Ontario Sued Over Approval Of Borba Family’s Ag Preserve Logistics Project

Less than a month after the Ontario City Council voted to approve a development plan intended to benefit one of the 175,265-population and 50.01-square mile city’s most powerful and politically well-connected families while simultaneously citing overriding considerations that allowed it to disregard what city staff said were 16 negative environmental impacts that could not be adequately redressed, an environmental group on March 30 went to court to prevent the project from proceeding.
The Borba Family owns the lion’s share of 219.39 acres located within what was formerly the Chino Agricultural Preserve that are at the center of the legal dispute which must now wend its way through the San Bernardino County Superior Court.
Pete Borba, the progenitor of the Borba Dynasty, came to the Chino Valley from the Azores in the 1920s. A dairyman, he acquired land upon which alfalfa could be grown and Holsteins, Guernsey and Jerseys raised and milked. Along the way he established his sons Pete, Joe, George and John as dairymen and businessmen in their own right. His daughter, Mary, married into a dairying family.
George, who was born in 1932, would distinguish himself as an overachiever in a family of overachievers. He became 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 next generation of the Borba Family included George’s niece Joan Borba, who was both a San Bernardino County Municipal Court judge and later a Superior Court judge, and her sister, Joleen Borba, an agricultural attorney of note. 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.
In the late 1950s, the Chino Valley had become a haven to dairy farmers, many of them of Dutch or Portuguese descent, who flocked there with their herds when they were displaced by the urbanization of southeast Los Angeles and north Orange counties. By the mid-1960s, Chino Valley was the most intensive milk-producing area in the world. The Chino Agricultural Preserve was formed in 1968 under the auspices of California’s Williamson Act – a 1965 law that was intended to preserve California farmland and to serve as a hedge against urban sprawl. The law granted substantial tax breaks to property owners agreeing to restrict their land to agricultural uses for at least 10 years. Within the preserve’s 17,000-acre confines were just under 400 dairies and 400,000 cows. With $800 million in annual dairy production in 1976, the relatively compact Chino Valley region alone was within the entire state of California a close third in milk output behind the much more expansive Tulare and Merced counties.
By 1970, Chino Valley was the source for most of Southern California’s milk as well as a major supplier of cheese for a much larger geographical area.
By the mid-1980s, growing numbers of dairy farmers in the preserve wanted out, as the local industry was itself being subjected to the same pressures that had been brought to bear on dairyman who had been forced to pull up the stakes of their Los Angeles County and Orange County operations two decades before. Land speculators and developers eyeing the property and envisioning it as residential subdivisions supported politicians at the municipal and county levels intent on adhering to a dairy-busting agenda that in time spelled the end of the preserve as a lasting entity.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the county’s land use professionals were seeking to examine the desirability of maintaining the preserve’s dairies as a hedge against the region’s burgeoning urbanization and to determine if the scaled-down local dairy industry had a reasonable prospect of sustaining itself in the changing environment. At the same time, the county’s elected leadership was heavily influenced by developmental interests, the major providers of political contributions. With a few exceptions, the supervisors leaned in favor of breaking up the preserve.
In 1986, the county took the first step toward deconstructing the Williamson Act’s applicability in the Chino Valley. By 1997, half of the dairies that had been operating in the preserve at its peak had left. The jousting between Ontario and Chino over annexation of the preserve had begun.
In 1999, while there were still 140 dairies operating in the Chino Valley, the city of Ontario annexed nearly 8,200 of the 15,200 remaining acres in the preserve. Chino laid claim to the other 7,000. The county, for the most part, alternately passively and actively accepted the inevitability of the pending urbanization. Ontario drew up master plans for development of the preserve property into 31,000 homes, 5 million square feet of retail space and 5 million square feet of industrial space.
Chino designated over 400 acres for industrial development and earmarked 2,000 acres for new residences, with complementary plans for commercial development.
Some of the dairies in the area continued to operate. By 2015, there were roughly 60 left. Today that number has dwindled to around 30.
The Borbas, in the form of the George Borba Family Trust and George Borba Jr., are the owners of many of the 219.39 acres 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. Also owning property within that quadrangle are Pocamo, LLC; the County of San Bernardino, the Rudy Haringa Trust and Gerben Hettinga. At this point, and for the last two years, the Borbas, Pocamo, the Haringa Trust and Hettinga have resolved to see the property developed. When Ontario annexed the land, the 219.39 acres had been zoned to accommodate low- and medium-density residential homes and commercial centers and a large business park. For the Borbas and the others, however, developing the property residentially presents certain challenges.
At some point, an entity known as Euclid Land Venture entered the picture. Reports abounded that Euclid Land Venture was an arm of the Borba Family. However, Rudy Zeledon, Ontario’s planning director, told the Sentinel that Euclid Land Venture 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 Venture.
Despite its lack of current immediate ownership, Euclid Land Venture is functioning as the prime mover, the applicant pursuing the project’s overarching specific plan approval. Euclid Land Venture is seeking to develop the property not as single-family homes but rather as warehousing and distribution centers, with some minor commercial and very light manufacturing concerns mixed in. Developing the property in that fashion would prove far more expeditious, the Borba family calculates, than as houses.
To oblige the Borba family, the city, at the instruction of the city council, opened up a pathway for a substantial makeover in what had previously been intended for the property.
On January 25, when the Ontario Planning Commission convened to determine whether it should recommend that the city council give approval 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 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 and honest 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 city 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 political 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.
That is what occurred on January 25, when after considering documentation in the environmental impact report for the South Ontario Logistics Center outlining that the project would result in no fewer than 16 negative impacts relating to the categories of traffic congestion, noise, global climate change, cultural resources, air quality and agricultural resources and that none of those impacts could be fully mitigated to a level of “less than significant,” the planning commission nonetheless unanimously voted to recommend that the city council allow the conversion of the property to industrial and business park use.
That provided the city council with political cover in making its call in favor of the Borba Family when it convened on March 1 to consider the project.
At the March 1 meeting, 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 what is to be constructed 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 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 city council made a further key sidestep on March 1, one which consisted of neutralizing the intensive lobbying against the project by union members. With multiple unions having gone on record on January 25 before the planning commission as being opposed to a project that would result in the creation of large numbers of warehouses in which automation would limit the number of jobs and which would offer positions that would not be likely to pay much beyond minimum wage, efforts were made offstage to convince the leadership of those unions to have their members stand down and not participate at the hearing before the city council. Simultaneously, efforts were made to have members of the single union that had expressed support for the project, the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, to show up en masse on March 1.
Indeed, that is what occurred. Moreover, during the meeting, whenever a member of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters came to the podium to speak in favor of the project, Mayor Paul Leon, who was presiding over the meeting, from his position on the dais choreographed the union members’ show of support by instructing them to collectively stand up with the verbal cue, “All rise.”
The members of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters reiterated the theme that the project would provide them with construction jobs paying respectable wages that would allow them to take care of their families. Virtually all of the members of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters present were clad in orange shirts, such that the spectacle of them standing up on unison, which was repeated several times, had an immense psychological effect, making everyone in the council chamber acutely conscious of the dominant presence of the union contingent.
During the March 1 meeting, an issue discussed was the zoning on the property. At the time of the annexation of the 8,200 acres of the 15,200 of acres in the preserve into Ontario, the zoning on the vast portion of the land had been redesignated from agricultural to residential. The action contemplated and ultimately granted by the city council on March 1 was to change the zoning again, this time to light industrial use. Before the council took that action, however, there were calls and suggestions by some of those opposed to the project that if the city council felt altering the zoning was called for, it should redesignate it for agricultural use. Both Councilman Alan Wapner and Councilman Jim Bowman and ultimately Mayor Leon seized upon that as an effort by the project proponents to deny the Borbas’ property rights. At one point, in seeking to justify certifying the environmental impact report prepared for the project, adopting the statement of overriding considerations, approving the mitigation, monitoring and reporting arrangements for the development of the land, signing off on amending the city’s general plan, granting a change in zoning on the property, modifying the land use element of the policy plan in the city’s general plan and ultimately changing the city’s land use map to alter it from low-medium density residential acreage and business park property to industrial use and denser business park buildings, Councilman Alan Wapner purposefully and artfully misinterpreted what the residents were saying as demands that either the Borbas and the other landowners be prohibited from selling the property or that the city purchase the 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.”
At the same time, the council suggested that the property could no longer be used for agricultural purposes because of the concentration of nitrate contamination in its soil.
Throughout the run-up to the hearing at which the project was approved, over 1,000 community members submitted comments and statements of opposition to the project.
On March 30, the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, represented by the law firm of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, filed a lawsuit against the City of Ontario and the Ontario City Council. The suit calls upon the San Bernardino County Superior Court to rescind the project, general plan amendments, zone changes and the specific plan’s environmental impact report on grounds that the environmental impact report failed to adequately address the project’s impacts on air quality, its pollution and contamination of the soil and water table, threats to public health and the loss of lands designated for agricultural use, together with the failure to identify mitigation measures to offset those impacts.
According to the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice’s interim executive director, Ana Gonzalez, “This project violates the right of the community to live free from environmental harm. These lands are restricted to agricultural use and the community’s voices were ignored. To preserve environmental justice and equity, it is crucial that these communities receive transparency about the impacts that this rezoning can have on their health and wellbeing. The draft environmental impact report prepared for the South Ontario Logistics Center Specific Plan failed to disclose that parcels identified for phase 2 development were originally acquired with Proposition 70 funds, and are currently restricted for agricultural preservation, agricultural and wildlife education or wildlife habitat, or for open space conservation purposes.”
Proposition 70 was passed by voters statewide in 1988 to provide bond funding to pay for the preservation of agricultural lands and open space. San Bernardino County purchased some of the property adjoining that owned by the Borba family, which is included within the 219.39-acre project area, using Proposition 70 money provided it in the form of grants by the State of California.
“Additionally, responses to the draft environmental impact report comments fail to fully disclose all potentially significant impacts and the lack of implementation of mitigations to reduce impacts,” Gonzalez said. “In fact, the draft environmental impact report’s claim that there are no feasible mitigation measures misconstrues the California Environmental Quality Act’s definition of feasibility and violates the basic principles of the California Environmental Quality Act, and comments which raise the concern that the project would convert farmland to nonagricultural use were not adequately addressed. The final environmental impact report failed to satisfy the informational requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, to provide an accurate, stable and finite project description, to provide an adequate discussion of feasible mitigation measures for the project’s significant agricultural impacts and failed to adequately analyze and mitigate the project’s other potentially significant impacts, including impacts to air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. For these reasons, implementation of the project prior to a proper environmental analysis will irreparably harm the environment, and will result in significant and unmitigated adverse impacts to the community’s health, safety, and welfare.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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