By Mark Gutglueck
After a four-hour 37-minute and 45-second public hearing, the San Bernardino County Planning Commission yesterday declined to endorse a proposal by Alan Greenberg and Jason Landver to develop a 106-room resort hotel to be located on 24.4 acres off Amboy Road not too distant from Gammell Road in Wonder Valley.
Landver and Greenberg had sought a conditional use permit, policy land use amendment and zone change to construct a 106-room hotel, to include an all-night restaurant, spa/wellness center, conference hall and event center, a 6,000-square foot swimming pool, hot tubs, outdoor showers, a 180,000-gallon water tank and a 205-space parking lot on what would roughly total 12 acres within a 21.22-acre parcel and an adjoining 3.18 parcel located at 78201 Amboy Road, not too distant from the southwest corner of Amboy Road and Gammel Road. Those 24.4 acres lie within 223 acres Landver and Greenberg have acquired entailing the site and the land surrounding it.
Representing Landver and Greenberg was a team of consultants, led by the politically well-connected David Mlynarski, a former planning issue staff member with the cities of Fontana and Palmdale and 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. Landver and Greenberg had turned to Mlynarski, who has a track record of positively influencing city councils, planning commissions and all order of governmental land use and planning officials in favor of the developer clients he represents, because they believed he would be able to work his magic on County Planning Commission Chairman Jonathan Weldy, who is himself a licensed contractor and developer as the president of the Meridian Land Development Company. Over the course of the hearing, however, Landver, Mlynarski and another of Landver and Greenberg’s representatives, Julie Gilbert, made multiple misstatements and/or ill-advised or unfounded contradictions of or attacks upon data marshaled by the projects opponents. In particular, Landver asserted, erroneously, that he and Greenberg could develop a hotel on the subject property without any discretionary review of the project by the planning commission or the county board of supervisors based upon the 3.18 acres of property they own that is zoned for commercial purposes; Landver, Mlynarski and Gilbert asserted that the property to be developed was free of desert tortoises, which was contradicted by both a survey conducted by a certified biologist and photographic evidence presented by several Wonder Valley residents; Mlynarski and Gilbert inadvertently revealed, during the course of the meeting in pointed remarks they made which included personal attacks on the biologist who had revealed the existence of the endangered tortoises, that they had involved themselves in an effort to suppress the survey report prevent county staff from learning of the tortoise survey by preventing the biologist from being paid for his work and thereby keeping it from being released; and Landver, Mlynarski and Gilbert either willfully or ignorantly making no report of the hazardous substances previously in use at the site and thereby sidestepping any examination of contamination of the property.
The team representing Landver and Greenberg was headed by David Mlynarski, a politically well-connected development professional with a reputation for overcoming or sidestepping resistance to the development initiatives of his clients.
Mlynarski possesses solid credentials relating to guiding developmental interests in achieving entitlements to build as 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. His professional experience included working as an assistant planner with the City of Fontana and then 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. Greenberg and Landver retained him to guide them in their application for the Wonder Inn.
Mlynarski told the commission that the project being considered would preserve much of the area’s rural character.
“Of the 24.4 acres, which is the expanded commercial zone, the actual footprint that’s being placed on the ground is about 12 acres,” Mlynarski said. “So about half of the commercial zone is going to remain open space, desertscape, natural.”
The 3.18-acre portion of the 24.4-acre project site that is already zoned for commercial service use has on it a structure, referred to by locals as “the big pink building,” which Landver’ and Greenburg’s team referred to as a postal building, but which in actuality had originally been created as an electrical switching station for the homestead structures in the area. Landver and Greenberg intend the existing building to be retained as the lobby of the hotel and restaurant in the project they are proposing.
During the course of yesterday’s hearing, it was revealed that the building was an electrical switching station, which the Wonder Valley resident who made that revelation said raised the specter that the site was contaminated with PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls.
Mlynarski was caught flatfooted by the revelation, and the failure of the development team to have assessed the situation and include any strategy for redressing that possible contamination resonated negatively with the planning commission.
More serious was the development team’s reliance on a survey for the presence of desert tortoises on the subject property carried out by the consulting firm ELMT in 2021. The desert tortoise is an endangered species, the presence of which would have required a host of conditions being imposed on the project to protect the tortoises, preserve their habitat and ensure they are able to transit the area through to other areas where they forage and live. Moreover, the presence of the species on the property would require that a full-blown environmental impact report be conducted for the project rather than the county allowing the project to be environmentally certified with a so-called mitigated negative declaration. A mitigated negative declaration is a less stringent and less exploratory exposition of the environmental impacts of a proposed project than a more comprehensive and more expensive environmental impact report. The planning division of the San Bernardino County Department of Land Use Services, indeed, had allowed the project to move on to a determination by the planning commission of whether it would recommend to the board of supervisors that the project be allowed to proceed based upon a mitigated negative declaration analysis, known as an initial study, rather than an environmental impact report.
During the course of yesterday’s meeting, however, six individuals brought the ELMT 2021 survey into question by pointing out that the protocol for that study had not been disclosed and the citation of evidence, including photographs and a 2020 survey by Circle Mountain Biological Consultants headed by Ed LaRue, which made a finding of the presence of tortoises on the property.
There ensued a round of attacks on LaRue by Mlynarski and Gilbert, in which it was pointed out that Circle Mountain had not been paid for the 2020 survey and therefore did not publish its 2020 survey and LaRue had acted unethically by revealing the results of the survey to those opposed to the project and that they would warn their colleagues in the development industry against hiring LaRue in the future. This appeared to leave the planning commission less than favorably disposed toward the project.
Thursday’s proceedings began with Senior Planner Azhar Khan, the land use services department staff member who was assigned to the project giving an enthusiastic preview and endorsement of the project and its amenities, its pool, event center, the restaurant, the office, storage space. Service room and employee facilities he referred to as the “back of the house,” the fitness center, spa, event space, swimming pool and outdoor showers, sunken garden, geodesic domes and astronomy pergola. There would be no hot air ballooning or all terrain vehicle activity at the site, Khan said. He said that staff recommended that the planning commission recommend that the board of supervisors adopt the mitigated negative declaration and mitigation monitoring and reporting program for the project, adopt the findings for the approval of the project and approve changing the RL-5 zoning, allowing for rural residential living consisting of a single residential home on five acres, which applied to 21.22 acres of the property to CS, zoning, that is commercial service use, and approve the conditional use permit for the project to proceed.
Landver explained away previous indications that he and Greenberg intended to build not only the resort hotel but to develop the surrounding 198.6 acres residentially, consistent with the RL-5 zoning.
He said, “There’s a modular builder that’s currently bidding on the project. They have a blog on their website. At one time we did talk about homes with them because in the very beginning we thought about it, but since then we scrapped the idea of building homes and just focused only on the hotel project.” He said, “This hotel will bring significant TOT [transitory occupancy tax or bed /hotel tax] and other sales tax and revenue, upwards of more than a million dollars per year.”
Landver promoted the proposed project as an upscale place that would add more to the region than another Motel 6.
Planning Commission Chairman Jonathan Weldy, a general contractor and land developer who is the president of the Meridian Land Development Company, is generally quite accommodating of those seeking to develop property. He, significantly, took issue with Landver’s assertion that he and Greenberg could develop the property “by rights.”
Weldy noted that the lion’s share of the 24.4-acre site was zoned as residential property upon which projects of no greater density than one residential per five acres could be developed and that only 3.18 acres within that span had commercial zoning, such that any “by rights” development of a grand hotel resort Greenberg and Landver were contemplating could only take place “on a de minimis scale.”
Landver responded, “The site [i.e., the 3.18 acres upon which the pink building is located] is commercially zoned and if we wanted to have less than 20 rooms, for example, and there was less than 10,000 square feet, we would be able to bypass this process. You’re allowed to have a hotel at this site. The only question is, we wanted to do something, a little bit larger, go to a larger footprint to work here.”
Heidi Duron, the county planner, disputed Landver’s assertion that he and Greenberg had an unencumbered right to proceed with the project as they envision it.
“It is commercially zoned,” Duron said, “and it is permitted. It is not allowed by right. It would still require a discretionary review.”
At best, Weldy said, indicating even that was doubtful, the duo might be able to construct a modest motel.
Weldy expressed concern that despite Landver and Mlynarski expressing intent to limit the development on the 24.4 acre site to just 12 of those acres, if the property were to be sold by Landver and Greenberg to someone else, the expanse of the development could increase to the entirety of the property.
“That designation we’re talking about would be the entire 24 acres, which means subsequent design or build or change or evolution or expansion would not be prohibited,” Weldy said.
Later in the hearing, Weldy questioned whether the project and its scope represented a compatible land use in the area. He pressed Landver about whether his and Greenberg’s intention of taking a limited commercial use – the electric switching station located on a limited expanse of just over three acres which had formerly been used to provide a relatively benign and unobtrusive service to low key domestic homestead sites – could or should be bootstrapped up into something of far greater land use intensity.
“This is an anomaly of zoning that you have found,” he said to Landver. “So the question is do we really have a compatible land use to take that anomaly and magnify it quite a bit. I’m struggling with this inconsistent zoning, making it bigger in this substantially rural area. That is not an indictment of the business plan or the concept or the fact that we need to expand out there. Somebody said, ‘Let’s go put a building out there and we’re going to use it to electrify the neighborhood.’ I’m not sure that is enough of a toehold, at least for me, to say this is a compatible use. It feels a little jarring compared everything else that’s there.”
Weldy further said that “The issue of transition or separation is different when we’re looking at high density, medium density standard residential in a developed area. Out here where the spaces are so big and interrupted, the scale is just different. So what is an appropriate buffer zone and what does that look like… is not clear cut. This is a pretty grand scale.”
“Everything that I’ve heard and read, I’m not able to support it as it is,” Michael Stoffel said.
“I would make a motion to not recommend the project or deny the project based on the land use designation and the scope of going from the small property to such a large property in the area.
A refinement of the motion was articulated by Weldy to declare the commission as making a finding that the zoning Landver and Greenberg were seeking is incompatible in size and intensity to the zoning around it. Stoffel’s motion was seconded by Matthew Slowik. The motion passed unanimously with the support of Weldy, Stoffel, Slowik and Commissioner Kareem Gongora. Commissioner Melissa Demirci was absent.
The refinement of the motion’s language by Weldy was intended to give Landver and Greenberg a basis upon which to appeal the commission’s decision to the board of supervisors, which has the authority to grant or deny the project proposal, including the conditional use permit, policy land use amendment, zone change and mitigated negative declaration.
By Mark Gutglueck