Forest Association, Audubon Society & Sierra Club Sue To Nix Church of The Woods Project

Last Month, the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, the San Bernardino Mountains Group of the Sierra Club and the Save Our Forest Association, Inc. filed a legal action against the County of San Bernardino’s approval of the Church of the Woods plan to build a campus on an undeveloped property in the San Bernardino Mountains community of Rimforest.
The lawsuit cites numerous violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and what those groups assert is the project’s inconsistency with the county’s general plan and Lake Arrowhead Community Plan.
According to Hugh Bialecki of Save Our Forest Association, “The project would devastate a tranquil forest refuge just east of Rimforest. A wooded hilltop along scenic State Route 18 would be graded flat. Old-growth trees and habitat for rare and sensitive wildlife would be permanently lost. Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt would be dumped across the headwaters of Little Bear Creek, which drains into Lake Arrowhead. The project’s massive grading across steep slopes in this headwaters area raises serious water quality concerns. The county also ignored independent experts’ warnings that the project would create traffic hazards and add to wildfire evacuation problems.”
Steven Farrell of the Mountain Group Sierra Club said, “We appreciate the church’s efforts in support of our community, but not with this project at this location. It is too disruptive. The county is violating the law by accepting this proposal’s flawed environmental impact report and making an unsupported, inadequate statement of overriding consideration. Even with its significant shortcomings, the environmental impact report identifies severe impacts to the public and to the site that the planning commission has misleadingly declared to be of no consequence.”
“We support the Church of the Woods congregation in their desire for a larger facility, but cannot allow the county to ignore the laws and policies designed to protect public safety, quality of life, our unique forest environment and imperiled plants and animals,” said Peter Jorris of the Audubon Society. “The County of San Bernardino needs to follow its own guidelines more faithfully and to accurately assess the full impacts of this project to avoid permanent harm to our community, visitors, the forest and its wildlife.”
On January 23, 2020, the San Bernardino County Planning Commission considered the project. At the hearing, 37 members of the public expressed their concerns about the project and asked that it be denied, while 26 members of the public expressed support for the project and asked that it be approved. County planning staff made a recommendation for approval of the project. After the planning commission concurred with the staff recommendation, and memorialized that in a vote to allow the project to proceed, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the Save Our Forest Association appealed the approval to the county board of supervisors. The board voted on October 20, 2020, to deny the appeal and grant final approval for the project.
As proposed and approved, the undertaking will involve a 27,364-square foot, two-story youth center/gymatorium, recreational facilities, a 41,037-square foot, two-story assembly building with a maximum seating capacity of 600, and a 1,500-square foot, two-story maintenance/caretaker unit in two phases on a 13.6-acre portion of the church’s 27.12-acre site.
According to Patrick Hopkins, a member of the Church of the Woods congregation and a licensed contractor who is serving as the project manager, the church has addressed water quality concerns relating to the project by complying with the conditions imposed on it in the county’s permitting process. He said the improvements, to be known as Sonrise in the Woods, will not impinge on the wildlife corridor adjoining the 27-acres where the development will take place. The church is intent on proceeding with the project, having already spent in the neighborhood of $1 million to plan the project and obtain permits and an entitlement to build, Hopkins said. He said the environmentalists opposing the project are intruding on the church’s property rights. He insisted the church has complied with the California Environmental Quality Act in pursuing the project.
-Mark Gutglueck

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