Judge’s Review Of Challenge To Massive Upland Amazon Warehouse Project Postponed

A determination of whether Bridge Development Partners’ effort to construct on the west side of Upland a 201,096-square foot distribution center for on-line retail behemoth Amazon will be able to proceed has been postponed, at least for another six weeks.
A court hearing on a lawsuit challenging the City of Upland’s approval of the project last year that was set for Friday, March 12, was put off until April 23, according to Shirley Van Hook-Korn, the court’s communication officer. At that hearing, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge David S. Cohn was to hear oral arguments as to whether or not the environmental certification for the project, made by the city council last year was adequate and in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.
After first being previewed to the community in June 2019 as three buildings comprising 977,000 square feet, what was dubbed the Bridge Point Project was downscaled from what was originally proposed to a single 201,096-square foot facility involving 25 dock high loading bays for 18-wheeler trucks, another 32 bays for delivery vans and trucks, along with 1,438 parking spaces around the building. The facility was slated for a 50-acre site in Upland north of Foothill Boulevard slightly east of Central Avenue and south of Cable Airport.
Controversy dogged the project early on. The city allowed the project to proceed toward approval without being subject to a comprehensive environmental impact report, which many Upland residents believe should be carried out for a project of such size, intensity and complexity. Rather, the city elected to use a mitigated negative declaration to complete the environmental review process.
An environmental impact report is an involved study of the project site, the project proposal, the potential and actual impacts the project will have on the site and surrounding area in terms of all conceivable issues, including land use, water use, air quality, potential contamination, noise, traffic, and biological and cultural resources. It specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts. A mitigated negative declaration is a far less exacting size-up of the impacts of a project, by which the panel entrusted with the city’s ultimate land use authority, in this case the city council, issues a declaration that all adverse environmental impacts from the project will be mitigated, or offset, by the conditions of approval of the project imposed upon the developer.
A cross section of the city’s residents disputed the city council’s declaration that all impacts from the project had been adequately mitigated, based both on the magnitude of the project and the consideration that the city council lacked land use and environmental expertise. There were questions as well as to whether the zoning at the project site would allow a distribution facility to be established there. Moreover, many people found it highly disturbing that Bridge Development Partners consistently refused to officially acknowledge that Amazon was to be the eventual tenant at the warehouse for the initial 50-year life of the project. Bridge/Amazon has an option to renew the lease on the property for another 50-year period, potentially making the project an issue in the city for the next century. There was and remains a suspicion that the project will be subject to substantial expansion, without being subject to any further environmental analysis, perhaps to as large as the 977,000 square feet originally proposed, since 1,438 parking spaces is far in excess of what would normally be needed for a 201,096-square foot warehouse. Another major concern was that the project proposal offered no provision for offsetting the sales tax revenue loss that would come about as a consequence of Amazon’s on-line operational model or remunerating the city for infrastructure damage that would inevitably occur over a 50-year or potentially a 100-year period if the project were to proceed.
On February 12, 2020, the Upland Planning Commission, with Commissioner Alexander Novokov absent, considered the project and voted 3-to-2, with commissioners Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker prevailing, to recommend that the city council not approve project. After two weeks during which the commission members were intensely lobbied, the commission on February 26 met once more to reconsider the project despite its previous rejection, this time with Novokov present. Even though Novokov cast a vote against recommending approval of the project, two of the commissioners who had voted against the project previously – Gary Schwary and then-Commissioner Linden Brouse – switched their votes, such that in a move unprecedented in Upland’s history, the planning commission reversed itself, voting 4-to-2 to recommend that the city council approve the project.
On April 1, 2020, the Upland City Council by a 4-1 vote approved the project, in doing so accepting a $17 million development agreement offered by Bridge Development Partners. That approval included the council’s mitigated negative declaration, which is a far less exacting review of environmental considerations than an in-depth environmental impact report. Thereafter, a contingent of Upland citizens banded together as a group taking on the name Upland Community First. The group’s members retained attorney Cory Briggs, who then filed a petition for a writ of mandate, seeking from the court an order that the city revisit the environmental review process for the project, make a determination that the mitigated negative declaration was inadequate and require that a full-blown environmental impact report for the project be carried out before the project is allowed to proceed.
As a consequence of the Upland Community First legal filing, any action toward the completion of the project, including site grading has been suspended. In the meantime, Bridge Development Partners has seemingly recruited Bill Velto, who voted last April as a member of the city council to approve the project and who in November was elected Upland mayor, to serve as its agent in approaching members of Upland Community First in an effort to get that group to end its challenge of the project approval. To that end, Velto has indicated via text messages that Bridge Development Partners has expressed a willingness to more than double the $17 million in project impact offsets the company had agreed to pay in the development agreement for the project approved last April to $40 million. That offer was conditional upon Upland Community First dropping its demand for a comprehensive environmental impact report and accepting an environmental review that would allow the project to proceed, without any of the changes that would typically be required by an environmental impact report. Upland Community First spurned those offers, and remains intent on forcing the issue through the writ of mandate proceeding, remaining optimistic that the law favors it in its effort to require that an environmental impact report be done. Upland Community First’s members believe a properly done environmental impact report will result in the imposition of conditions on the project that will truly mitigate the untoward elements of the project which will have a deleterious impact Upland residents’ quality of life and health and safety for at least 50 years and perhaps a century if Amazon renews the lease on Bridge Development Partners’ warehouse.
Members of Upland Community First told the Sentinel that their legal team was fully prepared to go into court to make a case that the full-blown environmental impact report needed to be carried out. On Tuesday, March 9, shortly after Van Hook-Korn informed the Sentinel that today’s hearing was to be postponed, a phone call to Upland Community First spokeswoman Lois Sicking Dieter was made. At that point, Sicking Dieter had yet to be informed of the continuation. After verifying that the court had rescheduled the hearing for April 23, she said that the delay had come not at the request of Upland First, but rather as a consequence of either Judge Cohn’s determination that the hearing needed to be postponed or a request by the city. Efforts to obtain from the city, which has recently changed its legal representation from the law firm of Richards Watson & Gershon to the law firm of Best Best & Krieger, whether it had made the continuance request and, if so, the grounds for seeking the continuance elicited no response.
-Mark Gutglueck

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