Suit Settlement With State AG Means Fontana Will Intensify Development Standards On Warehouses

The City of Fontana has reached a settlement on the lawsuit filed against it last summer by the California Attorney General’s Office which alleged municipal officials had violated the California Environmental Quality Act with their approval of a nearly 206,000-square-foot warehouse adjacent to Jurupa Hills High School.
Local environmental activists said they hoped conditions imposed upon the city as part of the settlement will reverse the city’s longstanding trend of unbridled logistics-related development in the 42.4-square mile city.
Since Acquanetta Warren was elevated to the position of mayor in 2010, Fontana has embraced warehouse development. Citing Fontana’s location along the 10, 210 and 215 freeways and the Union Pacific/Santa Fe/Burlington Northern railroad line and its general position within Southern California, which involves large port facilities in San Pedro and Long Beach that land massive amounts of merchandise from manufacturers in Asia brought across the Pacific Ocean by ship, she says her city is a logical host for warehouses and distribution centers. She has argued that given the largely blue collar populace of Fontana and the consideration that approaching 30 percent of the parents of children attending Fontana schools either do not speak, or lack proficiency in, the English language, the best that can be done for a significant percentage of those who graduate from or drop out of Fontana’s high schools is to provide them with jobs such as those available in warehouses, which do not demand skilled laborers. Between 2016 and 2021, Fontana had approved more than 30 warehouses totaling approximately 16 million square feet in southern Fontana alone.
An increasingly vocal element of the community has decried the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in the 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. As more and more land locally is being consumed by such uses, some began years ago to second guess the wisdom of allotting so much property in the city for that type of development and question whether warehouses constitute the highest and best use of available land. In the face of that, Warren maintained that the building of warehouses constitutes easy “economic advancement” for the Fontana community, which allows those with capital to acquire or tie up property and quickly convert the land into warehouses consisting of tilt-up buildings, thereby generating fast money and investment in the local economy. As a consequence, Warren is referred to, derisively by her detractors and admiringly by her supporters, as Warehouse Warren.
On April 20, 2021, the city took up another in a string of such development proposals, one offered by Michael Weber and his Irvine-based company, Duke Realty, to consolidate seven parcels into a single parcel of approximately 8.61 acres at the southwest corner of Slover Avenue and Oleander Avenue, upon which a proposed 205,949-square foot warehouse featuring 22 truck docks, 40 truck parking spaces, and 95 standard parking spaces was to be built. The Fontana City Council entrusted to the city’s planning commission land use authority with regard to the project, and the planning commission approved it.
That approval included passage of the project’s design review and its tentative parcel map.
In providing the project with its environmental certification, the planning commission signed off on a mitigated negative declaration, without it being subject to a comprehensive environmental impact report, despite the size, intensity and complexity of the project.
An environmental impact report is an involved study of the project site, the project proposal, the potential and actual impacts the project will have on the site and surrounding area in terms of all conceivable issues, including land use, water use, air quality, potential contamination, noise, traffic, and biological and cultural resources. It specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts. A mitigated negative declaration is a far less exacting size-up of the impacts of a project, by which the panel entrusted with the city’s ultimate land use authority, in this case either the planning commission or the city council, issues a declaration that all adverse environmental impacts from the project will be mitigated, or offset, by the conditions of approval of the project imposed upon the developer.
Elizabeth Sena, a Fontana resident, appealed the project approval to the Fontana City Council.
According to Sena, the proliferation of warehouses in Fontana generally and the Weber/Duke Realty warehouse project specifically are contrary to the interests of the Fontana community. In a multitude of political and geographical contexts, according to Sena, there were “racial and ethnic disparities” in terms of those who bear the brunt of the negative consequences of warehouse development. She maintained that elsewhere, as is the case in Fontana, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians more than the white population have the close proximity of warehouses, including their negative health consequences, imposed upon them by virtue of those onerous uses being located in or proximate to their residential neighborhoods.
In her appeal of the Weber/Duke Realty warehouse proposal, Sena cited “blatant disregard for the safety of our community” and “environmental redlining” that was “harming our kids.”
Warren responded, asserting “I think we have taken every effort legally to keep people safe.”
Mayor Warren and her three allies on the council, John Roberts, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Peter Garcia, sidestepped the opposition that Sena raised, and the voices of protest that joined with hers, consisting of Carlos Tinoc, Tina Tinoc, Sunny Renteria, Julian Rambila, Julia Avina, Gabriela Mendez, Brian Culdy, Rosa Culdy, Yolanda Rivera, Jasmine Cunningham, Veronica Perez, Eddie Lopez, Ben Vasquez, Paul Salazar, Debrah Seldon, Cynthia Gonzalez, Alejandra Collazo, Andrew Noriega, Annelle Torres, Rebecca Gonzalez and Jose Valdez
The council, in a 4-to-1 vote, with Warren, Roberts, Cothran and Garcia prevailing and Councilman Jesse Sandoval dissenting, on June 22, 2021 denied the appeal, upholding the planning commission’s decision to let Weber/Duke Realty proceed with the project.
On July 23, 2021, California Attorney General Robert Bonta filed a lawsuit against the City of Fontana, challenging its approval of the project. In the lawsuit, Attorney General 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 violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The Sierra Club separately filed a lawsuit against the project.
“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. 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 aftermath of the California Attorney General’s Office’s civil action, Fontana and Warren remained defiant, asserting that the policy of pursuing economic rejuvenation through warehouse development was sound socially, financially and environmentally.
On July 6, 2021, the Fontana 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. Janet Meza, who lives with her family in a home adjacent to the Valley Boulevard Catawba Avenue project site, and Sena, along with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in conjunction with the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition, filed an appeal of the planning commission’s approval of the project. That appeal stated that an environmental impact report was not completed for the project and the California Environmental Quality Act exemption the city used does not apply to it. 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.
On September 28, the Fontana City Council upheld the planning commission and denied the appeal.
Posturing by the city in which officials held that the effort to generate economic development was not only a responsible but prudent land use principle continued while pretrial legal sparring was ongoing between the attorney general’s office and lawyers for the Sierra Club on the plaintiffs’ side and Fontana City Attorney Ruben Duran representing the council and Warren over the next several months. Meanwhile, Warren and the three members of her ruling coalition, councilmen Roberts, Cothran and Garcia, were beset with criticism for their reception of substantial political donations from proponents of warehouse projects, those being either the owners of the property upon which the warehouses were to be or have been built and the development companies constructing them. A growing number of residents suggested the majority of the city’s leadership allowed its judgment to be influenced by money provided to it, such that the welfare of Fontana’s elected officials’ constituents was a secondary consideration.
On Monday, April 18, Bonta announced what he referred to as “an innovative settlement” with the City of Fontana which he said will serve “to protect vulnerable communities  from pollution associated with industrial development where they live, work, and go to school. Today’s settlement, once entered by the court, will resolve allegations that the City of Fontana violated the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the Slover and Oleander warehouse project in south Fontana.”
Under the terms of the settlement, Duke Realty will be required to adopt substantial mitigation measures to minimize the impacts of the project to the surrounding community. Additionally, Bonta disclosed, the Fontana City Council’s adoption last week of an ordinance setting stringent environmental standards for all future warehouse development in Fontana was part of the settlement.
The settlement requires the City of Fontana to adopt what Bonta characterized as “the most stringent warehouse ordinance in the state,” which embodies dozens of newly-imposed requirements for warehouse projects within Fontana City Limits, extending to site designs to keep trucks away from sensitive sites such as schools, hospitals, and day care facilities, the promotion of zero-emission vehicles for on-site operations, landscaped buffers, installation of solar panels to meet 100 percent of energy needs for larger warehouse projects, and use of environmentally friendly building materials.
The settlement also requires the developer, Duke Realty, to mitigate the Slover and Oleander warehouse project’s environmental impacts on the surrounding community. Mitigation measures include design changes and other protections for nearby residents, as well as reduced emissions from equipment used during construction and operation. Duke Realty will also establish a $210,000 community benefit fund that will be used to enhance landscaping buffers at Jurupa Hills High School, which abuts the project, and to purchase and distribute a five-year supply of high-quality air filters to up to 1,750 households in the surrounding community.
Simultaneously, the South Coast Air Quality Management District announced a revamped process for analyzing cumulative air quality impacts from such projects. The attorney general’s lawsuit challenged the City of Fontana’s reliance on the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s existing guidance in its approval of the Slover and Oleander warehouse project. Going forward, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is to consider existing burdens associated with nearby pollution sources and, where warranted, quantify for the first time cumulative air quality impacts and the effects on human health. This new standard will involve the South Coast Air Quality Management District in considering the impacts of concentrating polluting land uses, like warehouse projects, in disadvantaged areas, thereby encouraging local governments to site future projects in areas where they will have the least impact on human health.
“For years, warehouse development in Fontana went unchecked, and it’s our most vulnerable communities that have paid the price,” said Bonta. “Today’s settlement demonstrates how innovative solutions can be used to address environmental injustices, without hindering development. When we build, we must build responsibly. Most importantly, the impacts of this settlement are not limited to mitigating the impacts of a single project. As a result of our lawsuit, the City of Fontana has adopted the most stringent environmental standards in California for new warehouse projects. This ordinance should serve as a model for other local governments across the state to build upon. We must ensure that future development does not repeat past mistakes.”
“For over a decade, Sierra Club volunteers have been challenging warehouse developments throughout San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, resulting in mitigations and community benefits, including three previous lawsuits in Fontana,” said Mary Ann Ruiz, chairwoman of the Sierra Club San Gorgonio Chapter. “The difference this time was the voice of the community, led by Liz Sena and the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition, gaining the attention of Attorney General Bonta. We appreciate the partnership and leadership of the AG’s office in reaching this agreement to improve the project and set a standard for all future projects in Fontana.”
“For years, Fontana residents have voiced their concerns regarding the rise of air pollution associated with the increase of warehouse development but have been disregarded,” said Sena, a south Fontana resident and founder of the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition. “And for this reason, the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition recognizes Attorney General Bonta’s leadership and partnership in filing a lawsuit against the City of Fontana. The settlement is the first of its kind, and will help protect us by minimizing the impact of future warehouses surrounding our community, where our families live, learn, and work.”
It is not clear whether the terms of the settlement apply to the 9th Street Partners warehouse project at the northwest corner of Valley Boulevard and Catawba Avenue, as it was approved by the planning commission and upheld on an appeal to the city council prior to the settlement being reached.
-Mark Gutglueck

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