Wonder Valley Digging Its Collective Heels In Against Resort Project

A wide cross section of the fewer than the 1,200 residents of the 75-square mile expanse of Wonder Valley and its outlying environs is adamantly opposed to the general concept of converting the 4,407-square foot former Southern California Edison facility most commonly known by locals as “the pink building” near the southwest corner of Gammel and Amboy Road into a year-round resort to be dubbed the Wonder Valley Inn.
No Wonder Valley residents contacted by the Sentinel and no Wonder Valley residents contacting the Sentinel are in favor of the project.
Greenberg and Landver in November 2021 applied for a conditional use permit, including a rezoning request for 21.22 of the acres on the site which are currently zoned for low density housing under the county’s RL-5 zoning designation, to CS, or commercial service use, to allow the project as proposed to proceed. The current RL-5 designation allows single family homes on lots no smaller than five acres. Greenberg and Landver either own outright or have tied up approximately 134.6 acres at the Amboy/Gammel corner, which bears the address of 78201 Amboy Road. The 3.18 acres closest to the two roads is already zoned for commercial service use. The San Bernardino County Land Use Services division’s apparent intent to allow Greenberg and Landver to utilize a negative mitigation declaration in carrying out the environmental certification of the project during its approval process is rubbing many of those residents of the remote desert area the wrong way.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, most development projects are subjected to an environmental certification process. Some types of environmental certification are more intensive than others, ranging from an environmental impact report to an environmental impact study to an environmental assessment to an environmental examination to a mitigated negative declaration to a negative declaration.
An environmental impact report, the most involved type of environmental analysis and certification there is, consists of 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, existing contamination, 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. A mitigated negative declaration falls near the other end of the scale, and exists as 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, as in the case of Wonder Valley either the county planning commission or the board of supervisors, 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.
In all likelihood, when the Wonder Valley Inn project goes to the county planning commission with a staff recommendation that the mitigated negative declaration be made, the commission members will comply, and the project will thus gain approval. The approval could, although will not necessarily, be granted without the board of supervisors considering the matter.
Those who believe that the Wonder Valley Inn will prove incompatible with the rustic atmosphere of the community as it currently exists strongly suspect allowing the project to be subject to anything less than an across-the-board environmental impact report will allow Greenberg and Landver to cut corners and avoid having to pay for or otherwise provide mitigation measures that will offset the impacts of drawing hundreds of outsiders into the community every week.
County Land Use Services staff contends there will be no untoward environmental impacts from the project that are not to be offset by the set of conditions to be imposed on the project’s proponents.
Greenberg and Landver insist that the project, a 106-room hotel with a 24-hour restaurant, spa and event center, will be an enhancement to the community. The San Bernardino County Department of Land Use Services on January 14 gave its imprimatur to the undertaking, meaning any further environmental review of the project will be unnecessary based upon the proviso that Greenberg and Landver incorporate revisions to the proposal specified by county staff.
The resort would include a 6,000-square foot swimming pool, hot tubs, outdoor showers, a 180,000-gallon water tank and a 205-space parking lot.
The initial phases of the development would extend to no more than 25 acres, including the 4,407-square foot old pink building, which is to be converted into the hotel’s lobby, restaurant and kitchen, the stoves and ovens for which will run on propane. Two existing wells will be tapped to provide water. The proponents intend to use a septic leech field system for wastewater. Greenberg and Landver will rely on the local utility provider for electricity.
One off-site improvement Greenberg and Ladver will be required to make is widening a relatively modest 29-foot span of Amboy Road from the centerline of the site, creating a 40-foot-wide section along the south side of Amboy Road and converting a dirt road on the west side of the property into a paved emergency access route.
The mitigated negative declaration means the project is being fast-tracked, such that there will be no opportunity to hold the assumptions of county officials that the project upon completion will have no impact on the environment up to scrutiny, Wonder Valley residents contend.
It is no accident that David Mlynarski and his company, Transtech Engineers, Inc., were retained by Greenberg and Landver to deal with county officials in their application for project approval.
Mlynarski, a member of the American Planning Association, the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association, of which he is currently an executive committee member, the Inland Empire Economic Recovery Corporation, of which he is also the chief financial officer, and the National Association of Home Builders, ran as a pro-development candidate for city council in San Bernardino’s Seventh Ward in 2020. He possesses solid credentials relating to guiding developmental interests in achieving entitlements to build based upon his professional experience along with his political connections. He was an assistant planner with the City of Fontana and later an associate planner and zoning administrator with the City of Palmdale. He left the public sector and parlayed his experience behind the planning counter to become the vice president of land development with Moning Development in Fullerton, later becoming vice president of market development with Redlands-based Sierra Engineering. He worked with two civil engineering and land surveying companies before purchasing one of them and converting it to Transtech Engineers, Inc. In his assistance to Greenberg and Landver in their application with the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department, he has formulated a strategy of prevailing upon county officials to not apply the more exacting land use standards that those living in the desert community believe are proper for any significant construction that is to take place in their midst.
One building block for the declaration of no unmitigated impacts from the project is a report, which has already been accepted by the county, pertaining to critical species that might be harmed by the project. According to that report, despite the presence of creosote bush scrub on the southlying half of the project site which provides foraging opportunities for the desert tortoise and thereby makes that land excellent habitat for the species, the property features rocky soil which renders it nearly impossible for the tortoises to burrow there. Consequently, according to the report, “No desert tortoises or signs (i.e. scat, burrows, carapaces) were observed on-site.”
According to a document with the title “San Bernardino County Initial Study,” which contains a “mitigated negative declaration environmental checklist form,” with regard to aesthetics, agricultural and forestry resources, air quality, energy, fire protection, geology and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous materials, hydrology and water quality, land use and planning, noise, population and housing, public services, recreation, transportation, tribal and cultural resources, utilities and service systems and wildfire, the project, when subject to the conditions of approval, will have no environmental impacts or no significant environmental impacts.
“Therefore, no significant adverse impacts are identified or anticipated, and no mitigation measures are required,” the report states.
Thus, according to both Mlynarski and the county, Greenberg and Landver should be at liberty to proceed with developing the site.
In an effort to counter the political pixie dust that Mlynarski has spread to work his magic on the county’s land use decision-making process, project opponents are citing an April 2020 environmental report for the site completed by Edward LaRue on behalf of Circle Mountain Biological Consultants. According to LaRue, there was evidence that desert tortoises were, in fact, foraging on the site.
This matches anecdotal evidence accumulated by Wonder Valley residents of tortoises living in and passing through the area.
It is unclear whether county land use services division staff will accept the Circle Mountain Biological Study and pass it along to the planning commission. If the planning commission considers it, that might form the basis of rejecting the adequacy of the mitigated negative declaration and instead requiring that Greenberg and Landver complete a more thorough – and expensive – environmental impact report.
A handful of Wonder Valley’s residents, skeptical about the project from the time they first heard about Greenberg and Landver applying for a conditional use permit, banded together to create the website stopwonderinn.org.
The project opponents have taken issue with many of the findings in the initial study for the environmental certification for the project. They have said the county was cutting corners in its move to let the project proceed on the basis of the mitigated negative declaration. They want the land use services division to require that Greenberg and Landver employ a reputable and licensed firm to do a full-blown environmental impact report.
The initial report inaccurately describes the history of and previous uses of the big pink building, Wonder Valley residents allege. It was not a post office, as the county claims but rather an electrical switching station erected in 1962, they say.
Documents show the building was used for what was termed an “electrical co-op” maintained by the federal Rural Electrification Administration, which was intended to facilitate the Homestead Act by making electricity available in remote areas where homesteads had been established.
Some 3,000 recreational cabins and more permanent living structures built by homesteaders between 1938 and the mid-1960s under the Small Tract Act, also known as the “Baby Homestead Act,” once dotted the landscape, though hundreds were demolished and removed as part of a clean-up effort over the last two-and-a-half decades.
The initial study the county is relying upon falsely maintains that Wonder Valley has no community plan, according to local residents, who point out that Wonder Valley indeed has a community plan.
County Land Use Services is also underestimating the traffic impact that the project will being about, Wonder Valley residents assert. The initial study fails to consider the driving that guests at the Wonder Valley Inn will engage in after they arrive, and it assumes the only vehicle use those guests will take part in is the estimated 604 vehicle trips per day by which they will arrive and leave via two-lane Amboy Road. The study makes no reference to the heavy traveling that will likely occur on Gammel Road, a dirt road that is the most direct route from that point to Joshua Tree National Park. Ultimately, Gammel Road will need to be paved and there is no mention of this or the environmental impact that will entail in the initial study.
Wonder Valley Inn could greatly impact an already overburdened and inadequate system of emergency response that exists there. In 2017, Fire Station 45 in Wonder Valley was closed by the county, which cited lab tests showing water drawn from the well the station used was contaminated with arsenic, hexavalent chromium and fluoride at levels approaching or exceeding 1,000 times the threshold deemed safe for human use and consumption. Since that time, the response times for fire and emergency medical services in the area have grown to nearly 15 minutes per the official average and on occasion proven longer than that.
Unless Greenberg and Landver are willing to subsidize the construction of a new fire station or underwrite entirely the cost of reestablishing Fire Station 45, they should not be permitted to proceed with the Wonder Valley Inn, project opponents insist.
The environmental documentation for the project underreports the impact it will have on water consumption and light pollution of the night sky, those critics say.
Those wishing to see the initial study can do so at https://tinyurl.com/mt3fb2rx
Mark Gutglueck

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