With Three South Fontana Warehouses Package Vote As The Catalyst, Major Warren Political Machine Shift As Roberts & Garcia Break With Mayor

In a startling development, the implication of which has yet to be fully determined, two of Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren’s key council allies broke with her on the issue that has come to define her tenure in office more than any other when they voted in league with her longtime primary political rival this week to prevent the approval of three warehouse projects at the south end of the city.
On Tuesday night July 5, Warren, voting in tandem with District 1 Councilman Phil Cothran Jr, failed to prevail in a 2-to-3 vote to alter the land use designation and zoning on 29.4 acres between Citrus and Oleander avenues, north of Santa Ana Avenue, and south of Jurupa Hills High School from residential to industrial.
Warren and Cothran were turned back by the votes of opposition cast by District 2 Councilman Jesse Sandoval, District 4 Councilman John Roberts and District 3 Councilman Pete Garcia, who banded together in a first ever alliance to prevent Newport Beach-based developer Acacia Real Estate Group from constructing three industrial commerce center buildings totaling 540,849 square feet on that land.
Essentially, the industrial commerce center buildings were to have been warehouses/distribution centers.
Fontana has been so aggressive in building warehouses over the last dozen years that Warren is known by those who both oppose and favor warehouse development as “Warehouse Warren.” Fontana’s favoring of that land use has occurred in the larger context of a general accommodation of that particular land use within the Inland Empire and San Bernardino County, which is located 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.
There is more than 930 million square feet of warehousing in San Bernardino and Riverside counties at present, with more being built. That includes 3,034 warehouses in San Bernardino County. In Ontario alone, there are 289 warehouses larger than 100,000 square feet. Reportedly, there are 142 warehouses in Fontana larger than 100,000 square feet. In Chino there are 118 warehouses larger than 100,000 square feet, 109 larger than 100,000 square feet in Rancho Cucamonga and 75 larger than 100,000 square feet in San Bernardino. Since 2015, 26 warehouse project applications have been processed and approved by the City of San Bernardino, entailing acreage under roof of 9,598,255 square feet, or more than one-third of a square mile, translating into 220.34 acres. After Ontario, Fontana, Chino, Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino, the city in San Bernardino County with the next largest number of warehouses of more than 100,000 square feet is Redlands, with 56, followed by Rialto with 47. In addition to those 47 larger warehouses, Rialto has another 125 warehouses of under 100,000 square feet.Since Warren was elevated to the position of mayor in 2010, Fontana has embraced warehouse development. Citing Fontana’s location, 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 approved more than 30 warehouses totaling approximately 16 million square feet in southern Fontana alone.
Increasingly, some elected officials, local residents and futurists are questioning whether warehouses constitute the highest and best use of the property available for development in the region. The glut of logistics facilities in the Inland Empire has some thinking their numbers are out of balance. In refuting the assertions of the proponents of warehouses that they constitute positive economic development, their detractors cite the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in distribution 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.
In Fontana in particular, an increasingly vocal element of the community has decried the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in the logistics facilities, and the degree to which warehouse operators not only exploit those who work there but victimize nearby residents with their use of 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.
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.
In 2021, with the city council composed exactly as it is now, the city council voted 4-1, with Sandoval being the lone dissenting vote, in favor of placing a 206,000-square-foot warehouse on the north side of Jurupa Hills High School at the corner of Slover and Oleander avenues. After word reached California Attorney General Rob Bonta about that action, he sued Fontana over its affinity for warehouses.
As part of an effort to appease those objecting to the proliferation of warehousing in the city, Warren and her council allies adopted the so-called Industrial Commerce Center Sustainability Standards Ordinance, which city officials said offered an assurance logistics facilities to be built in the city in the future would meet or exceed “all federal and state environmental standards for warehouses and freight operations.” The city settled the suit brought by Bonta with an agreement that it would apply greater regulation of the construction of logistics facilities in the city of 214,307.
Environmentalists and community activists, however, saw what Warren and her cohorts were doing as merely engaging in lip service and a cynical manipulation of their governmental authority to continue to cater to the real estate industry, land speculators and developers that were heavily investing in Warren’s political career and her political machine. They decried the fashion in which she and the ruling council coalition she controlled nonchalantly imposed more warehouses on the neighborhoods at the city’s south end.
In constructing the justification for allowing Acacia Real Estate Group to construct the three warehouses, city staff emphasized that Acacia would comply with the Industrial Commerce Center Sustainability Standards Ordinance. One of the ordinance’s provisions was that a warehouse’s loading docks for trucks, the entryways for the trucks and the lanes for the trucks be situated such that the vectoring of exhaust is away from adjoining properties to the extent possible and that all untoward environmental impacts from vehicles at the site be minimized. The design of the three warehouses met that specification as best as the location and orientation of the property would allow, although, in one case, the docks at one warehouse faced the high school’s athletic field. City officials, however, cited a provision of the Industrial Commerce Center Sustainability Standards Ordinance which gave the city’s planning director the discretion to sign off on the site design if such an issue were unavoidable and elements were layered into the design to minimize that impact.
In the city’s acceptance of the environmental impact report for the project, city staff conceded that the three warehouses, entailing a total of 69 loading docks, would generate unavoidable environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, noise and traffic impacts. Nevertheless, the city council, as the city’s ultimate land use and environmental authority, had the discretion of citing overriding considerations such as economic factors in allowing the project to proceed.
For the three projects to be given go-ahead, the property, which is currently zoned to allow up to 507 residential units, would have had its land use designation changed to general industrial.
Mayor Warren and Councilman Cothran were clearly in favor of the project.
Senior Planner Salvador Quintanilla provided a preview of the project. In addition to being south of Jurupa Hills High School, the project areas is also immediately adjacent to the Fontana Adult School and Citrus Continuation High School to the east.
After the staff presentation, public input, limited to one minute each, was heard.
Santa Ana property owner Josh Hayes McKernan said he supported the project.
Michael Townsend, speaking on behalf of Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez-Reyes, opposed the project; Maha Rizvi opposed the project. Jose Badillo, a construction union member, said he supported the project. Bill Quisenberry, a construction union member, said he supported the project. John Carlo, a property owner, said he supported the project. Amanda Morales, the special projects coordinator for the Fontana Chamber of Commerce, said she and the chamber supported the project. Beatriz Mora, a local insurance agent, said she supports the project. Nathaniel Noriega, who said he was a “resident advocate for the City of Fontana,” said it was his “external opinion, independent of any organization” that the project would generate 1,000 new jobs. He said opposition to the project was engaging in “trivial cat-and mouse games” who were obstructing growth “with no valid reasoning.” Danielle Holley, with the Fontana Chamber of Commerce, supported the project. Matt Slowik, a former Fontana planning commissioner and city councilman, current San Bernardino County Planning Commissioner and real estate salesman, said he supported the project. Luis Echeverria, a local contractor, said he supported the project. Daniel Reid, a member of the Fontana Chamber of Commerce, said he supported the project. Jim Tusko, a landowner on Santa Ana Avenue, said he supported the project. Oscar Gonzalez, a south Fontana resident, said he opposed the project. Joaquin Castellejos said, “Thank you for bringing these amazing warehouses to Fontana, these beautiful cement blocks that create more heat. Thank you for bringing these amazing jobs that pay $16 an hour for back-breaking work that don’t give families time to spend together to go to whatever this family time we are talking about. Thank you for building them next to the schools where kids are going to school, where parents are dropping off their kids. Thank you for putting the driveways where parents are going up and down the streets. Thank you so much. You guys are the best ever. Thank you for never thinking about the people and always thinking about developers. Thank you for bringing these jobs that are going to be automated in the next ten years.”
Elizabeth Sena said rezoning residential land to industrial use was incompatible with the city’s acknowledgment of being in a housing crisis.
Jennifer Cardenas said the 170 million square feet of warehousing planned or under construction in the Inland Empire was sufficient and that it was “ridiculous that you are normalizing building these warehouses next to schools.”
Bobbi Jo Chavarria said “There are many factors that make a warehouse/industrial/what you euphemistically call a commerce center next to Jurupa Hills High School unacceptable.
Damian Mejia said the truck traffic on Santa Ana was unsafe.
Rafael Rios said the near minimal wage jobs at the warehouses would not allow those working there to afford to live in one of the city’s “fancy condos.”
An adjustment to the proposal called for additional space and landscaping between the northern boundary of the property to be converted to industrial use and the southside of Jurupa Hills High.
After having agreed previously to provide a public benefit fee of $2.3 million to the city if the project were approved, Acacia Real Estate Group consented to up that to $3.3 million.
Cothran, citing trucks utilizing routes into the warehouses that would have them driving past the schools and bring them in proximity to the schools’ athletic fields, called for converting Santa Ana Avenue into a truck route to keep trucks away from the school. Warren endorsed that idea, and there appeared to be consensus to schedule some future action to amend the general plan to make that action official.
When the vote was taken on the project, however, both Roberts and Garcia defected from the Warren coalition, the first time in memory such a vote occurred with regard to any significant development project.
Roberts, the second-longest currently serving municipal official in San Bernardino County, has been on the Fontana City Council continuously since 1992, ten years longer than Warren. Nevertheless, he has become highly dependent upon her and her political machine for his electioneering fundraising over the last decade, as he has become a firm a fast member of her ruling council coalition.
Garcia’s political career exists solely as a consequence of Warren’s cultivation of him as a candidate. He was elected to school board with her assistance and made the transition to the city council in 2020 with her backing. Warren, Cothran, Roberts and Garcia are all Republicans and have established themselves in office and sustained themselves there as a consequence of the vastly superior Republican electioneering machinery that exists in San Bernardino County vis-a-vis the Democrats. Despite the consideration that in the central section of San Bernardino County the Democrats hold a commanding registration advantage, superior Republican fundraising, campaign coordination and sophistication and cohesion have allowed the GOP to field more office holders than their Democratic counterparts. In Fontana, at present, 55,107, or 49.5 percent, of the city’s 111,398 voters are registered as Democrats, while Republicans number 23,208 or 20.8 percent, which is fewer than the 24,922 or 22.4 percent who express no party affiliation. The remaining 7.3 percent are members of the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, Peace & Freedom or other more obscure parties. Despite the substantial numerical disadvantage the Republicans in Fontana find themselves in, Warren is able to bring the strength of her political machine to bear to not only keep herself in office but to virtually handpick three of the other four members of the city council. Thus, she is hands down the city’s most powerful political figure.
Councilman Sandoval is the council’s only current Democrat. He ran against Warren for mayor unsuccessfully in 2018 and 2022. Until this week, his has been the lone vote against Warren and the rest of the council in resisting the proliferation of warehouses in the city.
With Garcia and Roberts lining up with Sandoval against Warren on the three warehouse proposal this week, a question has emerged about how Warren will deal with the dissension within her ranks.
Last year, in the November 2022 election, both Warren and Roberts were reelected to four-year terms. Garcia is scheduled to face reelection next year. Given her fundraising ability and political reach, Warren could, if she so chooses, withdraw her support from Garcia and back another candidate. Allowing Garcia to defy her on the warehouse issue as he did this week could prove problematic for Warren, who has built her reputation on being able to assure her backers and donors – who come largely from the field of developers working within Fontana – that she can deliver when it comes time to approve their development proposals. Allowing the streak of three failed warehouse projects to stand, with the prospect that Garcia and Roberts might in the future cross over again to support Sandoval in preventing her from keeping faith with the developers and land speculators who have supporter her all along because of her ability to control land use policy in the city, could compromise her politically.
There is speculation that the independence Roberts and Garcia showed from Warren in this instance was an anomaly.
Another elected official this week told the Sentinel that what tripped up Acacia Real Estate Group in this instance was a personality conflict that originated with the company’s managing partner, David Pittman. Pittman’s aggressive approach, the Sentinel was told, took Roberts and Garcia aback, rubbing them the wrong way, ultimately leading to their decision not to support the project. A replay of what occurred this week is unlikely to recur if another company is involved, particularly if any future proposals entail a single warehouse rather than three.
Still, there is conflicting information out there.
Circulating is that Garcia, by signing onto the Warren political machine with its unquestioning embrasure of warehouses and distribution centers might have compromised himself professionally. An employee with the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, Garcia’s seeming willingness to sign off on approving warehouse after warehouse, particularly ones which are located proximate to extremely sensitive uses such as high schools, particularly when there are unknown factors at play such as what chemicals, substances or materials are to be stored or used at those warehouses or moved into or out of them on a recurrent basis, casts doubt on his conscientiousness in a public setting and whether that carelessness with what might be potential poisons or hazards might carry over to his work with the state. Another division of the State of California – the California Attorney General’s Office – in 2021 second guessed his decision to approve the warehouse next to Jurupa Hills High.
At the same time, a number of environmentalists and local citizen activist groups have become animated in opposing Warren and her agenda in Fontana, raising the possibility that remaining allied with her going into the 2024 election season may in and of itself be problematic, such that he might do as well or better politically to stand, or at least seek to stand, on his own two feet rather than maintaining his grip on Warren’s skirttails.

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