Battle On Over Wapner’s & Hagman’s Donors Developing Airport Property

More than half a decade after Ontario managed to liberate Ontario International Airport from the grip of the City of Los Angeles, it now appears that a determined move to develop warehousing and other logistical uses at its periphery is imminent.
Pushback against that development is manifesting, however, based not on the resistance to what some locals at odds with the management of the airport feel is the shortsighted conversion of the airport’s outlying property into uses that will crimp the prospects for the airport’s long-term expansion but rather on environmental grounds.
Such legal action, in the form of a lawsuit brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, was filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court yesterday, January 20.
In 1967, Ontario officials entered into a joint powers authority arrangement with the City of Los Angeles to have the larger metropolis, which already ran one of the world’s largest airports – Los Angeles International – to manage the Ontario aerodrome, where a mere 200,000 passengers had passed through its gates that year. Under Los Angeles’s guidance, Ontario International Airport experienced astounding growth over the next 40 years, achieving a ridership of 7.2 million by 2007. With the downturn in the economy that followed as a consequence of the intense 2007-to-2013 recession, the number of passengers flying into and out of Ontario dropped drastically. Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, accusing Los Angeles officials of purposefully mismanaging the airport during that span, led a spirited administrative, legal and public relations campaign to force Los Angeles to relinquish control of Ontario Airport. Wapner and his Ontario municipal colleagues succeeded, such that in August 2015 Los Angeles agreed to return both ownership and management of the airport to its smaller civic counterpart 35 miles to its east, effective in November 2016.
Thereupon, Ontario officials, working through the Ontario International Airport Authority, which had been formed in anticipation of Ontario again assuming control of the airport while the struggle with Los Angeles over its future was yet ongoing, lured Kelly Fredericks, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the de facto executive director of the T.F. Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, to sign on as Ontario International Airport’s executive manager. Fredericks began with Ontario International Airport in March 2016, eight months before Ontario and its airport authority fully established control over aviation operations there.
The Ontario International Airport Authority is funded largely, and therefore dominated, by the City of Ontario. Two of the five board positions with the Ontario International Airport Authority were reserved for Ontario City Council members, and Wapner organically moved into one of those positions, acceding immediately to the position of board president.
Once in place, Wapner followed his nearly flawless instincts as a politician, and he sought from his powerful position to facilitate opportunities for his political donors and the donors to the political war chests of the other airport authority board members to enrich themselves at and around the airport, primarily by cashing in on development projects relating to the airport. This was to involve the airport declaring land within its footprint not yet converted to aviation-related use as surplus, and selling it off to developmental interests.
Fredericks, however, was dubious about the wisdom of such action. He felt that the airport should hang on to the property it has, giving future generations the option of expanding the airport itself or its aviation-related services and potentially using the land for well-thought-through and planned development of uses that would complement the airport as an economic engine for the region in the long term, extending to manufacturing, including aeronautical manufacturing if aviation companies show an inclination in that direction. He cautioned against the airport authority and the City of Ontario indiscriminately embracing the first set of proposals made for utilizing that property, ones that would, most certainly, provide an infusion of capital and spur the economy at least temporarily and redound to the benefit of those speculators and businesses willing to invest in the immediate vicinity of the airport, but which would still-the-same commit the city and the property involved to land uses that in the long run might prove less beneficial and wise than if officials were more discerning and patient in their expectations to see development take place.
Among those on the airport authority board with Wapner were his fellow councilman Jim Bowman and San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman. As highly evolved political animals, Wapner, Bowman and Hagman had no time to shilly-shally around and allow the opportunities that abounded at the airport to elude the movers and shakers who were anxious to pursue them, particularly since those with an inside track on getting down to business in the airport district also happened to be among the trio’s most generous campaign donors. Wapner, Hagman and Bowman pressed Fredericks to quit stalling and draw up a roster of airport parcels that could be sold off in the near term. When Fredericks continued to drag his feet, the board cashiered him in July 2017, some 14 months after he had moved into the airport’s executive manager position, and barely eight months after the airport had returned to local control. Fredericks was replaced with Mark Thorpe, who was the airport’s chief development officer.
Frederick’s firing, however, brought unwanted scrutiny to the authority and its board members, in particular their relationships and cavorting with entities, both foreign and domestic, who have an interest in investing in the area around Ontario Airport.
In a development noted by many, in 2015 Hagman hired Wapner to serve as his policy advisor in his county supervisor’s office. Wapner and Hagman made several trips to China to promote Ontario International Airport as a destination with Chinese airlines. When it was suggested, however, that Hagman’s and Wapner’s discussions did not confine themselves to meetings with airline executives but that they were actively recruiting Chinese Communist capitalists to make investments in property around the airport, concerns about the wisdom of allowing China to take a lead in developing and thereafter controlling assets that are key to the region’s economy resulted in a years-long paralysis with regard to development in the district around the airport.
Last month, that apparent extended period of malaise came to an end when on December 23 the Ontario International Airport Authority unanimously approved a 55-year lease with CanAm Ontario LLC, a joint venture between the McDonald Property Group of Newport Beach and USAA Real Estate Co. of San Antonio, Texas for 197.85 of 216 acres the Ontario International Airport Authority owns east of Haven Avenue south of Airport Drive and north of Jurupa Avenue and west of Carnegie Avenue.
CanAm Ontario was chosen from among what the authority said were more than 4,800 potential bidders on the property.
In securing the exclusive ground lease right, CanAm agreed to make a non-refundable $10 million deposit, and is to pay the airport authority roughly $625 million between 2021 and 2086, with $275 million being paid over the first decade of the lease, through December 2031. Airport officials celebrated that aspect of the lease, indicating that not only will the currently fallow acreage between Airport Drive and Jurupa Avenue be transformed into industrial concerns including factories, warehousing, distribution facilities and other logistics elements, but the airport through the authority will directly receive millions of dollars to defray the cost of further airport improvements and underwrite the cost of operations.
No sooner had the lease been signed, however, than a collection of environmentalists, including those in the Pomona Valley Audubon Society, took note that the lease site, east of the runway, is habitat to rare small nesting burrowing owls.
As the birds are thriving on the property and their habitat elsewhere is dwindling, the activists resolved to undertake an effort to protect the owls.
That action came in the form of a lawsuit filed by a group calling itself Inland Valley Advocates for the Environment aimed at overturning the action taken on December 23 by the Ontario International Airport Authority.
The lawsuit names both the Ontario International Airport Authority as a defendant and respondent and CanAm Ontario LLC as a defendant and real party in interest.
The petition’s cause of action consists of an assertion that the development of the property as proposed by CanAm violates the California Environmental Quality Act, and that the airport authority’s effort to apply a categorical California Environmental Quality Act exemption to the leasing and development of the property was improperly made. Furthermore, according to the suit, the lease and development of the property “has the potential to cause significant direct, indirect, or cumulative adverse impacts on the environment, including but not limited to parking and traffic problems, noise problems, and biological/wildlife impacts. These significant direct, indirect, or cumulative adverse environmental impacts give rise to defendants/respondents’ legal obligation to subject the project to California Environmental Quality Act review. The defendants/respondents’ refusal to apply the California Environmental Quality Act to the project and subject it to environmental review constitutes a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.”
Repeated efforts to obtain Wapner’s reaction to the suit were unsuccessful at press time.
The Sentinel is informed that those in opposition to the lease and the projects that are anticipated to come about as its consequence have further concerns which were not explicitly outlined in the legal action, filed by attorney Cory Briggs, which include:
* Trepidation about the burrowing owl and what some believe will be a substantial adverse effect on that species’ habitat;
* An apparent plan by the Ontario International Airport Authority to move the burrowing owl to another area, which the petitioners maintain is unsatisfactory as a mitigation measure;
* The lack of public hearing access virtually or by phone for the December 23 airport authority meeting, such that comments on the lease could only be made by email or in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, which some elements of the community maintain violated the Brown Act;
* The lack of consultation ahead of time with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife;
* An alleged lack of compliance with the Surplus Lands Act in the authority’s disposal of surplus government property;
* The non-existence of a master plan for the airport, which some community members say is needed to identify and avoid or reduce impacts of potential future development; and
* The inadequate definition of the projects that Can Am is purposed to undertake.
Word has now come that Mark Thorpe has been ousted as the airport’s chief executive officer. Officials were unwilling to disclose whether Thorpe’s exit was based on the same reluctance of his predecessor, Fredericks, to allow development to occur on airport property which board members consider to be surplus but which others maintain could be crucial to the future expansion of aviation-related activities at the aerodrome.
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply