Upland city officials have once more triggered the distrust of a cross section of politically active residents in the City of Gracious Living by making preparations to lease for commercial/industrial purposes more than two acres of current open space/potential future park land that is adjacent to an existing residential subdivision in the northwest quadrant of the city.
Attending the controversy are questions about whether the full city council or a quorum of its members violated the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law by signaling to city staff to proceed with the deal with Tesla, Inc. prior to taking any official action relating to the lease.
Reports are that the city’s highest ranking staff members complied with Mayor Bill Velto’s insistence that the city accommodate the management of the Upland Tesla dealership by clearing the way, both physically and procedurally, for the creation of what officials maintain will be a temporary parking lot for the overflow vehicles to be sold by the dealership. At present, the Upland Tesla dealership does not have a sufficiently large sales lot for the vehicles in its inventory.
The Sentinel is told that Councilwoman Shannan Maust, the elected representative of the First District in which the temporary parking lot has already been created, was bypassed in the decision-making process for preparing the permitting of the facility.
A potential issue at play, at least in the minds of some city residents, is that transforming the land in question into a makeshift parking lot might set the city on what was termed a slippery slope which would result in the land in question being rezoned from its current status as open space – where a park or other recreational amenity might conceivably be established – into some alternate land use that could prove inimical to the adjacent residential subdivisions.
Tesla, Inc. has leased the large showroom property formerly occupied by CNC Motors at 1018 East 20th Street, just west of the confluence of the 210 Freeway and Campus Avenue along the northern periphery of the Colonies Crossroads commercial subdivision. The building’s south side is proximate to and is visible from the freeway. During the property’s previous incarnation as CNC’s showroom for vintage and high-end modern collector vehicles, all of CNC’s inventory was kept inside, and the paved parking around the facility to east, north and west accommodated the cars driven by CNC’s employees, CNC’s clientele and those simply there to tour the vintage car displays. At present, with Tesla’s inventory running three to four times the volume of CNC’s and a good portion of the building being used as a repair facility, the existing paved parking lots at the site are inadequate for the inventory, the cars driven by Tesla’s corporate, administrative, financing, sales and automotive service staff and the facility’s customers. At present, virtually all of the paved parking lot at 1018 East 20th Street parking is full, with employees and customers parking along 20th Street and in an unimproved field north of the freeway to the west of the dealership. Currently, Tesla is constructing a permanent vehicle storage lot on a 1.3-acre parcel adjacent to the dealership to the east to increase permanent on-site vehicle parking/storage.
At its November 14, 2022 meeting, the Upland City Council approved a lease agreement with Tesla to allow the company to use a 35,000 square foot area within a city-owned reservoir site on the northwest corner of 15th Street and 6th Avenue to park/store up to 100 new vehicles.
According to a staff report for an item that has been placed on the city council agenda for the May 8 council meeting, “Recently, Tesla approached staff and indicated they need another off-site lot to temporarily park/store vehicles due to a substantial increase in vehicle deliveries at the Upland facility. Staff identified several parcels that were either cityowned, privately-owned, or owned by Southern California Edison. After a review of the sites, Tesla decided to seek a lease agreement within a portion of the vacant city-owned park property in the Sycamore Hills area along Park View Promenade. This subject site will enable the parking/storage of approximately 300 vehicles and is a quick drive via the 210 Freeway to the Upland facility. The lease agreement is for 2.07 acres within the city’s 58-acre property with a dimension of 300 feet by 300 feet. The lease area would be setback approximately 80 feet east along Park View Promenade and setback from the residential dwellings to the south approximately 145 feet. The entire 58 acres within Sycamore Hills is zoned Open Space District which allows surface parking as a permitted use. The land uses within the vicinity of the subject site are residential dwellings to the south and west, and vacant city-owned property and the 210 Freeway beyond to the north, and vacant city-owned property and existing residential dwellings to the east approximately 1,385 linear feet beyond.”
The Sycamore Hills District lies west of Benson Avenue and north of 16th Street, running westward virtually to the western city limits with Claremont and Los Angeles County. Sycamore Hills is hemmed in on the north by the 210 Freeway, which in Claremont runs east-west along a tangent south of 16th Street, which is known as Baseline Avenue in Claremont. Near the Claremont/Upland boundary and county line, close to the San Antonio Wash, the 210 Freeway sweeps north before reorienting again as an east-west corridor, below which is Sycamore Hills. There is an existing residential subdivision at the northwest corner of Benson and 16th Street. As one proceeds west on 16th Street toward Claremont, there are three north-south roads extending into the Sycamore Hills neighborhood, those being Mountain Shadow Road, Burl Drive and Park View Promenade. Near the confluence of Park View Promenade and Iris Lane, in the field/open area to the east, the city has had roughly 2.07 acres graded and enclosed behind a gate. That graded area lies roughly 135 to 150 feet north of single family residential lots along east-west Plan Tree Drive and roughly 196 feet east of the the single family residential lots along Hemlock Lane.
Despite the consideration that the city has not yet officially signed off on leasing the property to the Tesla dealership, the physical preparation of the property, consisting of grading, has already taken place.
According to the staff report, “Under the terms of the lease agreement, Tesla will lease 2.07 acres within the city-owned vacant land for $27,000 a month. The lease area will enable Tesla to park/store up to approximately 300 new vehicles. The term in the lease agreement is three (3) years with an option for two (2) 1-year extensions if Tesla needs the additional time. The lease agreement provides Tesla with access and the right to use the lease area from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, Monday through Sunday, including holidays. No vehicle-hauling trucks will be used to deliver new vehicles to the site. The vehicles will be shuttled individually to and from the site by Tesla employees. Tesla estimates that approximately fifty (50) vehicles will be shuttled back and forth a day. In addition, Tesla intends to keep the existing gate locked in between vehicles being shuttled during the daytime and locked after 6:00 pm.”
Last month, residents living within 300 feet of the temporary parking lot were given notice of the contemplated lease and the pending alterations to the property to accommodate the vehicles. Shortly thereafter, the grading took place.
Among most of the residents there was little reaction, as the majority of them accepted the authority of the city as being predominant in such situations. At least one of the residents contacted other residents in the First District. That triggered concern that the city was taking action that was inconsistent with the open space designation of the property, and would create a precedence that would prove problematic. Those residents had misgivings that if the city were to lease land designated to remain as open space for a purpose inconsistent with its land use designation and that use were to go unchallenged, City Hall would take that as license to make further future use of open space and parkland for commercial, semi-commercial, industrial or semi-industrial purposes, perhaps paving the way for an eventual alteration of the zoning altogether.
The Sentinel is informed that inquiries about what was to take place were made at City Hall and in particular with Councilwoman Shannan Maust, the councilwoman in the First District, where the lease is to take place. Upland is divided into four council districts. Those districts – District 1, District 2, District 3 and District 4 – roughly correspond to the city’s northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast quadrants, respectively. Maust, the Sentinel is told, maintained she had no knowledge of the lease proposal, and she was unaware that grading had taken place at the site. Similarly, District 3 Councilman Carlos Garcia was, the Sentinel is told, uninformed about the grading or the pending lease arrangement.
This week, on Thursday May 4, the agenda for the May 8 council meeting was posted. Contained therein, as Item 10 J, was action by the council to “consider approval of a lease agreement with Tesla, Inc. on a portion of APN: 1005-471-0a and determine that the lease is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act.” All items falling under Item 10 were considered part of the consent calendar. The consent calendar is reserved for what are deemed “noncontroversial” issues.
The staff report for Item 10 J, presented to the city council by City Manager Michael Blay and prepared by Development Services Director Robert Dalquest, stated, “It is recommended that the city council approve the lease agreement between the City of Upland and Tesla, Inc. on 2.07 acres within vacant city-owned property located 80 feet east along Park View Promenade (portion of APN: 1005- 471-01), authorize the city manager to execute the lease agreement, determine that the lease agreement is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, pursuant to California Environmental Quality Act Guidelines Section 15061(B)(3), 15304 and 15311; and direct staff to file a notice of exemption pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act.”
Alan French, Upland’s principal engineer, said that the city has relatively exacting standards with regard to the proximity of a parking lot to residential units. He said that the setback between a parking lot and a single-family residential unit would be greater than that between a parking lot and multifamily uses/apartments, but that in any event the setback of 145 feet from the backyards of the homes along Plan Tree Drive likely met or exceeded the city’s standard. French said the parking lot would not be incompatible with the open space zoning since it was not paved nor permanent.
Indications were that staff had been given sufficient assurance of majority support for the lease well ahead of time and that accounted for staff forging ahead with the grading of the property. To that effect, the Sentinel was told that Mayor Bill Velto was on board for the lease arrangement being approved, as are Councilman Rudy Zuniga and Councilman James Breitling.
This raised the specter of a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law. With only limited exceptions, the Brown Act prevents a quorum of an elected body from discussing or coming to a consensus on or casting votes regarding the action of the governmental entity those members represent outside an open public forum, the agenda for which is required to be posted 72 hours in advance. The exceptions specified in the Brown Act pertain to action relating to land sales or purchases; negotiations relating to such sales and purchases or negotiations pertaining to contracts for employment; employee discipline or firings; pending or ongoing litigation; threats to public services or facilities; and collective bargaining with government employees. As the grading of the site was carried out in obvious anticipation of the approval of the lease, it appears that either a majority of the council gave approval to the contract prior to Monday’s upcoming meeting, thereby violating the Brown Act, or that city staff authorized the grading without city council approval.
The Sentinel sought input from Councilwoman Shannan Maust and Councilman Carlos Garcia and whether they indeed were unfamiliar with the contemplated action on the lease until they were contacted about it by some city residents who had learned about the pending lease as a consequence of the grading of the property and the notices sent to the nearby residents.
The Sentinel asked if each had, as reported, stated as late as last weekend that they were not aware of the contemplated lease.
The Sentinel asked, if they were indeed unaware of the contemplated lease of the property, how was it that city staff had clearance to inform nearby residents of the contemplated lease.
The Sentinel asked Maust if she would have expected her constituents to have been informed about this contemplated action before she, as the councilwoman who represents the district where city property is to be used for the parking lot, learned of property’s grading.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia if they thought they should have been informed about the contemplated leasing of the property before the city undertook the final arrangements for the action.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia if they had been blindsided by the lease proposal.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia if they knew about the lease proposal and were in support of it.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia, if they were in fact in support of the city entering into the lease, whether they could offer a cogent explication of the reason for their support and why the city’s residents, in general, and the nearby residents, specifically, should not be alarmed by what the city council is set to approve on May 8.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia, if they had just learned about the contemplated lease, whether they felt they had adequate time to assimilate all it entails before voting on it next Monday.
Recognizing that the City of Upland meets the applicable legal requirements imposed on it by posting city council agendas by 5 p.m. on Thursdays for council meetings that take place on the following Monday nights, the Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia whether they considered that to be adequate warning/notice to their constituents of actions that the council is to take which will impact their constituents and their quality of life.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia, if either one felt he or she had been blindsided by the lease proposal, whether that served as an indicator to them of what it is like for his or her constituents who are routinely faced with learning about some action or other that the city is to embark on just two business days in advance of a city council vote.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia if the episode involving the lease was in any way giving them pause about the way in which the city, city staff and the city council conduct themselves.
The Sentinel inquired about the Brown Act implications of the city grading the site before the council voted on whether the city should enter into the lease with Tesla, Inc.
The Sentinel asked if Maust and Garcia, given the history relating to the property to be leased and how it came to be deemed and zoned open space, were concerned about the property being leased for a purpose that is inimical to its use as open space. The Sentinel asked if the lease of the property to Tesla was a move toward rezoning it from its current designation as open space to some other land use classification.
The Sentinel asked Maust and Garcia if they had any misgivings about property that close to residential property being used as a parking lot
Neither Maust nor Garcia responded to the Sentinel.
Prior to press time, the Sentinel was informed that a group of Upland residents, concerned over the precedent allowing the city to enter into the lease arrangement with Tesla will represent, intend to seek an injunction against the city to prevent it from leasing the property.