By Mark Gutglueck
Redlands city officials have stepped into a quagmire of controversy through their ready accommodation of a developer intent on converting a 130-year old citrus farm, one of the last remaining original orange groves that dates back to the decade after the City of Redlands’ 1888 incorporation, into a residential subdivision.
As it now appears, whether the city approves or rejects the development proposal, there is an overwhelming likelihood the city will be put into the position of having to defend against a lawsuit relating to the project.
Jeff Burum and Matt Jordan of Rancho Cucamonga-based Diversified Pacific have set their sights on converting six of the England Grove Estate’s 8.8 acres into 28 2,000-to 2,600 square foot homes on what are mostly 6,200-square-foot lots.
The property slated for development lies within one of the city’s four primary historic zones, designated as the West Highland Avenue Historic and Scenic District, consisting of 24 historic homes within a two-mile radius of the proposed Diversified Pacific project. Those historic properties include the Miss Hester Leaverton House at 159 West Palm Avenue, less than 300-feet away; the Montgomery House, which borders the orange grove; the Thomas Jeffrey House at 625 Alvarado Avenue; the Thayer residence at 104 West Cypress Avenue, as well as 13 homes on West Highland Avenue, three homes on West Cypress Avenue, one house on South Buena Vista Street, two houses on Alvarado Street and three homes on West Palm Avenue.
If the project is given go-ahead by the city council as is anticipated next Tuesday, 90 percent of the grove and its irrigation system on the England Grove Estate, put into place by T. Y. England between 1891 and 1893, will be bulldozed.
The home on the property facing Palm Avenue initially built by Thomas Y. England in 1893 in the Victorian Style and altered into a prairie style in 1914 by Guy Hunter, as well as the carriage house behind the England home and the England Queen Anne cottage built on another part of the property facing Alvarado Street will be preserved, along with roughly 57 of the navel orange trees that were marketed for decades under the Pure Gold label.
Even before Diversified Pacific announced its developmental plan, questions had emerged about the fate of the property and its orange grove, and manipulations of the City of Redlands planning process. The England grove was planted as mostly navel orange trees beginning in 1891, using a gravity feed irrigation system. In 1986, Redlands’ voters passed Measure O, which included the approval of a bond to pay for purchasing and preserving historic orange groves in the city. The England Estate containing all of its historic assets – the two homes, the carriage house, the groves and its gravity fed irrigation system as well as its cut granite wall – was sold by the Hunter Family to James and Annie Attwood in 1922. The Attwoods in turn passed it along to their daughter, Mary Attwood Heeney and her husband Thomas J. Heeney, who continued to operate it as a citrus-producing farm. More than a decade ago, Thomas Heeney’s grandson Christopher Brumett along with his wife Jacquelyn signaled their willingness to sell the property. The City of Redlands, with its available grove-preservation bond money, and the Redlands Conservancy, showed interest. The Redlands Conservancy offered $3 million for the property. The Brumetts turned that offer down, saying they wanted roughly twice that amount. Another offer, this one for $4 million, was tendered by preservationists. Again, the Brumetts balked at that offer.
Inexplicably, in June 2019, the Brumetts accepted Diversified Pacific’s $2.35 million offer for the 8.8 acres.
Later that year, as Diversified Pacific’s developmental intentions for the property became known, residents of the West Highland Historical District approached City Hall, seeking to learn what they could, and to provide their input to top municipal staff and Redland’s elected officials, who would have the ultimate decision-making authority over the proposed project. When then-Redlands Mayor Paul Foster was approached, he begged off, insisting that it was premature to discuss anything about the matter, as the parameters of Diversified Pacific’s plan were not firmed up. Subsequently, when Diversified Pacific laid out that it intended to build 30 homes on the property, enclose it entirely with a wall and have a single entrance into the neighborhood that would be gated, Foster remained unwilling to discuss the project with any of his constituents. Unbeknownst to the general public, however, Foster was engaged in private dialogues with Diversified Pacific’s principals, during which he offered them an assurance the project as they were proposing it would pass muster with city staff and the city council.
In late 2019, the proposed project was submitted to the city.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, most development projects are subjected to an environmental certification process. Some types of environmental certification are more intensive than others, ranging from an environmental impact report to an environmental impact study to an environmental assessment to an environmental examination to a mitigated negative declaration to a negative declaration.
An environmental impact report, the most intensive type of environmental analysis and certification there is, consists of 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. An environmental impact report specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts. A mitigated negative declaration falls near the other end of the scale, and exists as 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, as in the case of Redlands 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.
Early in the process of the City of Redlands’ evaluation of Diversified Pacific’s development proposal for the England Estate property, which Diversified Pacific dubbed the Redlands Palm project, the city committed to allowing the project to be completed without Diversified Pacific having to go to the expense of a full-blown environmental impact report, instead consenting to have the city council consider providing the project with a mitigated negative declaration.
On October 1, October 15, and December 17 of 2020, and then on March 4, 2021 the Redlands Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission reviewed and discussed the initial study the city had completed as part of the proposed mitigated negative declaration the city council was to make in providing the project its environmental certification. The Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission further considered the cultural resource assessment and historic resource evaluation that was to become part of the permanent record relating to the project. The Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission adopted a resolution on March 4, 2021, documenting its findings that the proposed mitigated negative declaration and cultural resources report did not adequately identify and address the potential impacts to cultural and historic resources. The Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission recommended that a full environmental impact report be prepared for the project to comprehensively identify and analyze any potentially significant impacts.
The matter was thereafter taken up by the Redlands Planning Commission on May 11, 2021. During the commission’s discussion there was some degree of concern expressed with regard to how the project will mesh with the existing surrounding neighborhoods, the project being a gated one, limited access to the project, the proposed cul-de-sac on the Alvarado Street side of the project, the proposed variances for the front yard setbacks and rear yard open space, and the applicant’s lack of communication with the surrounding neighborhood, as well as Diversified Pacific’s request for a reduction in lot size, and the project’s impact on historic resources.
The meeting was continued to June 8, 2021, pursuant to the formation of an ad-hoc subcommittee composed of two members of the planning commission, commissioners Karah Shaw and Steve Frasher.
This generated some heat, as Shaw is a real estate agent, and some felt this could constitute a conflict of interest in that she stood to profit were she to get the listings on or serve as a broker on the home sales within the Redlands Palm subdivision.
Shaw and Frasher met with Diversified Pacific’s principals and representatives thrice to discuss the project. Following the meetings, the applicant submitted a revised plan for the project, which removed the private access gates and the cul-de-sac, such that what had formerly been proposed as a private street went all the way through the project and connected to Alvarado Street. The removal of the cul-de-sac reduced by three the locations where there were front and rear yard setback variances. Other substandard setbacks remain as part of the project.
After being unable to come to a conclusion on June 8, the planning commission on June 22, 2021 voted 5-to-2, with Dr. Angela Keller and Matt Endsley dissenting, to recommend that the city council provide the project with a mitigated negative declaration with a proviso that roughly 56 of the trees would be retained and a kiosk would be erected that would recite the history of the England Estate and its significance to Redlands. The commission voted 6-to-1, with Keller dissenting, to grant the variances allowing yard size limitations and reduced setbacks on some of the lots.
When the city council convened on July 20, 2021, neither Burum nor Jordan was in attendance.
Peter Pitassi, an architect from Rancho Cucamonga representing Diversified Pacific, emphasized that the project as proposed would preserve the England Home and the carriage house, which were to be sold off to someone who would restore them, and that the England Cottage would be preserved as well.
Early in the proceedings, before the public weighed in, all five members of the council disclosed that they had private meetings with representatives of Diversified Pacific.
A group of residents who had banded together under the auspices of the group name Save The Grove retained attorney John McClendon.
McClendon prepared a document that was presented to the council which put forth the assertion and marshaled support thereto that a mitigated negative declaration for the project would not stand a legal challenge and that under the California Environmental Quality Act the city was required to conduct a full environmental impact report for the project. The city was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act because it had not consulted with nor included other agencies in determining what type of environmental document to prepare or in its preparation of the so-called initial study for the mitigated negative declaration, McClendon maintained.
Moreover, according to McClendon, there were disagreements among experts and analysts with regard to the issues dealt with in the initial study. Any such disagreements between experts as to whether an impact is significant or not necessitates that a comprehensive environmental report be compiled, McClendon said.
To make a negative declaration of no significant impacts and bypass the requirement for a full environmental impact report, McClendon said, the city had to consult with all agencies in the state with responsibility pertaining to the issues at play in the development. He asserted that the city had failed to make such consultations. The documentation upon which the mitigated negative declaration was based, “was not sent to the state clearing house,” McClendon said. “It was not properly distributed.”
McClendon included arguments that the destruction of the historical assets the project would entail imposed a mandate that the full-blown environmental impact report be conducted.
The point was further made that the listing of the 8.8-acre England Estate as a privately-owned historic resource subjected the property to a requirement that the historical assets be preserved in context, requiring that the two homes, the carriage house, the groves, their gravity-fed irrigation system and the surrounding wall be kept intact, and that any permanent changes to the exterior or setting of a designated historic resource be done in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Properties.
The estate’s grove qualified as prime farmland, McClendon said, and the mitigated negative declaration did not provide adequate disclosure of that.
Without his saying so explicitly, McClendon’s document and abbreviated presentation of it at the July 20 meeting stood as a warning that approving the project by means of an environmental certification of anything less than an environmental impact report would trigger a lawsuit against the city.
Sherli Leonard, the executive director of the Redlands Conservancy, said her organization had twice sought to purchase the England Estate to ensure its preservation but had been rebuffed. Diversified Pacific’s preservation of the two historic homes and carriage house fell short of keeping “the site intact,” she said. The grove, she said, was “integral” to the house and should be preserved.
A statement from Jack Stewart, who claimed 68 years experience in farm management, was read into the record at the hearing. Stewart said he had done a visual inspection of the grove from the street, and that it was his opinion as a “professional farmer” that the grove could be “saved,” given the grove’s “deep root system. The trees are still viable. The grove can be productive,” according to Stewart.
A statement from former Mayor Bill Cunningham was also read to the council.
“The decision you face has ramifications far beyond the merit or lack thereof of 28 homes proposed in this project,” he said. Cunningham noted that Measure O provided the city with bond money to “save [the local citrus] industry, jobs and heritage.” He said the England grove could easily be added to the city’s inventory of preserved citrus trees, and that the grove “can be brought to productivity.” Calling the England Estate a “unique asset,” Cunningham said it “should be treasured” as one of the last remaining such elements in Redlands. “It is the only property of the city that exists at it did 100 years ago. Its fruit has been of first quality. When one considers the unique attributes of the estate and the contributions the Englands made to the town we all cherish, the destruction of the grove can only be considered a sacrilege.”
Stuart Carlson took issue with Councilman Paul Foster’s advocacy on the part of Diversified Pacific and the charge he had made that the project’s opponents were seeking to block progress toward the project’s approval at the last minute by raising issues that should have been dealt with previously, pointing out that when Redlands residents approached him a year-and-a-half before with their concerns about the destruction of the grove, Foster had told them “we were too early.”
Carlson said “Diversified Pacific is requesting variances to existing codes for this project.”
He asked, “Is this the proper development that is consistent with the neighborhood? The answer is ‘No.’ There are too many homes on too small of lots, putting their homes too close to our homes.”
This proximity between dwelling units, Carlson said, was a violation of the city’s zoning code. “This is pouring salt into the wound of losing the attributes of this beautiful neighborhood in the name of developer profit. We expected that from the developer. The final question is: Will the council add to the salt in the wound for developer profit or deny the variances at the very least or the project as a whole for a plan that better fits in the neighborhood?”
Michael Kowalski said the council has a “history of essentially ignoring its constituents when it comes to development in the city.” The council, he said, could be counted upon to “appease the developers at every time. Why is it necessary to tear up one of the last remaining orange groves so 28 houses can be squeezed onto the property? Why is it that there are vast open spaces to the north [where] these same houses could go? Why have building codes and requirements if all that it takes to deviate from them is to seek variances with little to no logical support for those requests? Why is it that these 20 modern homes which have no resemblance to the homes in the established neighborhood have to be squeezed onto this minimal acreage?”
Susan Crockett said she felt “these 28 houses crammed like shoeboxes” were “destroying this piece of our history.”
Richard O’Donnell said that the project was out of compliance with Redlands’ Measure U’s restrictions on development and the California Environmental Quality Act. He said the property was one lot of record as of March 1997, and the “30 something new lots” planned for the project are “new lots of record. New lots of record of are not exempt from Measure U’s restrictions. The land has been agricultural for over a century. Land used as agriculture as of November 1986 has to be developed at residential estate standards” as opposed to the less restrictive zoning in the current development proposal. O’Donnell went on to say, “The trees on that land have been intentionally mismanaged since it was purchased by the developer. Send this thing back to the drawing board. A new proposal should be required, using all of the residential estate zoning requirements.”
LuAnn Benton, who lives on Palm Avenue in the Montgomery House immediately adjacent to the England Estate orange grove, called upon the city council “to deny this project proposed by Diversified Pacific and require a full environmental impact report be performed according to California Environmental Quality Act guidelines.”
Redlands’ status as a “Certified Local Government” within the context of having committed to historical preservation, Benton said, requires it “to provide regular reports of their compliance” in making efforts to maintain significant historical and cultural resources.”
Benton said, “In reference to the mitigated negative declaration, the Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission concurred with our claim, and disagreed with [the City of Redlands development issue consultant] LSA’s conclusions. The Historic and Scenic Preservation Commission recommended that this project not move forward, along with the recommendation for the preparation of an environmental impact report.”
Benton noted that “The England Grove Estate is the last remaining intact gravity-fed irrigation property in Redlands. To simply retain the England main house, without its context of the grove, gravity-fed irrigation, granite cut wall, barn, carriage house and contributing historic elements, is a significant impact pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. The 28 homes, in place of the historic grove, would have a significant impact on the England residence, as well as the entire neighborhood. The requested variances are not warranted. The squeezing of large tract homes on very small lots will destroy the historic context of our neighborhood.”
If the city were to approve the project as proposed, Benton said, the city would violate its own development standards.
“According to the general plan update, the preservation of historic neighborhoods and associated resources is paramount to keeping Redlands unique,” she said. “Diversified Pacific is systematically destroying the entire historic grove by not watering consistently. The trees are dying. They only water when a city meeting is upon them.”
Susan Keith, referencing the full council’s acknowledgment of having met with Diversified Pacific and Foster’s refusal to meet with the residents advocating against the project, said, “It really bothers me that you have time for the developers but not your constituents.”
Invited by Mayor Paul Barich to refute what the opponents of the project had said, Pitassi said he would remind the council and everyone else that “This property is private. It is privately owned. It’s been zoned for this use for many, many, many years, going back to 1955.”
Pitassi sought to put to rest reports that there somehow was more to the circumstance than meets the eye with regard to how Diversified Pacific was able to acquire the property, despite paying the Brumetts, as the heirs of the Heeney family, less money for the property than the Redlands Conservancy had offered.
“The property was on the open market for sale for over ten years,” Pitassi said. “There were attempts made, as I understand it, by the conservancy to purchase it. The sellers for reasons known to them were not able to come to an agreement with them, and consequently it continued to be on the market when we entered discussions with them, and we were able to complete a transaction, closing escrow in June of 2019. The Heeneys were struggling with the grove. That’s why it was on the market. Unfortunately, commercial viability of the grove simply wasn’t there any longer. As someone pointed out, the trees are, many of them, over 100 years old. Their productive life simply isn’t there any longer, and the market for citrus, particularly oranges, isn’t very strong. The economic records we received showed it was a money-losing operation, and they were struggling to keep it. So, it was clearly not what the image of it may be from an economic perspective.”
Pitassi dismissed objections to the project relating to the size of the lots and the density of the homes to be built.
“The minimal lot size for this project proposal is 6,400 feet and the average lot size is over 7,200 square feet, which is very common for subdivisions within this community and many, many communities,” Pitassi said. “In fact, in some communities, it would be considered rather large. We believe the yield and land plan for this site is appropriate.”
Pitassi said the zoning in the area would allow over 40 homes to be built there and that Diversified Pacific had chosen not to build two-story homes, though Redlands’ zoning code would have allowed the company to do so.
“We’ve gone to some significant effort to be as sensitive as we can be to the conditions around our property,” Pitassi asserted. “We think we have a project that will be very beneficial to the community and the neighborhood.”
The lawyer for Diversified Pacific, Mark Ostoich, insisted the letter of the law is on the side of the developer, and that the project opponents could offer nothing beyond their various points of view holding that the project was not right for their neighborhood.
“The California Environmental Quality Act is based on substantial evidence that is in the record,” Ostoich said. “Opinions are not based on substantial evidence. They are opinions. They’re respected. They are what they are.”
Those opinions carry no legal authority, Ostoich said.
“The mitigated negative declaration that was prepared in this case is based on the only substantial evidence in the record of these proceedings, and that substantial evidence is the cultural resources assessment that was prepared by our consultant who is a Secretary of the Interior-qualified professional and was aggressively peer-reviewed by the city’s consultant, LSA Associates. I submit to you that the only substantial evidence in the record of these proceeding is the cultural resources assessment.”
The preservationists in Redlands should content themselves with what they are getting out of the project, Ostoich said.
“The cultural resources that are being lost [i.e., 90 percent of the the grove and the irrigation system and the wall] are less significant than the highly visible cultural resources that are being retained [the two homes and the carriage house],” Ostoich said.
The Sentinel made repeated efforts this and last week, both by phone and email, to reach Burum and Jordan for their input with regard to the project and the burgeoning opposition to it among Redlands’ residents. Neither had responded by press time.
Toward the end of the July 20 hearing, Councilman Eddie Tejada, in reaction to his having been forced to acknowledge that he had meetings with representatives from Diversified Pacific and hearing that all of his council colleagues had likewise had private exchanges with Diversified Pacific together with repeated references to the council members shunning residents when they sought to engage with them regarding the project, said, “I am sorry if it appears that the council is only listening to the developers and not the community. I think we can do a better job of expressing how it is that we are doing our best to communicate what you are sharing with us, because, trust me, we read all of the emails and I know that some of you reread some the things you already sent in. Part of the process, for me at least, is to receive your concerns and convey them to city staff through questions.”
With the council chamber packed with opponents of the project, the city council on July 20 receded from a vote regarding the project that night, instead continuing the hearing until the next regularly scheduled council meeting on August 3.
At the August 3 meeting, the city council unanimously approved continuing the public hearing for the Redlands Palm project until September 7.
The agenda for the September 7 meeting gives the city council the option of voting for or against receiving and accepting a socioeconomic cost/benefit study prepared for the proposed project, approving a tentative parcel map for the project, approving a conditional use permit for the project, approving a tentative tract map for the project and consenting to two variances.
Elsewhere on the agenda is a notice that the city council is to discuss during its closed session that “a significant exposure to litigation exists based upon the facts and circumstances set forth in a letter for the initial study/mitigated negative declaration for the 301 West Palm Avenue residential development project.”
The Sentinel is reliably informed that McClendon was not responsible for the referenced letter.
In the body of the staff report for the agenda item for the development project, two options are laid out for the city council. The agenda item reads: “Pursuant to discussion during its closed session, the following alternative motions are being provided to council for consideration: recirculate the proposed mitigated negative declaration in accordance with law or move that the city council request staff to prepare an environmental impact report.”
Based upon remarks made by Councilman Paul Foster at the July 20 meeting in which he essentially telegraphed his intention to approve the project, the council appears to be leaning toward allowing Diversified Pacific to proceed with constructing the 28 homes.
Foster on July 20, speaking directly to the preservationists who oppose the project, said, “I have a sensitivity that is not being recognized for the passion you have. But I have to weigh that against my belief in private property rights. That is going to weigh heavily on my mind as I look at not only what we have seen tonight, and I look forward to doing [sic] staff’s comments on the letter we received today, which I would point out to you is not an unusual thing, as the city attorney acknowledges. [U]sually what happens is an attorney representing one or more people, they like to wait to submit their comments and drop it on us at a planning commission meeting or city council meeting when we are in the process of making the decision, thereby finding a way to delay the project, or delaying a decision. Very common practice. I was not at all surprised when the city clerk handed us the documents which actually came late in the meeting. But I would just tell you, we have to look at the big picture. We have to look at everything. We cannot just be driven by emotion, even if that’s what we have a passion for, which is preserving things. We have to recognize everyone’s rights in this situation. That may not mean that it doesn’t go down the way that you want.”
Litigation following a council decision on the project appears inevitable, with Diversified Pacific and Ostoich poised to sue the city if the council does not give approval to the project or if the council subjects the project to a full environmental impact report even as Save The Grove and McClendon appear to be on a trajectory to bring suit if the city council does not carry out a full environmental impact report on the project proposal before taking a vote on it.
By Mark Gutglueck