According to the lawyer for Jeff Burum and Matt Jordan, the contemplated conversion of the historic 8.8-acre England Grove Estate and its more than 650 trees to a 28-unit housing development does not constitute spot development.
A contingent of Redlands residents feels differently, and they want the property in its entirety, the orange grove and its irrigation system and the structures on the property, to be preserved.
Burum says it is unrealistic for an agricultural property that is no longer economically viable to be salvaged, and that for the historic structures to be refurbished and maintained, the vast majority of the grove must give way to the homes that are to be built there.
The city council, which twice in the past was unable to decisively resolve the diametrically opposing aims of the city’s preservationists and those intent on developing the property, this week deferred a vote on the development proposal for a third time.
Beginning in 1891, Thomas Y. England began cultivation of naval oranges on a lot at the corner of Palm and Alvarado avenues in Redlands. The grove itself involved a gravity-fed irrigation system, and in 1893 he set within the grove a home in the Victorian style, which included a carriage house immediately behind it. In 1914 the house was altered by a subsequent owner, Guy Hunter, into a prairie style home. England had also established on the property a Queen Anne cottage built on that part of the property facing Alvarado Street.
The England Estate containing all of its historic and still-functioning assets 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 grove.
As with virtually all of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Redlands, beginning as early as the late 1940s and certainly by the 1950s, then into the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and into the Third Millennium experienced the gradual and then more accelerated destruction/conversion of its agricultural properties, which were supplanted primarily with residential but also in some measure commercial and industrial development. Unlike in most other communities, however, a movement aimed at historical preservation found currency in Redlands. Even as the city’s elected officials, who were using the money provided to them by the development community in the form of political donations to pay for their reelection campaigns in order to hang onto their elected offices, embraced aggressive development, a solid contingent of Redlands residents succeeded in putting into place substantial controlled growth regulations in the form of voter-approved initiatives – 1978’s Measure R, 1987’s Measure N and 1997’s Measure U – which to a substantial degree took the development/land use approval process out of the hands of Redlands’ politicians. Measure R put a limit on the annual growth rate, followed by further refinements and restrictions put in place under the auspices of Measures N and U, such that no more than 400 residential dwelling units can be approved or constructed within the city annually, and the city council is not empowered to suspend, waive or rescind those provisions.
Meanwhile, Measure O, passed by Redlands voters in 1986, approved a bond to pay for purchasing and thereafter dedicating for preservation historic citrus groves in the city.
More than a decade ago, Thomas Heeney’s grandson Christopher Brumett along with his wife Jacquelyn signaled their willingness to sell the England Grove 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 $8.8-acre 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.
Thereafter, Burum and Jordan approached the Brumetts with their own offer. Inexplicably, in June 2019, the Brumetts accepted Diversified Pacific’s $2.35 million bid for the 8.8 acres. Burum, Jordan and Diversified Pacific have applied with the city to convert 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 ten sometimes overlapping 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 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 given go-ahead, the project would result in more than 90 percent of the grove and its irrigation system being bulldozed. The original England home facing Palm Avenue, the carriage house behind it and the England Queen Anne cottage on the property facing Alvarado Street will be preserved, along with roughly 57 of the navel orange trees that produced fruit marketed for decades under the Pure Gold label.
The potential eradication of the grove and its gravity-fed irrigation system, one of the three last remaining gravity-fed watering systems in the state, has animated local historical preservationists against the project. Additionally, residents living in proximity to the project proposal, faced with the prospect of having a subdivision with seven units to the acre in a neighborhood where the density is not that intense, have been galvanized into opposition as well.
A coalition of those people, banding together as the grassroots group Save The Grove, retained attorney John McClendon. McClendon drew up letters laying out the objections to the project as proposed, and came before the city council in July and September to enunciate the principles at stake with regard to the project when the city council previously considered the matter.
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, then-Mayor Paul Foster advocated on behalf of the development company, prevailing upon city staff to allow 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.
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.
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 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, while recommending that a full environmental impact report be prepared for the project to comprehensively identify and analyze any potentially significant impacts.
The Redlands Planning Commission took up consideration of the project at its May 11, 2021 and June 8, 2021 meetings, engaging in discussion with regard to how the project will mesh with the existing surrounding neighborhoods, the manner in which the neighborhood is to be separated from the surrounding area by a gate and how that gate would limit access to the project, the fire safety problems represented by the proposed cul-de-sac on the Alvarado Street side of the project, the variances for the front yard setbacks and rear yard open space that were necessitated by putting the lots on properties too small to accommodate them vis-à-vis the city’s developmental standards, the project applicants’ 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. Despite the commissions’ collective misgivings with regard to some of the issues pertaining to the development proposal, those were deemed to be relatively minor and the panel overall appeared to be philosophically disposed toward allowing the project to proceed, so much so that in choosing the two members of an ad-hoc subcommittee to make a fuller study of the project before reaching a final conclusion, it consented to appointing commissioners Karah Shaw and Steve Frasher to that subcommittee. This generated skepticism throughout the community, 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.
Following the May 11 and June 8 planning commission meetings, Diversified Pacific 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 setback variances remain as part of the project. Ultimately, at its third meeting regarding the project, the planning commission, after considering the input of the Frasher/Shaw subcommittee, 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.
Given how precious many in the Redlands community considered the England Estate to be, utilizing a mitigated negative declaration as the means to provide the project with its environmental certification was considered to be a faux pas, one that stirred up even greater resistance than would have otherwise been the case.
According to McClendon, the city was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act because it had not carried out a full-blown environmental impact report for the project, given the sensitivity of various issues relating to the development of the historic and still-functioning agricultural property. One shortcoming in the environmental certification process, McClendon pointed out, was that the developer and the city had not consulted with nor included other agencies in determining what type of environmental document to prepare, and he said the city should have touched base as well with those agencies during the preparation of the so-called initial study for the mitigated negative declaration, even if an environmental impact report was not completed.
Furthermore, McClendon maintained, disagreements among experts and analysts who had examined the development proposal with regard to environmental impacts necessitated that a comprehensive environmental report be compiled. To make a negative declaration and ascertain there were 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 argued that the destruction of the historical assets the project would entail imposed a mandate that the full-scale 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.
According to McClendon, the mitigated negative declaration for the project would not stand a legal challenge.
The city council convened on July 20, 2021 to consider the project. Neither Burum nor Jordan was in attendance at the hearing, though they were represented by Peter Pitassi, an architect from Rancho Cucamonga who has done other work for Diversified Pacific.
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.
Pitassi 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.
Pitassi reminded the city council 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.”
In addressing how it was that Burum and Jordan had been able to underbid the entities seeking to preserve the property by $1.65 million and still walk off with the property, Pitassi said, “The property was on the open market for sale for over ten years. 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.”
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.”
According to McClendon, the residential properties in that area of Redlands are of a different character and are located on larger lots than those Diversified Pacific is set upon constructing. In this way, McClendon intimated, the development proposal consists of spot zoning.
McClendon offered various descriptions and definitions of spot zoning, culled from historic references and legal cases relating to land use, virtually all of which decried it as a practice that negatively impinged on the quality of life of those within the communities where it has been imposed. Three of those definitions referenced it as “the antithesis of planned zoning.” One reference stated spot zoning conferred upon those favored by it “preferential treatment.”
One definition McClendon offered for spot zoning stated it was “an island of property with less restrictive zoning in the middle of properties with more restrictive zoning.”
Mark Ostoich, an attorney representing Diversified Pacific, rejected McClendon’s characterization of the Palm Avenue development project as one involving spot zoning.
“Approval of variances is not spot zoning,” Ostoich wrote in a letter to the Redlands City Council dated November 15, 2021. “Leibold McClendon & Mann [McClendon’s law firm] contends that the development standard variances being considered by the city council amount to illegal spot zoning. Contrary to Leibold McClendon & Mann’s position, the city has the authority to grant a variance, upon making certain findings:
• That there are exceptional or extraordinary circumstances or conditions applicable to the property or to the intended use that do not apply generally to other properties or uses in the same vicinity and zone;
• That such variance is necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of a substantial property right possessed by other properties in the same vicinity and zone district, but which is denied to the property in question;
• That the granting of such variance will not be detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to the property or improvements of others in the vicinity; and
• That the granting of such variance will not adversely affect the general plan of the city of Redlands.
These findings will have been made based on substantial evidence and approval of the requested variances will not create spot zoning.”
Furthermore, in his November 15 letter, Ostoich stated, “The initial study/mitigated negative declaration was recirculated through the state clearinghouse and no state agency submitted comments. Leibold McClendon & Mann claimed that the City of Redlands violated the California Environmental Quality Act because it was required to recirculate the initial study/mitigated negative declaration through the state clearinghouse as part of the public review period. Inasmuch as no state agency was required to issue a permit or approval in connection with the project, we do not agree that the city was required to circulate the initial study/mitigated negative declaration through the state clearinghouse.”
Ostoich also asserted “The conversion of prime farmland by the project was addressed in the initial study/mitigated negative declaration. Contrary to Leibold McClendon & Mann’s assertion, the initial study/mitigated negative declaration includes an extensive discussion regarding the conversion of prime farmland being caused by the project and correctly concludes that the project would not have a significant impact. As substantial evidence in support of the conclusion, the initial study/mitigated negative declaration includes the California Department of Conservation Land Evaluation and Site Assessment model that is used to determine whether conversion of prime farmland caused by a project would result in a significant impact. Application of the Land Evaluation and Site Assessment model to the project leads to the conclusion that the loss of 7.19 acres of prime farmland on the project site is less than significant. Therefore, the initial study/mitigated negative declaration properly addressed the conversion of prime farmland.”
On July 20 and again on September 7, the city council considered the project, each time postponing a decision. This week, the matter came before the city council once again. It was widely anticipated that the city council on Tuesday night, November 16, would reach a consensus on whether the project should be given go-ahead. Ultimately, however, the council demurred, with the item being removed from the council agenda just as the meeting was about to start. The cancellation of the hearing was recommended by city staff, Mayor Paul Barich said, indicating he as the council’s presiding officer concurred. No comment from the public was permitted.
For Diversified Pacific, the further delay on the decision is not an encouraging sign. Councilman Paul Foster, the most pro-development of Redlands’s elected decision-makers, has announced that he will leave the council effective the first week of January 2022. Foster is a reliable vote for the Palm Avenue project, and represents the ability to influence the other members of the council and to intimidate Councilman Eddie Tejada. It was widely assumed he would be able to induce if not the entire city council then at least a majority thereof to vote in favor of the project. If the vote on the project is delayed beyond his leaving, what formerly appeared to be certain passage of the project becomes dicey.
Burum told the Sentinel, “It is our hope that the Redlands City Council follows the recommendation of the city staff and the city attorney, and approves our project. My partner [Jordan], who lives in Redlands, is an active member of the community and he recognized Redlands’ need for quality single story homes on smaller lots on the south side of town. Smaller lots are more efficient to maintain with less maintenance and less cost. These are ideal for those that have decided bigger isn’t always better, particularly in retirement. There are many people in the neighborhood who would love to see our community built and we hope the city council agrees.”
Burum rejected the insinuation that his project would result in a loss to the city and residents of Redlands.
“As developers, we help make communities better,” he insisted. “We are hoping the city council will see the project for the effort at quality historical preservation it is. The truth is we have proposed to renovate three historic structures. We are going to renovate and preserve a large historic home, renovate the other existing historic house, and restore the old barn and keep the citrus trees around the main house and on the main corner of the development. What we are doing is the only way to save the historical nature of the property and bring it back to its old glory. The proposed new homes are going to be built and designed in the architectural style that is consistent with the period of the original homes. We have Brett Waterman, who has impeccable credentials as a preservationist, working with us.”
Burum said he both understands and respects the sentiment and pride behind the effort at historical preservation in Redlands, but said those so committed needed to be realistic in their expectations and with regard to the financial constraints that development companies and landowners must work within.
“The Palm property in Redlands has neighbors that believe in preserving all the orange trees to leave the grove intact,” he said. “I support their feelings. We have listened and changed the proposal several times to make it better for the community.
“I serve on the board of a national historic preservation company and we are constantly trying to come up with the funds to rehabilitate and maintain historically meaningful structures,” he continued. “The hardest thing to accomplish is to come up with the money. We generally struggle to find a business incubator for each property, one that will generate the funding for repairs and maintenance enough to save and preserve these historical structures.”
Burum said, “Without a reliable long-term funding source to rehabilitate the structures and maintain the property on an ongoing basis, these structures and trees will become a community eyesore. The watering of the trees will stop, and they will die more rapidly, and the roof leaks will destroy the main house and the barn more quickly than most realize. Where is the community benefit from watching a historical property decline further? No matter what happens to the grove, what I do know is my firm will still be a good citizen trying to do the right thing one community at a time. My partner Matt and his wife Jill will still live in Redlands, where they raised their children, and have participated in community events since the day they moved in.”
Burum told the Sentinel, “We believe we have met all the requirements under California Environmental Quality Act guidelines to receive a mitigated negative declaration from the city to go forward with our plan to save and preserve the property into the future.”
According to the lawyer for Jeff Burum and Matt Jordan, the contemplated conversion of the historic 8.8-acre England Grove Estate and its more than 650 trees to a 28-unit housing development does not constitute spot development.