By Mark Gutglueck
This week, on Tuesday March 1, the Ontario City Council sided with one of the most politically well-connected families in San Bernardino County in overriding deep and wide resident opposition to displacing formerly agricultural and currently residentially-zoned property at the city’s south end with warehouses, factories, distribution centers and other industrial development.
The 219.39 acres in question bordered by Eucalyptus Avenue to the north, Merrill Avenue to the south, the future extension of Campus Avenue to the west and Grove Avenue to the east and owned primarily by the heirs to the Pete Borba fortune had previously been zoned to accommodate low- and medium-density residential homes and commercial centers or a large business park. To oblige the Borba family, the city council took a number of controversial steps, which included approving the scope and terms of the project, certifying the environmental impact report prepared for those projects under the aegis of the South Ontario Logistics Center Specific Plan, adopting a statement of overriding considerations, approving the mitigation, monitoring and reporting arrangements for the development of the land, okaying an amendment to the general plan which provided for a change in zoning on the property, modifying the land use element of the policy plan in the city’s general plan, changing the city’s land use map to alter the low-medium density residential (5.1-11 dwelling units per acre) zoning on 157.06 acres and business park zoning on 62.36 acres specifying a maximum a floor area ratio of 0.55 to zoning allowing 184.22 acres of industrial buildings and 35.17 acres of business park with a floor area ratio of 0.6 and ignoring entirely a torrent of calls for reestablishing the abandoned agricultural zoning on the property. In addition, by approving the conversion of 71.58 percent of the 219 acres into what is primarily industrial uses, the city council agreed to intensify the density of residential development elsewhere in the city to make up for the number of units that would have eventually been built on the Borba property if the zone change had not been granted.
The 219.39 acres falls within the Ontario Ranch area, the development standards for which were established after Ontario succeeded in annexing on November 30, 1999 8,200 acres of the 15,200 acres of unincorporated San Bernardino County land previously in the Chino Valley Agricultural Preserve. The vast majority of the properties in the preserve were dairies, functioning under the auspices of the Williamson Act from the 1960s until the late 1990s. Chino laid claim to the other 7,000 acres. The Williamson Act provided landowners with tax breaks as long as the property was used for agricultural purposes.
The decision by the city council on Tuesday night essentially abrogated the land use ideals – calling for the property to be developed residentially – that had been put in place in accordance with the rationale for the annexation.
More tellingly, however, city staff’s report on the proposed general plan alteration, statement of overriding considerations to certify the environmental impact report, zone changes and imposition of a specific plan put forth that the project would result in no fewer than five negative impacts relating to the categories of agricultural resources, air quality extending to greenhouse gas emissions, historical resources, transportation and traffic, in which vehicle miles traveled and impacts related to burdens on intersections were noted.
None of those impacts, the staff report stated, could be fully mitigated to a level of “less than significant.”
Some five weeks previously, at the January 25 Ontario Planning Commission meeting, staff had told the commissioners that there were not five but 16 negative impacts relating to the categories of traffic congestion, noise, global climate change, cultural resources, air quality and agricultural resources that defied being reduced to a less than significant level. There had been, in actuality, no change to the project that eliminated 11 of the impacts. The change was one on paper only, and this raised red flags that alarmed the project’s opponents and city residents alike.
Thus, by its action the city council made a finding that the untoward elements of the transformation of the property into an industrial district were overridden by the benefits of doing so.
The developer identified as the proponent of project that was the subject of Tuesday night’s action is Newport Beach-based Euclid Land Venture. The owners of the property upon which the development is to occur are specified in documents generated by the city in relation to the adoption of the South Ontario Logistics Center Specific Plan. The social and financial status of those owners explicates why the city council, in the face of overwhelming resident opposition, was nevertheless in favor of the sweeping change to the character of the land at the city’s southlying extreme.
There were reports abounding that Euclid Land Venture was an arm of the predominant element of the project property’s landowners, the Borba Family. However, Rudy Zeledon, Ontario’s planning director, told the Sentinel that Euclid Land Ventures and the Borba Family are separate entities and that upon the full filing and recording of the entitlements on the land, the property will be sold by the Borba Family to Euclid Land Ventures.
The property owners include Pocamo, LLC; the George Borba Family Trust; George Borba, Jr., the County of San Bernardino, the Rudy Haringa Trust and Gerben Hettinga. The Borba Family is one of the most prominent, wealthiest and socially/politically influential in San Bernardino County. Pete Borba was a Portuguese immigrant and dairyman who came to the Chino Valley in the 1920s and was the progenitor of the Borba Dynasty. His son, George Borba, was fabulously successful.
As the owner/partner of George Borba & Son Dairy, he was both a director and president of the California Milk Producers Cooperative and the Los Angeles Mutual Dairymen Association, as well as a member of the Challenge Creamery Association. He was president of the California Milk Marketing Agency and an influential member of the Alliance of Western Milk Producers. For 22 years George Borba was a director of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency. He was a founder of Chino Valley Bank, later known as Citizens Business Bank, and he was chairman of the board for both Chino Valley Bank and Citizens Business Bank as well as CVB Financial Corp. for 38 years.
The extended Borba Family included Joan Borba, who was both a San Bernardino County Municipal Court judge and later a Superior Court judge. The George Borba Family Trust numbers as its beneficiaries George Borba’s widow, Dolores; George Borba, Jr. and his wife Jennifer; George Borba’s daughters Kim Borba, Linda Gourdikian, Cynthia Podmajersky and Victoria Rynsburger, whose husband, Andrew Rynsburger, is the scion of a long-established Chino Valley dairy dynasty.
While Ontario’s political leadership denies it, the Borba Family along with roughly four dozen other generous big-money donors to the electioneering funds of the city’s five council members co-own the council. In less than seven months in 2021, members of the Borba family made $12,200 in donations to Mayor Paul Leon and three other members of the Ontario City Council – Councilman Alan Wapner, Councilman Jim Bowman and Councilwoman Deborah Porada. The Borba family avoided making any contributions to a fifth member of the council, Councilman Ruben Valencia, because he is at odds with the council majority.
On January 25, when the Ontario Planning Commission convened to determine whether it should recommend that the city council give go-ahead to the South Ontario Logistics Center project and its specific plan, a litany of high-powered entities went on record as being against the project. Those included Anthony Noriega, the director of District 5, League of United Latin American Citizens of the Inland Empire; Evan Marshall, of Californians United for a Responsible Economy; Irene Chisholm; Sean Silva, a member of Californians United for a Responsible Economy; Raymond Smith; Lois Sicking Dieter, an engineer employed in the analysis of air pollution by the California Air Resources Board; along with representatives of several labor organizations, including Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 398, the District Council of Ironworkers and Teamsters Local 1932. The opposition of the labor unions was significant. Labor unions have a well-established pattern of supporting development projects in Southern California. That the unions had come out against the South Ontario Logistics Center represented a dilemma for the city council There was one exception to the blanket union opposition to the project at the January 25 planning commission hearing. Juan Olmedo, a representative of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said he wanted to “speak in support of the South Ontario Logistics Center Specific Plan.”
Olmeda’s presence at the January 25 meeting would later prove to have significance.
To avoid the appearance that the council members were selling their votes to assist the Borba family in obtaining the zone changes and land use standard alterations that matched with their expectations of how they could best profit in the development of their property, the council majority, through City Manager Scott Ochoa, pressured the director of the community development department, Scott Murphy and Ontario’s assistant planner, Alexis Vaughn, to provide the planning commission, which reviewed the project on January 25, with the basis upon which to make a recommendation that the specific plan be given go-ahead. The planning commission serves as a community sounding board and decision-making panel on land use and development issues. In some cases, the planning commission is entrusted with the city’s ultimate land use authority. In others, it is called upon to review project proposals or matters relating to the city’s planning process to make a recommendation to the city council that it can consult or rely upon in making its analysis and the final decision relating to those projects or actions. The seven members of the commission nonetheless are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the city council. And while the planning commission is often relied upon to work its way through development proposals and make a straightforward evaluation of whether the prospective projects that come before it meet the city’s development and land use standards and whether they will be a positive attribute to the community, in those cases where political considerations apply – in particular where a project proponent or landowner has a favorable relationship with members of the council – it is commonly understood that the planning commission need not strictly apply the development standards normally used if such an analysis would result in a vote by the commission that is detrimental to an entity that is in good standing with city staff’s political masters. In such cases where the planning commission has the final land use authority, it will virtually always vote to approve a project proposed by the city council’s major donors, supporters or associates. In those cases where the planning commission does not have final land use authority, it can be counted upon to tailor its recommendation to provide political cover to the council in approving a project or otherwise taking action favorable to the council members’ benefactors.
The unanimous vote of the planning commission on January 25 to recommend that the city council allow the conversion of the property to industrial and business park use provided just such political cover to the city council this week, allowing it to cite the commission recommendation in making its call in favor of the Borba Family.
While opposition to the project by many of the council’s constituents was anticipated, a major concern for the council was that heavy union opposition to the project might make its passage untenable. Emissaries between the council and the unions went to work in the weeklong run-up to Tuesday’s meeting. Also placed on the agenda for Tuesday was an item for the council’s consideration relating to a significant amendment of the city’s general plan, referred to as the Ontario Plan. The item called for an updating of the Ontario Plan incorporating the State of California’s mandates to construct more housing in the city in accordance with the sixth cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation formulated by the Southern California Association of Governments, which in Ontario’s case would involve at least 24,478 dwelling units. The adoption of the update and amendment further entailed the approval of an addendum to the environmental impact report for the Ontario Plan. By design, the vote on the general plan amendment was placed on the agenda immediately before the council’s consideration of the South Ontario Logistics Center project. The council’s action in approving the alteration to the Ontario Plan would clear the way for an intensification of the employment prospects for those in the construction industry. A sizeable contingent of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters headed by that union’s career connections outreach specialist, Jeffery Scott, was present in the Ontario Council Chamber to encourage the council to update the Ontario Plan as proposed. In his interaction with Scott and other members of the carpenters’ union as they spoke as part of the public comment process, Mayor Paul Leon would signal to the significant number of union members, most of whom were clad in orange shirts, that they should stand up. That exercise, which was repeated several times, had an immense psychological effect, making all present in the council chamber acutely conscious of the dominant presence of the union contingent.
After the council passed the Ontario Plan update, it moved on to the consideration of the South Ontario Logistics Center project. Community Development Director Scott Murphy gave an overview of the project. Buried in his presentation was an acknowledgment that “After revisions to the environmental impact report and incorporation of mitigation measures … five impacts remain significant and unavoidable.” Those were, Murphy said, to “agricultural resources” such that “project and cumulative impacts to agricultural resources will remain significant and unavoidable… air quality impacts related to a net increase will remain significant and unavoidable… the potential for project greenhouse gas emissions to result in a significant impact on the environment is conservatively considered to be significant and unavoidable… the proposed project would demolish significant historical resources on site… [and] would remain significant and unavoidable…” With regard to “transportation and traffic,” Murphy said, “vehicle miles traveled impacts related to intersections are projected to be cumulatively significant and unavoidable.”
Before the public input phase of the hearing was opened, City Attorney Ruben Duran interjected himself into the proceedings, suggesting that Leon, as the presiding officer, reduce the three-minute speaking limit to two minutes. Leon did so.
It was noted that the Law Office of Abigail Smith had sent the city a letter relating to a number of environmental issues the project entailed. The public was not given access to the letter. Duran said he would analyze it.
It was further noted that there had been 1,147 written comments or letters sent to the city relating to the project, the vast majority of which advocated against its approval.
The Sentinel made transcriptions of the statements provided by those participating in the public hearing. The city did not cooperate in providing the correct or actual spellings of the names of those who spoke. The spellings provided are the Sentinel’s best phonetic estimation based upon what was audible at the hearing.
Randy Leckenham stated that eight of the parcels included in the 219.39 acres to be developed consisted of about 75 acres purchased by the County of San Bernardino with Proposition 70 money. Leckenham said the property had been purchased “in the interest of the public and held in public trust. He noted that the county did not put conservation easements on those parcels. “So, they have been in violation of the public trust to this day,” Leckenham said. “There’s no rationale for those parcels to be in the environmental impact report [and therefore included in the project] because [the] people of California own that land, and so easements should be on those parcels. We urge you to table this agenda item until those issues can be addressed.”
Oscar Aguilar, a unionized carpenter, said he wanted to work locally. He called upon the council to approve the project.
As members of the carpenters’ union spoke, their fellow union members stood up in accordance with Leon’s instructions that they should “rise.”
Jimmy Elrod, of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America, estimated that of the union’s 60,000 members, a thousand of them lived in Ontario.
“I stand before you, urging you to pass this project,” Elrod said. “The amount of good-paying jobs created would benefit the membership, the workforce and the community as a whole.”
Susan Phillips decried the elimination of agriculturally-zoned property in Ontario. “The people who want to farm are not currently landowners,” she said. “So, by paving this land, you’re cheating the next generation out of the possibility of doing that.”
Though many of the dairyman who were formerly utilizing the land agriculturally are no longer in Ontario, she said, “Believe me, there is a whole new generation of people, some of whom are in this room, who would love to farm, and they would love to do it in Ontario. You’re one of the luckiest cities in Southern California. You have more prime farmland than anywhere.”
She cautioned that approving the project to give temporary jobs to the construction workers was shortsighted and did not properly prepare for Ontario’s and the region’s future in terms of maintaining a locally sourced food supply. Phillips said southwestern San Bernardino County was saturated with 25 square miles of pure warehouses. “That is not a balanced community,” she said.
At one point City Attorney Ruben Duran sought to discourage those from speaking from contradicting city staff or seeking to either correct staff, in particular Scott Murphy, or provide alternative data to what he had provided.
Tracy Walters, an urban agriculture advocate, said the pandemic had demonstrated how important it was to “transform our food system to become more local and sustainable. I’m here to ask this council and plead with you all to conserve our remaining farmland for our next generations.”
Lila Solokai Zovich said that “Ontario has been harmed by pollution from warehouses built in the area.” She urged the council to not approve the project.
Samuel Maron called upon the council to not change the agricultural zoning of the area and maintain the property as farmland.
Angela Miramontes opposed the rezoning from agricultural and lamented that “warehouses border our homes and our schools. We currently have 110 million square feet of warehouse space. In the last year, we’ve only planted 600 trees. We are facing an ever-growing threat that is climate change, yet we are doing nothing to mitigate this fact. Instead, we are building more and more warehouses that contribute to greenhouse emissions that pollute the air around our homes and schools, that affects our children and their future. I know I am going to hear that these warehouses create jobs, which is true for a short period of time.” The jobs at those warehouses, however, Miramontes said, “do not pay a living wage, do not provide enough for a resident to purchase a home here in their own city. We are not demanding enough of our elected officials, and our elected officials are failing our communities. Before we build more warehouses, we need to demand that these corporations pay their fair share in taxes, pay a living wage for California, pay for health insurance, plant regionally-native plants to provide some habitat restoration, provide incentives for residents to purchase electric vehicles and solar panels and … transition to an all-electric fleet. We, and you, need to think about more than money.”
Upon Miramontes suggesting that members of the city council were being paid off, City Attorney Ruben Duran leapt into the breach, insisting that Miramontes be cut off.
Arthur Levine told the council, “No more warehouses. Keep prime farmland in Ontario for sustainable agriculture and community benefits. Build climate resilience, food security and green jobs. Protect Ontario’s richest resource, the soil. I would like to urge the council to vote no on this proposal. Ontario communities don’t need any more warehouses. The proposal to use prime farmland for industrial use is irresponsible. Warehousing promotes wasteful and polluting land uses that harm families with bad air quality and congested streets full of large trucks.”
Jeff Johnston, who heads Euclid Land Venture, said the project adhered to “the vision that you all have been looking for, for developing the southwest corner of Ontario.”
Johnson said, “Our project will contribute about $144 million toward the infrastructure that will be the first miles of infrastructure that will help serve the housing that’s on the north side of Eucalyptus [Avenue]. With our project, we’re going to build nine-and-a-half miles of water lines to a nine-million-gallon reservoir that’s ultimately going to serve all of southwest Ontario Ranch. We’re building four-and-a-half miles of storm drain lines that are going to serve 1,800 acres to the north of us. We’re building 3.3 miles of sewer lines which also serve all the properties to the north of us. In addition, we’ll be building 2.8 miles of streets and street signals and we’re going to build two miles of recycled water lines that will serve that area. This is the opportunity to open up the housing element that the city is looking for.”
Wyatt Stiles, a member of Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 398, read a text that had been prepared for him.
“Ontario must be ready for the wave of development that is unfolding now, ready for industrial and logistical projects that have been flowing into the Inland Empire the last two years,” read Stiles. “These projects will generate once-in-a-lifetime economic community benefits for us in Ontario.”
Luis Lopez, business agent for the Local 433 Ironworkers Workforce Development Board said the proposal was one of many “responsible projects” that will pay ironworkers good wages.
Frankie Jiménez, president of Ironworkers 416, said the project would provide work in Ontario that would reduce the commuting distance for ironworkers living in Ontario.
Caterino Diaz, who is on the council for the Local 433 Ironworkers, told the council, “I’m speaking to make it loud and clear we’re in support of this project.” He said the project would keep local ironworkers employed near their homes.
Pastor Zach with Care California, whose either first or last name was not given, said he and his organization support the project because it would put Ontario residents, who have an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent compared to the national unemployment rate in California of 6 percent, to work.
Moises Cisneros congratulated the city on its plan to develop the property but said that it should consider that “This land is more valuable either as being regenerated or used for sustainable agriculture than it is being developed. There is a formula for that. There is a formula attached to leaving this land as is for the benefit and health of all of our communities.”
Callie O’Neal touted utilizing the property for agrivoltaics, which she described as “an agricultural concept where you combine solar voltaic panels with agriculture.” She called it a “high efficient land use where you have solar panels about eight-to-ten feet high at 25-degree angles and crops under it. It creates incredibly water-efficient use of crops and incredibly efficient solar panels because it creates a micro-climate within that interacts. It’s land efficient. It’s highly profitable and it does incorporate agriculture in a way as well as creating food security.”
Andrea Galvan said “I’m here today, like many of my neighbors, to voice opposition to taking away farmland to allocate more land for warehouse industrial use. We live somewhere very special, and you would give that up for short term tax revenue.” She said that warehouse proponents were making “empty promises” of “good-paying jobs” that will “never appear. Our young people desire an opportunity to earn wages that pay for their housing. That can’t and won’t happen until we think strategically about our land use.”
Stephanie, whose last name was not given, said, “We do not need any more warehouses.”
Jason Byez, a member of Laborers International Union of North America, said, “I fully support this project.” He said he had previously worked “under the table,” and received insufficient remuneration to support his family. He said the project under consideration would provide work for unionized workers with wages “to open the door for me to be able to sufficiently provide for my family, a living wage with benefits.”
Bill Quisenberry of the Laborers International Union of North America said he supported the South Ontario Logistics Project.
“This project is going to create a lot of jobs in the local community,” Quisenberry said. “It is going to create for the construction workers in our union a well-paying job that includes fringe benefits like full family medical, defined benefit pension and even a vacation check.”
Richard Lucerio of the Laborers International Union of North America said he had worked on the dairies that once stood on the property to be developed and he and his fellow union members looked forward to working on the South Ontario Logistics Project.
Ralph Bellador of the Laborers International Union of North America said he and his brother and sister union members supported the project because “This developer before you is dedicated to building to the highest standards and using the very best craftsmen in the industry. This project will allow our members who live right here in the community the ability to work close to home and spend quality time with their families.”
Elizabeth Sena referenced the 1,147 letters, the overwhelming number of which were in opposition to the project. She suggested that because of the nature of the project and the existing oversaturation of warehousing in the area, the City of Ontario was running the risk of triggering legal action by the California Attorney General, as had occurred in Fontana over that city’s approval of a warehouse in a warehouse-oversaturated zone, despite there having been only 50 letters of opposition against the project there. “I’m happy to see the union members here advocating for their jobs,” Sena said. “But what I don’t see is anyone standing in solidarity with the warehouse workers, ensuring their wages are livable and their benefits are equitable too.”
Sena then made an oblique reference to the union members’ continual assertions that the project should be given approval because it would improve the dynamics of their family lives by providing them with decent-paying work close to home, reducing the distance of their commutes and allowing them more time with their families. “There is so much to say and so little time because you were encouraged to limit to two minutes, but what I do want to say is I have children too and I want to take them to their softball practices and I want them to be able to breathe clean air,” Sena said. “Please oppose this project.”
Anna Gonzalez, the interim executive director for the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, said, “We’re poisoning the families of Ontario and all the local cities that are surrounding the Inland Valley region. The inland Valley region has become a dumping ground for logistics projects, resulting in blatant disregard of community impacts and the asthma and cancer clusters it has created, also known as diesel death zones. That is violence to your community members.”
The decent-paying jobs created by the project would prove temporary, Gonzalez said.
“Warehouse workers don’t come here to support these type of projects because they are always exploited,” Gonzalez said. “This project is disturbingly concerning, not only for the massive size of it, but for many other factors. These include extinction of prime farmland, which our region so desperately needs. We find many conflicts with the South Coast Air Quality Management District Plan. It will bring unsafe traffic conditions, posing a threat to some of the families that are in vicinity to this project. The rezoning concerns are a major factor. It is also concerning that the environmental impact report is based on a report that was made in 2010. Clean air is a human right. You need to put people over profits, period.”
Joaquin Castellano with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice said the major influx of warehousing was “affecting our health. It’s affecting the future of our communities. It’s affecting the children and public health in general. As a community in Ontario, we deserve more. We deserve to have better uses for our land. This is prime agriculture land that is rare now in this area. This could be used for many more projects that could be beneficial to our community. Ten years from now – we already know we are in a severe climate crisis – people are going to be looking for green areas. They are going to be looking for agricultural spaces to take their families to mitigate these climate issues. However. we’re turning them into warehouses and warehouses that are not going to bring any benefits to the community. I know that I see a lot of union members here, and I support the unions and unions do build America, but are these warehouses America? Do they represent the values of the American people? The American people deserve more, jobs that benefit the community in total, jobs that bring us together. I worked in a warehouse before. These jobs are not fun. They are not community building. They are temporary and not high-quality jobs. It is easy to bounce around from warehouse to warehouse, because that’s just how these jobs are. Bringing these jobs to Ontario where there’s already so many warehouses is just a blow to the community that is already facing so many effects from these warehouses. I ask the city council to please oppose this warehouse.”
Gina Gibson-Williams, the community development director with the neighboring City of Eastvale in Riverside County, was the last speaker to address the council. In January 2021 the City of Eastvale submitted a letter in response to the primary stages of the preparation of the environmental impact report for the South Ontario Logistics Project. Just before Tuesday’s meeting, the City of Eastvale submitted another letter, expressing concerns about the final form of the environmental impact report.
Gibson-Williams said the city she represents found fault with the traffic analysis in the environmental impact report for the project, prompting that day’s follow-up letter, which she sought, in the two minutes allocated her, to encapsulate.
“It analyzes about 75 intersections,” she said of the environmental impact report. “Nine of those intersections are in the City of Eastvale. There are two areas in which the traffic analysis deals with deficient intersections and also about improvements that should be made to those intersections. As of now, the document assumes a level of ‘D’ being acceptable to the City of Eastvale. It’s actually ‘C.’ It’s written that way. It’s actually documented in your environmental analysis. So, the tables, specifically Exhibit 1-3 and Table 1-2 in the appendices, need to be revised to reflect that. The intersections are Archibald and Kimball, Archibald and Limonite, Harrison and Limonite, Sumner and Limonite, Scholar and Limonite, Hamner and Ontario Ranch/Cantu Galleano, Hamner and Limonite, I-15 Ramp South and Cantu, Galleano and I-15 South Ramp and Limonite. So, we’re asking that the actual environmental document have a mitigation measure added. And the mitigation measure should say, ‘Prior to issuance of grading permits, the developer shall construct the improvements or pay the fair share cost of improvements or pay the City of Eastvale’s transportation impact fees.”
Not among the public speakers at the council meeting were several people who had advocated against the project at the planning commission meeting on January 25, including members of the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 398, Teamsters Local 1932 and a member of the District Council of Ironworkers. Of note was that on Tuesday this week, other members of the ironworkers’ union had shown up to support the project, as had members of other unions, in particular the carpenters’ union.
Nevertheless, having driven home their objections, taken together with Gibson-Williams’ assertion of a flaw in the environmental impact report and Murphy’s admission that there were five substantially untoward environmental impacts of the project that remained unmitigated and unavoidable, several of the project opponents remained hopeful and even confident the council would deny the project approval or, at the very least, delay its decision while certain elements, such as the errors in the environmental impact report pointed out by Gibson-Williams, were corrected.
In the council’s relatively brief discussion that ensued, however, the council members came across as intent on finding a shortcoming in the arguments presented against the project. Mayor Leon pointed out that nitrate contamination of the soil compromised its quality such that the topsoil in the area would need to be removed or substantially redressed before it could sustain the cultivation of crops, rendering the characterization of preserve property as “prime” agricultural land inapplicable. Councilmen Alan Wapner, Jim Bowman and Ruben Valencia and then Leon seized upon Leckenham’s, Phillips’, Walters’, Cisneros’s and Castellano’s statements relating to maintaining the property for agricultural use, interpreting – indeed purposefully misinterpreting – them as demands that either the Borbas and the other landowners be prohibited from selling the property or that the city purchase property and utilize it as farmland.
“Certainly, you can’t expect the City of Ontario to pay taxpayers’ money – hundreds of millions of dollars – to buy a piece of land to grow crops,” Wapner said. “If folks are interested in a certain type of land use, then they have the opportunity to come forward and buy the land for the land use that they want.”
“If you want to continue on that property with agriculture, you certainly can,” said Bowman, “but I’m really a proponent of the rights of owners to sell their property, and government should have a very small part in controlling that activity,” said Bowman.
Valencia said he believed in upholding property owners’ rights, implying that it was incumbent upon the city to alter zoning on properties to comply with the wishes of the landowners.
Leon replicated his council colleagues’ deflection and misrepresentation of the project opponents’ arguments by suggesting, falsely, that the project opponents were calling for the city to buy the Borbas’ property. Alluding to city programs that allow Ontario residents to cultivate gardens and grow food on city property at various parks in the city, Leon said, “We do as much as we can with what we have that we own. As Alan said, we don’t own these properties. The people who purchased those properties believed that, according to the zoning of the past, they could do particular projects. And then for us to pull the rug out from underneath them after they’ve already purchased it, that’s just not right.” Reinforcing, once more falsely that those opposed to the project were uniformly calling upon the city to purchase the Borbas’ land, Leon said, “If you want to do this, get a group together, get some money, buy some of that property. We’d be happy to support you to keep it as farmland.”
Without making any adjustments to the project proposal, such as correcting the errors in the environmental impact report Gibson-Williams had flagged, the council voted 5-to-0 on a motion by Councilwoman Debra Porada and seconded by Bowman to approve the project. Even before the vote was taken, shouts of protest were heard.
Many project opponents, already disappointed at the direction the council was moving in, were shocked by Valencia joining in with the council majority in support of the project approval. The Borbas have sided with Leon in this year’s upcoming mayoral race in which it is anticipated Valencia will challenge Leon.
Chaos ensued as large numbers of the audience began chanting in unison, “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
Leon, at Duran’s suggestion, recessed the meeting.
In the aftermath of the meeting there were widespread accusations that the outcome of the meeting was foreordained and that the entirety of the Ontario City Council, which was already known to function in a pay-to-play environment, is on the take.
On Thursday, Leon told the Sentinel that at least as far as he is concerned and for most of the rest of the city council, none of that is true.
“Those statements make for a taller mountain than Bandini could ever take credit for,” Leon said.
While Leon acknowledged that “Mary Borba has been supporting me” and “She gives me about $1,000 per year” [toward his campaign fund], he insisted, “That has nothing to do with this project.”
Leon claimed, somewhat improbably, that he did not know that the Borba Family owned much or most of the property upon which the South Ontario Logistics Center project is to be built.
“I honestly did not put it together,” he said. “I was friends with George Borba. He was the most generous man I ever knew.”
Despite that, the mayor said, he had not been influenced one way or the other by money coming into his campaign war chest.
If the Sentinel or others are intent on finding corruption of the political process in south Ontario or on current or former dairy properties there, Leon said, such evidence does exist.
“[Ruben] Valencia is given money – $40,000 – from dairy farmers, who are paying him so they can keep parking trucks on their land,” Leon said. “That is more important than the collective [Leon, Wapner, Bowman and Porada] getting $12,200. I don’t sell my soul for 1,000 bucks to anyone. I tell anyone who gives me money that they are supporting the way I think and act as mayor. They are not paying for me to support them.”
Leon insisted, “I am still a poor man. I don’t have money. I don’t make money. I don’t have a lavish lifestyle. Everything I have I worked for. It is pure crassness for people to say I would sell my vote for $1,000. It is not true at all.”
Those suggesting he is being bribed are deluding themselves, the mayor said. “They are drawing up a scenario, with whole ideas that are just wrong,” Leon said. “They cannot begin to prove what they are saying.”
Leon said he has dedicated himself to the best interests of the residents of Ontario.
“I look at every issue on its face value,” he said.
He said putting in a swath of industrial development along the electrical line paralleling Edison Avenue is a responsible move, despite earlier zoning commitments toward residential development that were made when the city initially annexed the agricultural preserve.
The change in the city’s land use policies and the reformation of its zoning and land use maps is not something he and the council are driving, Leon said. Rather, those changes are being proposed by urban planning professionals in the city’s community development department and planning division, as well as by experts in the field the city has hired as consultants. He and the city council are involved in examining and ratifying those changes where they seem justified, Leon said.
“I agree that it [an industrially-zoned district] makes sense for the overall development for the 13 square miles [of land formerly in the agricultural preserve annexed by the City of Ontario],” he said. “The zoning got changed because it was a better place for that, when you take into consideration the Edison [electrical] lines. It made better sense to move the industrial uses there and housing elsewhere. After all these years, there has been a change in the permitting process. Nothing stays the same. We put that, the transition of the agricultural properties in the preserve to houses, out there 23 years ago. Of course, we hoped we had it right and that it would remain, and, of course, you want it to be the same, but things change. We still have 50,000 homes coming into the city in the future.”
The city is going about its planning processes responsibly, Leon said, making sure that incompatible land uses do not encroach upon one another.
“If you look at the plan, we are making the adjustments to extend the buffer,” he said. “You see it [the newly created industrial district in south Ontario] is not impacting homes like it would have.”
Leon said the city is abiding by sensible and long-extant planning principles even as it is facing mandates from the State of California to build large numbers of residential units to head off a housing crisis in the Golden State.
“If we are going to have high density, do it right,” he said. “Instead of houses on a quarter acre or half acre of land, the state legislature is directing us to build at a much higher density, with a dozen or two dozen dwelling units per acre. We have to move the pieces around to make it work. We don’t want this to be haphazard because we did not plan correctly.”
Leon dismissed reports that the city council had dictated to city staff and the planning commission to come up with recommendations favoring the South Ontario Logistics Project so that he along with Wapner, Bowman and Porada could please the Borba Family.
“Our planning commission is as independent of a body as you are going to find anywhere, and I know because I went out of my way, far out of my way, to make it as independent as I could,” he said. “I did it by eliminating people who were responding to council direction. I am confident that there is no one on that commission who will take direction from the city council – which would be not only improper but illegal – to vote on any items in a certain way. Though I have been taken to task over the years for removing people from the planning commission, I have done just that to make sure we are getting as honest and straightforward of an analysis as we can get on planning issues.”
Neither was there any hanky-panky involving the city’s community development or planning division, Leon said.
“Scott Murphy is a man of the utmost integrity,” Leon said. “That man will not be pushed around. He argues hard when there is anything, any planning item that is not in the interest of the city. For them [the project opponents] to make such an accusation shows you that some people are of the philosophy that if you throw stones you are going to hit someone. In this case, they can throw stones all they want, but there is no one to hit. There are no dogs barking. This is something that is completely made up. Until the people who are in opposition to this project brought these things up, this was just a mundane deal in the evolution of plans in Ontario. If they had not started arguing and screaming, it would just be another deal in the City of Ontario.”
Leon stood by the effort to discredit the opposition to the South Ontario Logistics Project by suggesting they want the city to buy the property from the Borba Family and have the taxpayers subsidize it as agricultural enterprises that may or may not be profitable.
“They wanted to stop a project in play for years,” Leon said. “They wanted us to take that property and turn it into a farm. They have the option of buying the property from the developer and making a farm, but no one has any money to do that. They came in at the 11th hour and 58th minute, saying it has to be a farm, but they are not willing to put up the money to do that. This is America and that is not how it works.”
By Mark Gutglueck