In an apparent effort to prove they have not been chastened by action the California Attorney General took against them and the city the last time they did the same thing, four members of the Fontana City Council this week turned back a citizen appeal of the planning commission’s approval of a warehouse to be built in south Fontana.
In this case, the project in question involves Manhattan-Beach-based 9th Street Partners’ proposed warehouse building totaling 92,433 square feet to be developed on a 4.07-acre site located on the northwest corner of Valley Boulevard and Catawba Avenue at 15894 Valley Boulevard that was given go-ahead and an endorsement of its design review by the planning commission on July 6, 2021.
The project site lies within a district zoned for light industrial uses. According to the city, based on the consideration that the warehouse will be an example of so-called in-fill development, “The project qualifies for a categorical exemption, pursuant to Section 15332, Class 32, of the California Environmental Quality Act.”
It is this skimping on environmental examination when it comes to warehouses that in the case of the Valley Boulevard/Catawba Avenue project led to the appeal heard this week and which subjected the city to the action of and scrutiny by the California Attorney General’s Office with regard to another development proposal.
Janet Meza, who lives in a home adjacent to the Valley Boulevard Catawba Avenue project site, appealed the planning commission’s decision to the city council on behalf of herself and her family.
“We believe that this approval is improper because an environmental report was not completed for the project, and the California Environmental Quality Act exemption the city has used does not apply to this project,” Meza wrote in her appeal. “Along with zone changes, the manipulation of the California Environmental Quality Act has dealt an environmental blow to the young people of the Inland Empire. The California Environmental Quality Act exemption is not appropriate because regardless of the size of the project, not doing a California Environmental Quality Act review means that the city would not adequately address the cumulative environmental, safety, and traffic impacts that this project will bring to Fontana and San Bernardino County. As stated by the court in [the case of] Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, environmental decisions must be ‘supported by a reasoned explanation based on substantial evidence.’”
Meza asserted “the basic threshold has not been met” to exempt the project from environmental review. “This appeal demands that threshold be met either with the reasonable equivalent of a California Environmental Quality Act [requirement] to ‘support a reasoned explanation based on substantial evidence,’” her appeal states. “Here, the developer is allowed to avoid the California Environmental Quality Act, due to exemptions that can be argued for based on size (a mere 92,000 square feet, with proximity to both long-standing Fontana neighborhoods and an elementary school). We demand to have the city council ask the city attorney to take the community step-by-step through their California Environmental Quality Act due process workarounds that are in use by the developer.”
Meza’s challenge was in some measure a repetition of the appeal Elizabeth Sena had made of the planning commission’s April 20, 2021 approval of Duke Realty’s proposal to build a 205,949-square foot warehouse on an 8.61-acre seven-parcel piece of ground at the southwest corner of Slover Avenue and Oleander Avenue. The project, which was designed to feature 22 truck docks, 40 truck parking spaces, and 95 standard parking spaces, was slated for a site immediately adjacent to Jurupa Hills High School.
On June 22, 2021, the Fontana City Council denied Sena’s appeal and upheld the planning commission on its decision to allow the warehouse to be built.
In July of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued the City of Fontana over the approval of the Slover and Oleander warehouse project. Bonta took issue with the lax environmental safeguards the city adhered to in giving Duke Realty go-ahead. The city allowed the planning commission to utilize one of the least exacting forms of environmental certification for the project, a mitigated negative declaration. In the lawsuit, Bonta argued that the city’s limited environmental review of the project and its failure to appropriately analyze, disclose, and mitigate the project’s environmental impacts violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the City of Fontana is required to implement all feasible mitigation measures to reduce harmful air pollution and other significant environmental impacts of the Slover and Oleander Warehouse project,” Bonta said. “Plain and simple: Everyone has the right to breathe clean air where they live and where they work. As attorney general, I have a responsibility to enforce the state’s environmental laws, and as the people’s attorney, I am committed to standing up for communities who live at the intersection of poverty and pollution. Fontana residents shouldn’t have to choose between economic development and clean air. They deserve both. Unfortunately, the City of Fontana cut corners when it approved the Slover and Oleander Warehouse Project. We’re going to court to compel the city to go back and take a hard look at the environmental impacts of this project – and do all it can to mitigate the potential harms to local residents and workers – before moving forward.”
According to Bonta, “The Slover and Oleander Warehouse Project will be constructed in a low-income south Fontana neighborhood that suffers from some of the highest pollution levels in all of California. Over 20 warehouses have already been built within a mile of the project site, in an area that encompasses two public high schools and serves as home to hundreds of Californians. Collectively, these warehouses generate thousands of daily heavy-duty diesel truck trips. As a result, local residents and workers suffer from some of the highest exposures statewide to fine particulate matter, which are inhalable microscopic particles that travel deep into human lungs and are linked to increased risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and asthma attacks. They are also heavily exposed to ozone and toxic chemicals that can cause a wide array of other concerning health problems.”
In the lawsuit, Bonta maintains the City of Fontana violated the California Environmental Quality Act in its approval of the Slover and Oleander warehouse project by failing to prepare an environmental impact report despite substantial evidence that the project will have significant environmental impacts, and that the city did not disclose the existence of dozens of other industrial warehouses in the area. The city further did not disclose, Bonta asserted, that the city has approved and is planning additional warehouse developments within blocks of the project, and it did not account for those nearby warehouses in its cumulative air quality analysis.
A prime mover in the proliferation of warehouses in Fontana, which has grown to a population 217,000, has been Mayor Acquanetta Warren, who has held the mayoralty in the city since 2010. A recipient of substantial political donations by landowners, land speculators and developers to the point that she has accumulated a political campaign war chest of more then $350,000, Warren has continuously ruled Fontana over the last decade with an iron fist based upon her alliances with the council members who have served in the course of several election cycles, including John Roberts, Jesse Armendarez, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Peter Garcia.
Warren has ignored those who have questioned whether building devoted to the logistics industry constitutes the highest and best use of the property available for development in the region, and have inveighed against warehouses on the basis of the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in distribution facilities, the large diesel-powered semi-trucks that are part of those operations with their unhealthy exhaust emissions, together with the bane of traffic gridlock they create. Warren has insisted that they represent economic development that will provide needed employment to much of Fontana’s indigenous poorly-educated, unskilled and unemployed population.
So committed, indeed, has Warren been to warehouse development that she has become known, both derisively by her political opponents and admiringly by her supporters, as “Warehouse Warren.”
Many of her detractors believe that Warren is disingenuous in her pro-warehouse development crusade in that she recognizes that better use could be made of Fontana’s undeveloped commercial/industrially zoned properties, but that she has encouraged warehouse development because of the willingness of those profiting by the accelerated development of warehouse/distribution/logistics-related projects to provide her with money, either as campaign donations or in other forms, what a growing number of people see as either tantamount to bribes or outright payoffs.
In her appeal letter relating to the 15894 Valley Boulevard/Catawba Avenue warehouse project, Meza joined that chorus.
“It’s no secret that developers and their government henchmen have been playing fast and loose with California Environmental Quality Act laws over the past decade, especially here in Fontana in regards to warehouse distribution centers,” Meza wrote.
Given Bonta’s lawsuit, the consideration that Bonta has a crew of investigators who are reportedly going closely over the votes of both the Fontana City Council and the Fontana Planning Commission relating to the glut of warehouse development in the city and the seeming nonchalance with which Fontana residents such as Meza reference their perception that Fontana officials are the recipients of illicit inducements that explain their embrasure of warehouse development in the city, there were some who believed that when the appeal of the planning commission’s approval of the 15894 Valley Boulevard/Catawba Avenue warehouse project came before the city council on Tuesday night, Warren and her allies on the council would exercise a degree of caution.
As the hearing on the appeal began, Deputy City Clerk Ashton Rene Gout stated that there had been 75 letters received in opposition to the project and one letter in favor of it.
The council heard a report on the matter from Senior Planner Paul Gonzales.
“The project is consistent with the applicable general plan designations,” said Gonzales. “There was no general plan amendment or zone change. It met the designations for zoning and the general plan. The project site has no value for habitat for endangered species. The site is paved over and completely disturbed. Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects on traffic, noise, air quality or water quality. The site can be adequately served by all required utilities and services, sewer, water and everything else.”
Gonzales quoted and endorsed the response of 9th Street Partners to the challenge of the project on the basis of its air quality impacts. That response held that the time to challenge the general plan environmental impact report had long since elapsed.
“Staff recommends denial of Appeal Number 21-003, therefore upholding the planning commission’s decision on July 6, 2021, approving Design Review Number 21-003,” Gonzales said.
A multitude of speakers weighed in on the project, including ones who spoke both in support of the project and against it.
After the public comments concluded, the council held no discussion, with Mayor Warren stating directly, “May I have a motion to approve staff recommendation?”
“I’ll make the motion, Mayor,” Councilman John Roberts said.
“And I have a second?” Warren inquired.
“Second,” said Councilman Pete Garcia.
A vote then ensued, with the council voting 4-to-1 to uphold the planning commission and reject Meza’s appeal, with Warren, Roberts, Garcia and Cotharn prevailing over Councilman Jesse Sandoval.
At the end of meeting, during the portion of the proceedings reserved for council comments, Councilman Garcia, who like the rest of his colleagues had engaged in no discussion when the warehouse approval appeal was before them, offered a statement that made it seem as if he was a bit self-conscious about the way the council had steamrolled over the opposition to the project without any serious rumination over the issues the appeal had raised.
“I want to thank everyone for their participation this evening,” Garcia said. “As everyone can tell, there was a large diversity of opinions. It’s always nice to hear from various community members on the issues. At the end of the day, we have to make our decisions based on some of the facts. Everyone might not be happy, but their opinions are always welcome. I think we always do what’s best, in the best interest of the city.”
Mayor Warren reacted to the suggestions by some of the crowd that she is on the take.
“I tell you, we definitely as a council had our challenges in so many ways, but they are good challenges,” she said. “A couple of comments tonight I was listening to, all these young people particularly. It was just good to hear everyone’s opinion, but people need to understand, this is where we do the people’s business. No cursin’, no hollerin’ out, no clownin’, and that goes for us up here at the dais. You’re either – How do they say it? – on the menu or you are the menu. That’s why I’m the cook. I’ll decide the ingredients, and I’ll put it in the pot, and I’ll finish it, because this town deserves representation. Tonight we heard so many comments. I tell you, it has become a cliché: ’Money in your pocket.’”
She enunciated a defense of the way in which a majority of the council came to what appeared to be a preset conclusion to uphold the planning commission.
“Tonight you saw everyone get a chance to put their viewpoint in, but what a lot of people don’t understand is we don’t have a condition or a reason to deny a project that has met all the state and federal standards. Then we open ourselves up to lawsuits. Our standards are high here. They’re very high,” she said.