Mayor Warren & Colleagues Daring AG To Look Into Fontana Warehouse Graft

The Fontana City Council last week once again demonstrated its ruling majority will not allow contemplative city residents, the California Attorney General or anyone else to dissuade it from its goal of ensuring that the city can claim bragging rights to having the highest concentration of warehouses of any of the 482 cities in the Golden State.
On August 17, 2021, the Fontana Planning Commission gave approval to Newport Beach-based Alere Property Group’s proposal to construct a 42-foot high, 247,786 square foot warehouse including a maximum of two potential office/mezzanine spaces of approximately 4,000 square feet each, 34 warehouse dock doors, two ground level loading doors, 117 automobile parking spaces, and 50 trailer parking spaces at the northeast corner of the intersection of Washington Drive and Redwood Avenue, just north of the Interstate 10 Freeway.
Ana Gonzalez, the interim executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, and Elizabeth Sena, the founder of the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition, appealed the planning commission’s approval of the project, which is referred to as the Redwood Industrial Center.
Gonzalez’s and Sena’s challenge was the third appeal of planning commission decisions allowing warehouse projects to proceed in Fontana this year.
On April 20, 2021, the Fontana Planning Commission gave go-ahead to 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. Sena filed an appeal of that decision, and 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.
On July 6, 2021, the planning commission granted Manhattan-Beach-based 9th Street Partners permission to proceed with a 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.
On September 28, the Fontana City Council upheld the planning commission and denied an appeal of the project filed by Janet Meza, who lives with her family in a home adjacent to the Valley Boulevard Catawba Avenue project site.
According to Gonzalez’s and Sena’s appeal of the Alere Property Group warehouse proposal approved on August 17, 2021, “We at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice along with the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition strongly believe that this approval is improper because an environmental impact report was not completed for this project and the California Environmental Quality Act exemption the city has used does not apply to this project.”
The appeal asserted that the air pollution generated by the project would be particularly harmful to children living and growing up in proximity to the warehouse. In their appeal, Gonzalez and Sena cited a study by, on the relationship between the presence of multiple air pollutants in an area and the resultant susceptibility of those living there to cardiovascular disease, and another study pertaining to the health implication of long term exposure to increased levels of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Gonzalez and Sena stated, “According to in the last appeal, the planning commission/city council once again approved a warehouse, ignoring the science at hand, with an attempt at science based on procedural justifications. In our present appeal, we challenge the council on both science and the law.”
According to Gonzalez and Sena, “It is impossible at present to determine whether the project is meeting the requirements of MM-GHG-1 [the mitigation measures for the generation of greenhouse gases at the project] of the City of Fontana’s 2015-35 General Plan which requires a reduction of 28.5 percent baseline conditions, as that information is not included in the initial study/mitigated negative declaration which was prepared for this project. Additionally, the data used for the computation of the emissions appears questionable, meaning that the greenhouse gas analysis potentially undercounts total emissions and that using the correct numbers would put it above the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s thresholds of significance as well.”
Gonzalez and Sena called upon the council in its consideration of the appeal to take into consideration “the updated scientific research that we set forth, along with the science of our previous appeal.”
Based upon the city council’s rejection of the two earlier appeals, city staff did not deign to generate a report in response to Gonzalez’s and Sena’s challenge heard last week, instead issuing a recommendation that the city council deny the appeal and uphold the planning commission’s August 17 decision. The city did, however, retain an Irvine-based firm, T & B Planning, to issue a report, written by that company’s senior project manager, David Ornelas, which essentially dismissed the issues raised in the appeal and suggested they were unworthy of serious consideration.
“[T]he project would not expose sensitive receptors near the project site and the project’s truck travel route to carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic (chronic) health hazard risks that exceed the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s significance thresholds,” Ornelas wrote.
The city maintains that the Redwood Industrial Center’s location within a commercial and industrial area renders it so it will not “generate air pollution that results in a substantial adverse effect on the environment or a substantial risk to health.”
In accordance, the Fontana City Council, with Councilman Phil Cothran, Jr. absent, voted 3-to-1 on October 26 to reject the appeal.
As was the case in June and September, the dissenting vote calling for the upholding of the appeal was Councilman Jesse Sandoval.
The city council appears intent on maintaining a longstanding policy of virtually unquestioning accommodation of warehouses and other land uses relating to the logistics industry in the face of action taken against the City of Fontana by the California Attorney General’s Office to arrest further warehouse development in the city. Some say the city is digging in its heels on warehouse development out of a recognition that doing anything other than moving ahead aggressively at this point would be seen as “consciousness of guilt” in the face of a burgeoning perception that Fontana’s position at the forefront of the wave of warehouse development locally is a consequence of graft, in which payoffs and kickbacks are being delivered to Fontana city officials by those developing the warehouses.
For years, virtually since Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren was elevated to the mayoralty in 2010 after she spent nearly eight years as a member of the Fontana City Council previously, Fontana has embraced warehouse development. Elements within the development community in much of Southern California have shown themselves to be eager to promote what is characterized by many as “economic advancement” by acquiring or tying up property and quickly converting the land into warehouses consisting of tilt-up buildings, thereby making fast money. The justification for this in Fontana is the city’s location along the 10, 210 and 215 freeways and the Union Pacific/Santa Fe/Burlington Northern railroad line and generally within Southern California, which involves large port facilities in San Pedro and Long Beach, both of which land massive amounts of merchandise from manufacturers in Asia brought across the Pacific Ocean by ship. That cargo is offloaded onto trains and trucks and distributed throughout much of the country. In this way, the Inland Empire has become a major logistics center. Warren appears determined that Fontana will not be outdone by any local municipalities when it comes to being host to warehouses and distribution centers.
Nevertheless, with more and more land locally being consumed by such uses, some have begun to second guess the wisdom of allotting so much property, which could be developed for what many consider to be better purposes, for the building of warehouses. And as some elected officials, local residents and futurists are questioning whether warehouses constitute the highest and best use of the property available for development in the region, an increasingly more vocal element of the community has begun to refute the assertions of the proponents of distribution centers such as Warren that they constitute positive economic development, citing the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in logistics 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.
In July, California Attorney General Rob Bonta took a stand alongside the detractors of the logistics industry and opponents of seemingly unbridled warehouse development including Sena, when in his capacity as the head of the state prosecutor’s office he sued the City of Fontana over the April planning commission and June city council approvals of the Slover/Oleander warehouse project. Bonta took issue with the lax environmental safeguards the city adhered to in giving Duke Realty go-ahead.
As was the case with the subsequent warehouse projects by 9th Street Partners at the corner of Valley Boulevard and Catawba Avenue and by Alere Property Group’s Redwood Industrial Center, with the Duke Realty project the planning commission applied one of the least exacting forms of environmental certification for the project, a mitigated negative declaration. After all three of the those appeals were filed, the city did not subject the projects to a more exacting environmental impact report examination. 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.
Despite Bonta’s action, neither Warren, who is referred to as “Warehouse Warren,” both admiringly by her supporters and caustically by her detractors, nor the members of her ruling coalition on the city council – councilmen John Roberts, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Peter Garcia – appear to have been chastened by Bonta’s lawsuit. In the face of growing suspicions Warren and her council allies have been improperly influenced by the generosity that several developers of warehouses in Fontana have shown toward them, the four have carried on as if they are simply philosophically inclined toward warehouse development and have remained unshaken in their commitment to intensify the presence of the logistics industry in Fontana. Some see this nonchalance as a ploy to set up a future defense of their action if the California Attorney General’s Office undertakes a serious look into accusations that bribery is at the root of the Fontana warehouse glut.
The California Attorney General’s office has a stable of in-house investigators, which Bonta has complete discretion in assigning. Among San Bernardino County’s local elected officials, Warren stands at the top of the heap in terms of the amount of money in their respective political war chests, with over half of million dollars in her campaign quiver. The donors of that money include developmental interests, landowners, real estate speculators and businesses and entrepreneurs, many of whom are involved in the construction, ownership or operation of warehouses in Fontana. Warren has been closely involved in political fundraising efforts with and for Councilman Cothran, whose father is the current chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Warren was also a major backer of Councilman Pete Garcia, whose election to the Fontana City Council would have been unlikely to have occurred without that support. Councilman John Roberts rounds out with Cothran and Garcia the membership of Warren’s ruling coalition on the Fontana City Council. Roberts’ presence on the Fontana City Council predates that of Warren, and though he has been less involved with Warren in fundraising efforts and therefore less dependent upon her for assistance in bringing in campaign cash, his electioneering financing and campaign efforts are yet to an extent entangled with hers.
Investigators have reportedly absorbed themselves in the degree to which a variety of entities involved, or with an interest, in the establishment of warehousing in Fontana have invested, through the provision of campaign donations, in the political careers of Warren, Roberts, Cothran and Garcia. Under California law, an elected official is not precluded from voting to approve a project or contract in which his or her political donors have a financial interest, as long the money provided is not conditional upon a vote in favor of that project or contract. Donors and politicians, however, cross the line when the money is provided in exchange for such a vote. Suspicion has fallen over Warren and her three allies on the council because of the way in which their campaign financing efforts have been commingled, the commonality of donors among them, particularly ones who are the proponents of warehouse projects or had or have a financial interest in those warehouse projects, and the fashion in which Warren, Roberts, Cothran and Garcia have been in virtual lock-step with regard to warehouse projects in Fontana. Of special interest to investigators, the Sentinel is informed, is Garcia’s consistent votes in unison with Warren, Roberts and Cothran in favor of the warehouse projects. Garcia is the most recent addition to the Fontana City Council, and is employed by the State of California in the capacity of Southern California regional executive manager for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control’s site mitigation program. Garcia’s education, training and professional capacity has rendered him intimately familiar with the environmental issues relating to the function of warehouses and the presence of chemicals, materials and machinery within them that represent, at the very least, a potential hazard to those who will work within them and residents living in proximity to them. Nevertheless, Garcia did not involve himself in any extensive discussion with regard to the challenges raised with regard to the April, July or August planning commission approvals of warehouse projects in the city and he did not engage in any evaluation of the issues relating to harmful or toxic materials being present at the warehouses, despite that issue being central to the challenges mounted to those projects’ approvals. Even with the manner in which the appellants have alleged that pollution, contamination and toxic substance presence issues were glossed over by the planning commission in their approvals of the warehouse projects, Garcia never made use of the abundant opportunity presented to him to weigh in on the subject.
-Mark Gutglueck

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