to Reche Canyon in Colton, a once rustic area that has become more urbanized as a consequence of incremental development of the area that has been ongoing for three quarters of a century and the intensification of the use of Reche Canyon Road, once a little-used back passage linking San Bernardino and Riverside counties which became a far more popular thoroughfare in the decades since the 1984 incorporation of Moreno Valley. As a consequence, on a typical weekday tens of thousands of vehicles traverse through the canyon, using the road as a shortcut to bypass the 60 and I-215 Freeways to reach San Bernardino, the I-10 Freeway, Loma Linda, Redlands and elsewhere in San Bernardino County.
Reche Canyon residents, many of whom originally moved there because they considered it an idyllic rural island in the midst of the rapidly urbanizing Inland Empire, are resentful of the University Realty proposal, which to succeed will require that the City of Loma Linda fully forsake its claim to authority over the expanse to be built upon while the City of Colton annexes the property. That annexation is required because the property in question, lying at the extreme west end of Loma Linda, is separated by nearly a mile from the closest available municipal infrastructure and utilities further eastward in Loma Linda, on the other side of some 3,000 acres of undeveloped wilderness referred to as the South Hills. Thus, Loma Linda cannot economically provide the road access, water systems, wastewater treatment services or other infrastructure needed to support the subdivision University Realty is proposing. Colton, however, has long established municipal infrastructure proximate to the 209-acre site. Once the property is absorbed by Colton, those services could be provided by Colton. In this way, it appears that what University Realty is trying to do is move the land use decision authority with regard to the property it is intent on developing from Loma Linda to Colton.
A mélange of further complications besets the proposal.
One of those is the legality of what University Realty is attempting to do through the annexation. From shortly after Loma Linda’s incorporation as a city in 1970, the degree of development that was to take place in the South Hills and how much of that area is to be preserved and kept off limits from development has been the subject of repeated actions by both the city council in its many permutations over the years and Loma Linda residents. In the 1970s, the city council as it was then composed committed to a deal whereby what had been most of the totality of the hills were to be safeguarded against development into perpetuity, in return for the northernmost portion of the hills being opened up for development. Grading of the north end of the hills occurred and that development took place, and then in the 1980s, when memory of the guarantee against further development of the South Hills had dimmed, more development took place, again conditional upon the remainder of the hills being preserved. Then in the 1990s, further incursion into the South Hills took place, with an assurance that further development would be prohibited. In 2006, Loma Linda’s voters passed Measure V, which preserved two thirds of the more than 3,000 acres left in the South Hills as permanent open space. Given the various measures and ordinances the City of Loma Linda has and the layers of South Hills property preservation requirements and development prohibitions, there is grounds to conclude that what University Realty wants to do in developing the property is prohibited, indeed outright illegal.
Into the mix is the strong identification of the City of Loma Linda’s governmental structure with Loma Linda University Medical Center, an Adventist institution. Loma Linda is a charter city, and its charter provides the city with the authority to issue municipal bonds to support construction and operation of the medical center, which demonstrates the fashion in which City Hall is held to be a supporting mechanism for the University Medical Center. Many of the city’s elected officials, current and historic, have been employees of or administrators at the medical center. In its nearly 50-year history, the City of Loma Linda has never had a member of the city council who was not an Adventist.
University Realty LLC, also known as Arizona State University Enterprise Partners, is an an arm of Arizona State University which is engaged in raising money for Arizona State University by acquiring donations of property which can be developed commercially, residentially, and industrially to create a revenue stream, ultimately passed along to the the university, or to otherwise make investments in real estate that can subsequently be sold at a profit, and to engage in development projects including what University Realty founder and chief executive officer M. Randy Levin terms “full service, ground-up development including acquisitions and entitlements of land, master-planning and building design, construction, and financing of office, industrial and multi-family projects.”
Levin/University Realty and Loma Linda city officials/City Hall share a devotion to the educational institutions they are respectively connected with. By assuring Loma Linda University Medical Center administrators that the project planned for the property to be annexed to Colton, dubbed Rancho del Prado, will provide housing suitable for doctors and other medical professionals working at the medical center, Levin has created a commonality of interest with Loma Linda city officials relating to having the project proceed. In this way, Loma Linda officials have shown themselves amenable to going along with the annexation proposal.
The Loma Linda governmental structure, nonetheless, was not a monolith in supporting University Realty’s development agenda. Some officials expressed reservations about the city surrendering its land use authority with regard to the property. Under Loma Linda’s standards, no more than one home could be constructed on each ten acres of the property under discussion. What University Realty is seeking is 16.74 homes per ten acres. Planning commissioners Doree Morgan and Larry Karpenko, in particular, have expressed reservations about the wisdom of going along with University Realty’s proposal.
Despite that reluctance on the part of a handful of Loma Linda officials, the Loma Linda City Council in October 2017 voted to send a letter to the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees governmental jurisdictional issues, in support of letting Colton annex the property, after Arizona State University Enterprise Partners/University Realty, represented by Levin and Christine Aghassi, suggested the property should be moved into Colton’s sphere of influence. The letter stated that the property now in the possession of University Realty “cannot be served by Loma Linda with fire, police, water and other public services, either now or in the future. The City of Colton is the logical provider of these services.” The letter is widely interpreted as a clear signal that the majority of Loma Linda’s decision-makers were in favor of the project.
Levin and Aghassi have in the meantime hosted several community meetings in Colton, specifically in Reche Canyon, where they have sought to persuade local residents that the project will be a beneficial one.
They have not done a very effective job of selling the project to Reche Canyon’s residents.
Indeed, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission has been overwhelmed with Reche Canyon residents weighing in against the annexation and development proposal. The Sentinel was unable to find a single communication between Reche Canyon residents and the Local Agency Formation Commission which endorsed the project.
Among the letters and emails sent to the commission is one from Brenda Johnson, a resident of the Reche Canyon area. Johnson said it its improper for Loma Linda to be pushing the project. “If it is not going to defray the cost of mitigation,” Johnson stated for the record, the City of Loma Linda should have no role in convincing the Local Agency Formation Commission to allow the annexation to occur and no part in encouraging Colton to let the project proceed. Loma Linda “should shoulder the responsibility for the infrastructure” including “giving an alternative direction for traffic toward Loma Linda and away from Reche Canyon. Loma Linda should not be passing its congestion and growth problems onto its neighbors,” she said. Further, according to Johnson, “As it now stands, Reche Canyon is already a fire trap. Residents and 600 or more school children will be in grave danger if an evacuation ever becomes necessary.”
Cheryl Musee stated, “If there was a fire, major earthquake or flash floods, putting additional housing tracts in the canyon without a nearby fire station or proper road access to leave the canyon means that you will be putting us and thousands of others at risk of being trapped/dying should an emergency occur. Adding 200 homes in the future means increased fire risk to us all from human error or accidents, and overcrowding of a high fire risk area.”
Reche Canyon resident Mandy Miller said that in addition to fire safety reasons, she and her husband oppose the annexation and development plan because “It means our wildlife will be displaced. It means Reche ‘Canyon’ will become closer to Reche ‘City.’
According to Reche Canyon residents Patricio Rojas and Debbie Sabins, “The traffic is already out of control on that road because of the homeowners that live in Moreno Valley using our road for a shortcut.”
Toni and Art Quezada said they object to the “possibility of this turning into a doorway for someone to come in and develop this area.”
Bob Bennett said, “We already have to struggle with 25,000 cars a day, 99 percent of which come from Moreno Valley and surrounding areas. Not only would the additional traffic be frustrating, it would be life threatening.”
Danny Payne, an administrator for the Citizens for a Better Reche Canyon Facebook Page, said he was opposed to the annexation “without significant action toward addressing the congestion and traffic safety problems that plague Reche Canyon. On most weekdays it takes my family 20 to 30 minutes to navigate the traffic bottleneck at the mouth of the canyon. It’s a worsening problem that must be addressed before any significant new development is considered.”
Jim Eberle said the annexation and development is “not a good deal for anyone except the land developers, the Colton City Council and anyone who will profit from this who doesn’t live in the canyon.”
Lindsey Woods said the access to the project area would be limited to that “through an insufficient roadway and would demand resources from a city unable to accommodate the already established developments in the area. Having more residences developed in this area is irresponsible.”
Valarie Driskill lamented that the area is already marred by a “bottleneck. It is a solid line of cars from one end of the canyon to the other end. It takes 30 minutes to drive three miles.”
Faye Pribble asked the decision-makers overseeing the annexation request, “Are you out of your minds? Access would obviously be through Reche Canyon, which is already clogged with traffic. Are you simply trying to force a major highway through the canyon? We’re told there are ‘no plans in progress’ at present, but ‘somebody somewhere is planning, devising and developing’ and the end result will be to spread services and traffic control so thin as to disappear altogether.”
Reche Canyon resident Heather Tutton said that the canyon and its residents are being victimized by too many outside jurisdictions, including the County of Riverside and the cities of Riverside and Moreno Valley and Loma Linda, all of which are angling to keep outside traffic flowing through the canyon, clogging its streets. “We’re too many cities in too many counties and we do not have a voice that counts,” she said.
Robert Lewis said, “This whole proposal is unnecessary and dangerous. When I chose to move into this canyon, it was to move out of the city, away from the stress it brings. Yet, here I am, looking at a proposal that would bring that city life right into our canyon.”
Paul and Darlene McMIllan in a letter to the Local Agency Formation Commission wrote, “Since a city’s sphere of influence paves the way for annexation and since Loma Linda has allowed the area to retain its rural character, we oppose the proposed transfer.”
University Realty principals Christine Aghassi and M. Randy Levin have sought to put their best foot forward by asserting their company is “doing this the right way” and that it will abide by the letter of the California Environmental Quality Act in obtaining environmental certification for the project. The two emphasized that they have held multiple meetings with residents so far and will continue to do so in refining the project. They have given two figures with regard to the footprint of the project, one being 209 acres and the other being 203.
After more than two years of discussion, University Realty LLC, submitted a draft of its Rancho del Prado proposal to Colton in December 2019. That triggered some degree of protest, in both Colton and Loma Linda. A group of residents in Loma Linda asserted that the annexation proposal was an effort to dodge the restrictions of the South Hills preservation element of 2006’s Measure V, passed in November 2006 by Loma Linda’s voters with 2,132 votes or 52.73 percent in favor and 1,911 votes or 47.27 percent in opposition.
Levin and Aghassi sought to stay on point, not allowing that protest to distract them.
“University Realty is seeking to conserve significant open space and provide single-family residential opportunities that will fund needed improvements for the Reche Canyon area,” the company stated.
The 430-acre property University Realty has acquired east of Reche Canyon Drive and the historic Hitchin Post Market, will be developed in such a way that it will preserve 227 acres visible from Loma Linda as open space and place the houses on either 203 acres or 209 acres below the ridgeline to the south. That property will be proximate or coterminous with existing housing tracts in Colton on Prado Lane and Crystal Ridge Lane.
Levin and Aghassi insisted that the project will not worsen traffic congestion but resolve roadway issues, as it will involve creating a “funding mechanism” for Reche Canyon Road improvements, such as traffic control and congestion relief, a secondary access route to Reche Canyon Elementary School and the neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity of the school, they said.
The project will also increase the water main pressure in the area, according to Levin and Aghassi.
To allay the fire safety issue, Levin and Aghassi said the project proponents will pay for the establishment of a helipad to allow for quick emergency response.
Residents say that is nowhere near enough. They point out that the property was donated to University Realty, which can therefore afford to construct a roadway heading east-northeast or east through the South Hills, either reaching Barton Road in Loma Linda or stretching all the way to San Timoteo Canyon south of Redlands. In addition, residents insisted, University Realty should be required to construct a fire station.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, Colton Fifth District City Councilman Jack Woods, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Reche Canyon,” whose district includes the canyon, has made contradictory statements about the project. Initially, he seemed to support it, suggesting at the time that it would provide significant road improvements that would alleviate gridlock. After Reche Canyon residents came out in opposition to the project, Woods changed tack, at one point suggesting there were sufficient votes on the council to keep the project from proceeding, and declaring the proposal “dead.”
Despite the residential opposition to the project, Colton city officials appear to be steering a middle path in the controversy, neither endorsing nor opposing the project, but still the same supporting the processing of University Realty’s application, maintaining that the city has to give the proposal fair consideration throughout the process.
On June 16, the city council voted 6-to-1, with Councilman Luis González dissenting, to kick off the environmental review process for the project. Pursuant to the vote, Michael Baker International will catalog the impacts of all aspects of the project. Michael Baker International is to receive $272,525 to do that analysis for the city. The company will be paid by the city, so that there is no suggestion that its employees are doing University Realty’s bidding. University Realty is to reimburse the city the entire $272,525 cost and also provide the city with a 15 percent administrative fee – $40,878.75 – for overseeing and coordinating that work.
There were suggestions from some Colton residents that the council agreeing to go forward with the environmental analysis of the project signals that the city is going to ultimately approve it. Three of those predicted the city will not require University Realty to mitigate the impacts the project will impose on already overburdened Reche Canyon, with two iterating the belief the city will allow University Reality to complete the project without carrying out an exhaustive environmental impact report, and that the city will gloss over the environmental impacts, in particular the traffic issues, by giving the project a mitigated negative declaration. A mitigated negative declaration is a finding by a governing board, such as a city council, that all untoward impacts of a given project have been reduced to tolerable levels by the conditions of approval.
Mayor Frank Navarro told the Sentinel that was absolutely untrue.
“The project is in the very preliminary stages,” Navarro said. “Nothing is guaranteed. We will not be giving them a mitigated negative declaration. They are going to have to go through a full blown environmental impact report.”
Navarro said that “Arizona State University Enterprise Partners and University Realty’s team have had numerous community meetings. I have attended two or three to see what they are bringing to the table. There are plenty of questions to be answered. They aren’t going to be able to just ask for a mitigated negative declaration. I say again: There will be a full blown environmental impact report – nothing less. I know there are a number of people who are saying this project will be approved no matter what. That is not true. We have a process and anyone who knows me knows I am a very by-the-book type of individual. Our staff will will work through the environmental document certification process and the processing of the permits for this application and this project will either pass on its merits or fail on its lack of merit. Once the EIR [environmental impact report] is prepared and staff makes its analysis and opens the environmental documents for public review and comment, the environmental process will go forward, including questions and comments from the public. Responses to those questions and comments will be prepared and posted or provided back to the people who had those questions. Once that is completed, it will then go to the planning commission and they will have the opportunity to hold workshops where the entire community will be able to look at everything involved and any documents associated with the project.”
Nothing is being rushed, and the city council will not allow the safeguards that are applied to land use decisions to be shortcircuited, the mayor said.
“It is going to be a long process,” Navarro said. “Before there are any stakes in the ground, I am guessing it will be two-and-a-half to three years, and all of Reche Canyon’s residents will have their say when the environmental documents are made public. We have a top notch staff and I am confident they and we will do everything the city can to make sure all of the land use issues are properly addressed, public safety concerns are met, there are adequate services and we know what this development is bringing to the city.”
Nothing is being hidden, Navarro said, and no favoritism is being shown to University Realty.
“When the EIR is prepared, it will be open for public comment and scrutiny for either a 45 day or 90 day period, whichever is deemed appropriate,” Navarro said. “Staff will look at all of the aspects of the application and make its analysis for us to consider.”
The council is not driving the examination process, but rather overseeing it, Navarro insisted.
“As a council, we will not get directly involved in this process unless the planning commission denies the project and the developer appeals and it becomes a de nouveau matter,” he said. “It is a long process. No one can say, ‘We want to build 300 homes,’ and then just expect us to give them the documents and permits and allow them to proceed. As long as I am mayor, I will make sure the merits and benefits of any such project are thoroughly examined and the interests of Colton’s residents are protected. We want to make sure we cover everything. That is what we should do as public officials and what the people who have elected us have entrusted us to do, to follow the right process.”
By Mark Gutglueck