By Mark Gutglueck
In a temporary victory for San Bernardino City Councilman Ben Reynoso, in consonance with four of his council colleagues he has been able to direct city staff to prepare an urgency ordinance that could impose a moratorium of up to two years duration prohibiting the construction of new warehouses in the city.
Still, Reynoso’s suggestion that city officials suspend the construction of what serve essentially as distribution facilities for merchandise which largely originates in China and other Asian countries stands little chance of getting a final endorsement, since the required margin for the passage of a moratorium is so high.
Under state law, a moratorium cannot be put into place by anything less than a four-fifths vote of the elected decision-making panel of a given jurisdiction. San Bernardino has seven voting members on its city council. Thus, if all seven members of the panel participate in the vote, the temporary ban on warehouse construction in the city will need six votes to pass to meet the 80 percent or greater approval threshold for the temporary ban. .
Both Councilman Fred Shorett and Councilman Juan Figueroa appear philosophically opposed to preventing warehouse development to proceed.
Since 2015, 26 warehouse projects have been processed and approved by the city, entailing acreage under roof of 9,598,255 square feet, or more than one-third of a square mile, translating into 220.34 acres.
Councilman Reynoso has long questioned whether warehouses constitute the highest and best use of the property available for development in the city. He cites the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in them, the large diesel-powered semi-trucks that frequent them with their unhealthy exhaust emissions together with the bane of traffic gridlock they create in refuting the assertions of their sponsors and proponents that they constitute positive economic development.
As they have been developed over the last several years, Reynoso maintains, warehouses entail greater liabilities than benefits. Simultaneously, recent developments in terms of mechanisms for loading trucks, unloading them and the transition from fossil fuels to electricity in the powering of vehicles has created a circumstance in which many of the untoward environmental impacts traditionally associated with warehouses can be attenuated. San Bernardino currently has no guidelines to ensure the emission or pollution reductions that can be achieved are actually mandated into the conditions of approval for warehouses in the city going forward. Reynoso maintains the city should ensure such improvements are incorporated into the design and operation of any new warehouses or that the city forego such developments altogether unless substantial community benefit agreements from the developers proposing to build warehouses can be wrung from the project proponents to offset the downsides of such development
Accordingly, an attitude has grown in place around those politicians in Reynoso’s orbit that it would therefore be appropriate for the city to hold off on further warehouse construction while a comprehensive review of warehouses as a land use is conducted in conjunction with the reformulation of the city’s general plan, which has not been reviewed or revamped for more than a decade-and-a-half.
A general plan is the blueprint by which land use throughout a city is to be managed, and becomes the document by which a city’s broad planning guidelines are set and the city’s future development goals and standards are defined within the context of policy statements to achieve those development goals.
As the catalyst that has provoked the concept of imposing a moratorium to allow an assessment of the economic, environmental and social implications of allowing intensive warehouse development to occur, Reynoso has been thrown into a direct confrontation with San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia, whose approach toward development is in large measure driven by the willingness of the development industry to provide hefty political contributions to the elected officials who act as the decision-makers determining whether development projects can proceed.
In this way, Valdivia, who holds the traditional post of political leader in the 218,000 population city, is strongly opposed to a moratorium, as this would likely reduce the level of donations into his electioneering fund.
In response to Reynoso’s request that the city consider such a moratorium, city staff sought to steer a middle ground between the two contrasting attitudes toward the advisability of warehouse development.
A staff report written prior to but dated the day of this week’s city council meeting, May 19, 2021, authored by Director of Community and Economic Development Michael Huntley that was passed to the council by City Manager Robert D. Field states, “Over the last two decades, the Inland Empire has grown as a key logistics hub on the West Coast. While there are economic benefits to the growth of this sector, there are also challenges that must be considered as we evaluate land use issues in the city moving forward, including traffic and safety, infrastructure, environmental and health issues. Over the last 16 years, since the city’s general plan was last updated, there has been a marked increase in industrial development including warehouse, distribution, logistics, fulfillment center, manufacturing and other similar development in the city’s industrial and heavy commercial zoning districts. Additionally there are several specific plans that allow for the establishment of heavy trucking and warehousing uses around the San Bernardino International Airport and along the Cajon corridor to the west of the I-215 Freeway.”
Noting that the term warehouse is used to refer to all of the previously described uses, Huntley’s report continues, “Since 2015, the city has processed and approved 26 warehouse projects equaling 9,598,255 square feet. The city is currently processing three warehouse projects and five truck storage facilities. As the planning division processes warehouse entitlements, staff has identified that the land use classifications, definitions, development standards, performance standards, and design guidelines are not adequate for ensuring quality development that is compatible with surrounding land uses. To address these concerns, the update to the city’s general plan and development code is currently underway and will include an evaluation of warehouse uses. The issues that will be addressed as part of this analysis include land use compatibility, traffic and safety, infrastructure, environmental and health. The update to the general plan and development code will include evaluating the positive and negative impacts associated with warehouse development and operations in the community.”
The city council had the option, Huntley pointed out, under California’s Government Code, of “changing direction and proceeding with a moratorium before the general plan and development code update are completed,” This would entail, he said, passing an urgency ordinance.
“An urgency ordinance could prohibit the establishment, expansion, or modification of a warehouse oriented use anywhere within the city, and prohibit the city from accepting any new application or issuing any permits or entitlements to those that submit applications following the posting of the agenda for the consideration of a moratorium,” according to Huntley. “Pursuant to Government Code Section 65858, an urgency ordinance establishing a moratorium requires an affirmative vote of four-fifths of the city council to be adopted. If adopted, the moratorium continues in effect for 45 days unless extended by council action. Depending on whether the original moratorium was noticed or not, the ordinance may be extended either: (1) by an additional 22 months and 15 days; or (2) by an additional 10 months and 15 days and subsequently by an additional 12 months. In no event may a moratorium last for more than two years. While the moratorium is in effect, city staff would be required to study the issue and bring back proposed standards for council consideration.”
Huntley avoided recommending one way or another that the urgency ordinance putting the moratorium in place be adopted. Rather he called upon the city council to make that decision and “provide direction regarding whether it wishes to consider warehouse development standards as planned (i.e., as part of the update to the general plan and development code) or if it wishes for staff to prepare an urgency ordinance for more immediate consideration.”
On Wednesday night, it became clear that a solid majority of the council falls within Reynoso’s camp in terms of believing that the city should not be embracing unregulated warehouse development. Nevertheless, it does not appear that the council majority in favor of the temporary ban is overwhelming enough to meet the four-fifths burden to pass the urgency moratorium ordinance.
In its discussion Wednesday night, a majority of the city council evinced an understanding that developers stood the opportunity to acquire property and convert it into a warehouse and make some relatively sure and fast money in doing so, leading to the assertion that warehouses represented so-called “economic development,” but that this then left the city with the burden of projects that did not provide the community with high-paying jobs or a substantial amount of income into governmental coffers through sales tax receipts or property tax enhancements. The same council members indicated their sensitivity to the consideration that warehouse operations themselves often involved levels of pollution and impact on the environment that were unacceptable and incompatible land uses with nearby existing homes and schools.
Seventh Ward Councilman Damon Alexander decried the poor quality and character of development that many developers attracted to the city engaged in, and he called for raising the standards the city imposes on developers. He said he wanted the development community to “stop bringing us us their ‘C’ grade paperwork all the time.”
Alexander said San Bernardino was in danger of being overwhelmed by inferior development that did not bring into the city adequate infrastructure needed to accompany it.
“Hopefully someplace down this line we can put in place ‘no more million square foot facilities.’ Million square foot facilities can’t be repurposed. We need to shrink the size of all these warehouses. as well as [have] a moratorium. We’ve got to think thirty years from now. My best friend has got a 3D printer and he can print anything. Thirty-five years from now that’s going to be the thing and what are we going to be stuck with in the City of San Bernardino? A bunch of large warehouses when everybody’s going to have 3D printers in their back yard, in their office.”
Those warehouses that have already come to exist and which are yet to be built needed to be using, Alexander said, “alternative fuel vehicles,”
Alexander embraced the development, environmental and alternative energy standards the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians had incorporated into its 1.1 million-square-foot Landings warehouse project proposal approved by the city council in March. He said those standards were not yet incorporated into the city’s development code, and that the moratorium would give the city the opportunity to become more exacting in its standards. He indicated he was in favor of a moratorium as long as it did not exceed the state’s two-year limit.
Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra said she too was in support of a warehouse project ban that went no longer than two years or the time it would take to put new warehouse standards into the city’s revamped general plan.
She said the proliferation of warehouses and the trucks that frequent them was damaging the city’s infrastructure.
“Up Waterman and Tippecanoe, near the warehouses, I see those streets, how they’re being damaged,” she said. “Small streets are also being damaged around the warehouses. We’re not maintaining them. Nobody is.”
She said she would vote to support a moratorium “if we can hold off on this for no more than two years [and] get on to the general plan. The problem is the developers. They are not going to be happy with us because they can’t build a warehouse in our city. Well, maybe they’re not meant to come into our city. If they want to, they should be patient until we finalize our general plan. It has not been updated in over ten years, and unfortunately, we’re just putting warehouses in small neighborhoods right now.”
Councilman Fred Shorett indicated his belief that any development is good development, and that the city would be shooting itself in the foot if it were to disallow further building of warehouses.
“I certainly support the idea of a clean environment, electrification and going forward in thinking,” he said. “I have to, with all due respect, disagree that you can’t repurpose a million square foot building down the road. The owner will certainly, if it is not being used or if it’s vacant, they will find a way to repurpose it. I can’t agree with my colleague that they’ll just have to wait two years or what have you.”
Shorett further enunciated his pro-development philosophy. He indicated the city had problems, and that there were dilemmas larger than having to accommodate warehouses.
“We need to change our image,” Shorett said. “Developers are not bad people. They create jobs. They create environment. We can hold their feet to the fire, and we can put high standards on them, but the word moratorium is pretty scary and we would perhaps miss some opportunities over the next two years if there were a moratorium in place. In the business world, in the development world, in the building and the jobs world, we have ebbs and flows, and you strike while the iron’s hot. One reason we have a lot of warehouses is because we’ve got an airport, and we’ve got an airport that generally speaking is going to be a logistics airport and not a passenger airport. Hopefully. We will come in with a few passenger routes or a few planes, but generally speaking that’s going to be a freight and logistics airport.”
It is not the city’s place to inhibit potential developers with environmental standards, Shorett opined, and he said the scientific world, industry, state and federal environmental authorities and the innovation of the private sector should be relied upon to make improvements and raise standards rather than the city. Diesel trucks are, he said, “if I’m not mistaken going over to clean gas [sic]. They’re not going to be spewing the…
“diesel particulate matter,” Councilman Ted Sancez interjected.
“the pollutants they have in the past,” Shorett continued. “We’re not going to stop the traffic on the 10 the 215, the 210 We are surrounded by a freeway.”
Shorett said, “I don’t support a moratorium but I do support the high standards and all the things that we need to with the tools we have, and I think we just have to make sure we’re using them to the utmost.”
Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin noted that recently approved warehouses were being located within one mile of existing schools.
“Where is the city going to place their expectations, raise the bar as far as that is concerned?” she asked.
She said the warehouses were not built to remain empty, and that when they were filled, they brought with them certain environmental, health and safety risks. She said that there are better developmental opportunities out there and that warehouses are “taking up space for something the community does need and want.”
Councilman Ted Sanchez said that warehouses do represent a form of economic growth that can lead toward prosperity, but that building must be balanced with environmental safeguards against the devastation from pollution that warehouse operations can bring. He predicted that there were not the requisite six votes on the council to put a moratorium in place.
In making his pitch for not going the moratorium route, Mayor John Valdivia told the council it could layer the environmental protections and other limitations on warehouse projects it collectively felt desirable into conditions of approval and the conditional use permits (CUPs) for the projects on a case-by-case basis.
“Consider the implementation of strong CUPs,” Valdivia said.
When the council considered Reynoso’s motion, seconded by Calvin that staff be directed to prepare an urgency ordinance for a moratorium on warehouse construction, it passed 5-2 with Shorett and Councilman Juan Figueroa, who in virtually every vote he has cast since he has been a member of the council has sided with Mayor Valdivia, dissenting.
By Mark Gutglueck