The City of Needles is updating its general plan that has been in place for nearly 37 years.
San Bernardino County’s easternmost city and smallest municipality population-wise with 5,225 residents, the town has been in existence since 1883, when it was selected as the California side of the bridge constructed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to bring the railroad across the Colorado River from Arizona.
The seventh city in San Bernardino County to incorporate in 1913, Needles from the 1920s through the 1960s was a major stop on Route 66, what was then the primary highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. From the 1970s until quite recently, Needles’ population was in decline, reaching its nadir within the last decade. In 2014, the city’s last supermarket, Bashas, a chain store run by an Arizona company, was shuttered. Virtually all of the commercial establishments that once existed in the city, its dime stores, 1920s- and 1930s- and 1940s- and 1950s and 1960s-era hotels and motels, its Chinese laundry, drug stores, furniture stores, jeweler, newsstand, restaurants, several general stores, and at least nine saloons or taverns including a Prohibition speakeasy are gone, many having fallen victim to fires, including arsons.
The city bottomed out as the least populous city in the county more than a decade-and-a-half ago with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, but in recent years the number of people living there has begun to increase so that it is moving toward eclipsing the City of Big Bear Lake as the county’s second smallest city population-wise.
A general plan is a broad planning guideline that lays out policies and goals associated with a city’s future development, a blueprint as it were for how a city will grow over the coming two to three decades. Such general plans specify zones for residential, commercial and industrial development, including the intensity of that development as expressed in the zoning specifications as to the number and density of the particular types of buildings and structures to be allowed.
With the general plan having last been updated in 1986, city officials are revisiting the document for the most part in its entirety, including its land use and transportation elements, its zoning map and zoning code.
The new general plan calls for future growth over the next 17 to 20 years that will account for the existing population of 5,225 and employment of 1,403 to reach buildout conditions of approximately 7,750 residents and employment of 2,395.
As part of the land use element and land use/zoning map update, the city will revise its zoning code to allow for “consistency… [that will] create a downtown core designation,” according to the draft general plan, where mixed uses combining residential and commercial components can be constructed. The city’s development code is to be revamped to accommodate that change.
The general plan envisions the lion’s share or even all of the development that is to take place in the community happening within the city’s 32.08-square-mile city limits.
The proposed updates to the land use and transportation elements of the general plan call for limiting growth and development to its incorporated boundaries and does not plan to promote growth or changing land use or circulation in its unincorporated sphere of influence. The majority of Needles’ unincorporated sphere of influence is north, south, and west of the incorporated boundaries, with the exception of an 18-acre area that is owned by the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and entirely surrounded by incorporated land.
Under the general plan update, the city’s circulation system of streets and roads, bikeways, and pedestrian routes will be enhanced to make more efficient and safe motorized and nonmotorized transit, with a focus on aligning future growth projections and necessary roadway improvements. The proposed project is designed to result in a more flexible and innovative mix of land uses that will revitalize the downtown district and provide new housing opportunities throughout the city, while supporting economic growth.
An obvious major deviation from the 1986 general plan is the acceptance of all forms of commercial activity relating to marijuana, including cultivation of marijuana plants, the wholesaling of that agricultural product, the sale of the drug for medical and intoxicative purposes, research facilities relating to marijuana-based and cannabis-based compounds and derivatives and the manufacturing of cannabis-containing and marijuana-containing products.
The proposed land use map being used in the general plan update includes seven designations, those being single family residential, two-family residential, multiple-family residential, planned unit development, commercial residential resort, neighborhood commercial and general commercial.
As part of the revised land use element and land use map, the city will implement a downtown core area along West Broadway Street between E Street and H Street between 3rd Street and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, previously known as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Railroad tracks. That area will provide for pedestrian access and what city officials called an “experience-oriented downtown” that serves as a local gathering place and a regional destination.
As part of the general plan, the city is exploring the potential of a “Main Street” concept within downtown Needles along Broadway Avenue, which reflects the historic nature of that thoroughfare. Toward that end, potential lane reductions are being considered to create a more vibrant commercial district. The existing four-lane span between L Street and A Street would be reduced to provide one travel lane in each direction with on-street angled parking. The lane reduction would only affect the lane geometries at one intersection: J Street and Broadway Avenue. In addition, the lane reduction would only affect the number of travel lanes for the segment of Broadway Avenue between J Street and G Street.
According to Needles City Manager Rick Daniels, the general plan under preparation “is a modern document that is creating parks around town and makes sure there is sufficient space for the expansion of businesses, and allows for job creation. It represents an advance over the general plan of the 1980s by encouraging water and energy conservation.”
In addition, Daniels said, the general plan will permit the construction of an adequate number of multifamily or apartment units.
“In the last four years, businesses have created over 600 jobs in the city,” Daniels said. “But we had only 150 available units, so 450 people chose to live across the river in Arizona and in Nevada. If we had the available residential units here, those people would be living here and we would have a population now closer to 6,000 than 5,200 or so, which would further our economic recovery. Having more homes and residential options will make the city more attractive to people who want to work and move here. We see residential growth as critical to the prosperity we are looking for. By getting more housing and streamlining regulations to make sure developers and builders can get quick answers, Needles will progress. When those who want to build want to know from us whether what they are asking for is to be given a yes or no, I have said, ‘When in doubt, it is a yes.’ This city has a strong pro-development attitude. We are dying for housing.”
Daniels, who was brought in to Needles as city manager in 2013, said the reality then was that, “More businesses were closing than opening. More structures were being burned down every year than were being built. In earlier days, when this was a major stop along Route 66, the city was thriving. In 1970 and 1971, when Route 40 came in, instead of 6,000 cars coming down Broadway at 30 miles an hour and people stopping at our hotels and restaurants, they were flying by at 70 miles an hour. That was not planned, but that was the effect. The town began to die when the freeway bypassed us. That caused a decline in the viability of our business community because those customers coming through here were no longer available. That was a nationwide phenomenon along Route 40 and it played out exactly like that here.”
With the new general plan, Daniels said, “We are opening up more commercial land for travelers at the interchanges. We’re creating more business opportunity sites at the interchanges.”
According to Needles Development Services Director Patrick Martinez, the 1986 general plan projected that by 2005 Needles would see its population reach 14,500.
“That did not happen,” Daniels said, with some degree of understatement. “Right now, we are projecting that we will hit 7,750, which is about half of what was predicted in the last general plan. We believe the numbers we are working on are realistic and aren’t pie-in-the-sky. When you adopt a general plan, the city makes investments in infrastructure and other things to accommodate the projected population. If you overstate or overestimate, it can lead to expenditures of money that don’t need to be done.”
Daniels said the plan has laid out locations “for a new park along the river and additional boat launches and riverfront trails. One way to grow our economy is to expand public access to and use of the Colorado River.”
Despite being the county’s smallest city population-wise, Needles is, at more than 31 square miles, the 14th largest or 11th smallest of the county’s 24 municipalities.
It does have property within its confines where development is not exactly impossible or off limits but still problematic. A large portion of the property within the city is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of that is listed under the general plan as open space, though some of it is zoned for residential development.
“Our BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land is generally planned for and viewed as best suited for off-highway use, hiking, biking trails and for wilderness experience,” Daniels said. “If there was an application to develop any of that property, we would run a concurrent process with BLM to allow for the request to be processed. We would conduct hearings to have the approval of that land use where the city would jointly sign off with BLM on those development proposals.”
Daniels said that city officials have seen very little resistance to the pro-development sentiment that is at the core of the general plan update. “There are existing neighborhoods immediately adjacent to where we are offering zoning for multifamily use, and we have not heard anyone express any opposition,” he said.
Nevertheless, there is some degree of skepticism and discomfiture with the how much of the already developed property in Needles is being cleared to make way for future development, with little regard to the value of historic sites and structures that are being razed in the process.
Planning Commissioner Michael Wright expressed concern as to the lack of consideration in the plan to protect what he considered to be historic homes in the downtown area.
Ruth Musser-Lopez, a property owner and former Needles City Councilmember, told the Sentinel that she is writing to the city to express her disappointment that the proposed general plan did not make a comprehensive local listing of historic properties and did not map out a viable plan for preserving those which are potentially eligible for state and national registers.
Though she was upbeat about the demonstration of confidence for the city’s future that the plan entailed, she lamented that the emphasis on growth and development was overshadowing the elements of the cultural resource landscape and cityscape that were worth preserving.
“The general plan update involves no recent study of Needles’ historic assets,” she said. “The list of historic or cultural elements of the community is limited to two cemeteries and what is already on the National Register of Historic Places—the El Garces hotel, and a few places that are outside of city limits. Rather than recognizing that the community enjoys an entire downtown historic district along the National Old Trails Highway and Route 66, the plan merely gives vague lip service and non-specific statements about preservation. They are not considering the cumulative impact this will have on that downtown historic district, which has already been partly decimated by razing of architecturally important historic structures like the California Hotel and the Episcopal Church, the burning down of the old recreation hall and the city’s burning down of the historic Overland Hotel under the city manager’s direction without a California Environmental Quality Act review. There are still some very nice remaining buildings from our past. For example, there are a few very beautiful Victorian homes still standing, the deco art of the Claypool Department Store, the circa 1910 historic theatre, some ‘atomic’ era Route 66 structures and the rare motor cabins still standing from about 100 years ago. But there is no new list or even an old 1986 general plan inventory list of the potentially eligible historic structures. Moreover, there is no analysis to determine if there are any historic or cultural resources to be listed for protection on local, state or national registers. One by one they could be being picked off and destroyed. This plan is supposed to be an improvement over the 1986 general plan, but it repeats the earlier document’s lack of any historical preservation codification. A fatal flaw of both the 1986 and the current document is that the cumulative adverse impact of ongoing destruction of properties in a potentially eligible historic district was not addressed.”
Musser Lopez further said that she did not think it appropriate that the Needles Pioneer Cemetery was going to be converted to a site on which multi-family housing was to be located.
“The property and its place on old ‘Cemetery Hill’ is of historic and archaeological significance and is the important remnant of what was once a much larger graveyard,” she said. “It contains burials, headstones and other grave-related artifacts and features dating back to the late 1800s, some of which are associated with important and celebrated figures of Needles’ history and its founding. The cemetery is an important confirmation of Needles’ age as one of the oldest EuroAmerican communities in California.”
She said the burial place “contains a rare connection between prehistoric Native American stone tool technology, metate manufacturing and rock art (petroglyphs) as evidenced by some of the headstones situated there. Oral history and archaeological evidence reveal that the subject headstones are likely made by Pete Lambert, known as ‘the last Mojave chief.’ Construction of multi-family housing units on top of a historic cemetery of this importance and significance would be an adverse impact that the California Environmental Quality Act document for the renewed general plan has not addressed.”
Since her correspondence, the status of the historic cemetery was considered by both the planning commission and the city council and the proposed zoning map was changed by Meridian, the city’s consulting firm assisting in the drafting of the new general plan, to include it in a public use zone. Nevertheless, the language in the California Environmental Quality Act document has not been updated.
Musser Lopez also expressed concern that the city was utilizing a mitigated negative declaration to provide environmental certification of the general plan update. She said a more exacting effort to evaluate the lasting environmental impacts of the redrafted general plan should be utilized, specifically a full-blown environmental impact report or environmental impact statement, which would make an involved analysis of the potential and actual impacts that adopting the new general plan will have on the city 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. An environmental impact report specifies in detail what measures can, will and must be carried out to offset those impacts.
“Though residential build out over the next 17 to 20 years is guesstimated by city management to be an expansion from a population of 5,225 to a population of 7,750, build out is really only limited by the acreage in the zones proposed for residential development,” she said. “The California Environmental Quality Act document actually states on page 240 a capacity of 40,052 residents and the capacity for low-income residents is 25,106. These figures are far beyond the concept of ‘limited growth’ and such a projection of population change and the changes in required infrastructure in the form of water, sewer, electric and trash is not insignificant. It would require the city to complete an environmental impact statement and a disclosure of the cost of such new infrastructure to be defrayed by its existing customers. Once a zoning change opens the flood gates of intensified development, the law must be applied equally to property owners. As I read it, there is no built-in limitation to growth and development within the envelope of the next one-to-five years except available land zoned for residential use. The mitigated negative declaration does not address the potential impacts of such growth and what impact alleviation measures should be called for.”