California AJ & Social Justice Crusaders Oppose IVDA’s Airport Gateway Project

A coalition of local municipalities and governmental agencies and entities and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, as the largest single landowner in the environs of the long-shuttered Norton Air Force Base, are engaging in an overt and concerted effort to promote commercial, industrial and some residential development in a 700-acre expanse north of the aerodrome now known as San Bernardino International Airport. At the same time, local residents, advocates for the financially distressed, environmental activists and organizations and entities and individuals as powerful as the California Attorney General and his office are sounding out opposition to the wholesale conversion of that land to a productivity that will have what they say will be a consequent destructive impact on the currently present residents who will be displaced and those who will remain.
In 1994, the Department of Defense as part of its nationwide military asset and priority conversion program closed down Norton Air Force Base, which was first established as a 900-acre Army Air Corps facility two miles east of downtown San Bernardino and had spent the major duration of its existence mainly as an Air Materiel/Air Force Logistics Command and then as a Military Airlift/Air Mobility Command installation. The U.S. Military’s presence had become a major element of the local economy, representing a substantial infusion of capital into Highland, Redlands, Loma Linda, Grand Terrace, Colton and, of course, San Bernardino. Those six municipal entities entered into discussions about the civilian reconversion of the base property. The San Bernardino International Airport Authority, known by its acronym, SBIAA, dedicated to transforming the base itself into an airport, and the Inland Valley Development Agency, called IVDA, which was intended to redevelop the land around the airport, were formed. After initial activity in which all of the nearby cities and the county were involved in both joint powers authorities, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority was chartered with the County of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda, and Highland as participants. The Inland Valley Development Agency was created under the aegis of the County of San Bernardino and the Cities of Colton, Loma Linda, and San Bernardino.For more than a decade, SBIAA and IVDA, at a substantial expense to taxpayers, had their board members, consisting of a council member or mayor from the participating cities and one or both of the supervisors representing San Bernardino County’s Third and Fifth supervisorial districts, meet and discuss action to be taken to make the conversion of the air field into a civilian airport and coordinate the infrastructure creation and eventual development of the area around the airport property, including several washes that drained into the Santa Ana River, in order to coordinate with and compliment the anticipated aviation uses. Little in the way of progress occurred, other than disposing of some leftover military assets and musings about grandiose schemes that never came to fruition, as politicians, bureaucrats and institutional governmental employees vied for and ultimately obtained paying positions with both the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and the Inland Valley Development Agency that provided them with what were at first $100,000 annual-range, then $150,000 annual-range and ultimately $200,000-plus annual-range employment. Those lucrative positions included executive director of those entities.
In 2003, SBIAA entered into a contract with Scot Spencer, who had been convicted and sentenced to 51 months in federal prison in 1996 for bankruptcy fraud in his running of Braniff Airlines, allowing him to set up a charter airline operation at San Bernardino International Airport. Within two years, Spencer was leasing from the San Bernardino International Airport Authority the lion’s share of property at the airport, where several aviation-related or aircraft servicing companies he was an owner or investor in were based. In 2007, without any competitive bidding, Spencer was chosen by the Airport Authority to serve as contract developer of the airport. He was given a contract to oversee what was supposed to be a $38 million renovation of the airport’s passenger terminal and a $7 million development of its concourse. Spencer undertook that assignment amid confident predictions that upon completion of those projects, the airport would attract at least one and perhaps as many as a half dozen commercial passenger carriers. In carrying out that project, Spencer used two corporations he owned, Norton Development Company, LLC and SBD Properties, LLC. The cost of the passenger terminal and the concourse escalated by $104 million to $142 million.
Spencer then used the authority that had been granted to him by the San Bernardino International Airport Authority Board and its executive director to engage in efforts to enrich himself by conflict-of-interest-ridden arrangements relating to use of the airfield’s hangars, which included ending the leases of companies that were functioning at a profit within the aviation industry and making timely lease payments. Spencer cast those operations out to make room for his own companies, which were not staying current on the lease arrangements they had with the airport authority, resulting in the airport’s loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Spencer entered into a complicated business relationship with T. Milford Harrison, a former Loma Linda city councilman and mayor, Loma Linda director of economic development, and chief of staff for two county supervisors who had wangled himself an appointment into the financially rewarding position of executive director of both the SBIAA and the Inland Valley Development Agency. Spencer and Harrison jointly formed at least three aviation companies operating at the airport, one of which was Norton Property Management Services, LLC.
Spencer’s business relationship and financial arrangements were tolerated by Don Rogers, a successor to Harrison as the airport authority executive director.
On June 30, 2011 the San Bernardino County 2010-11 Grand Jury delivered a report that questioned several elements of Spencer’s performance and that of Rogers, calling into question what was characterized as lax oversight of the airport’s operations and favorable treatment accorded Spencer with regard to leasing arrangements.
In March 2013, after a 20-month investigation into allegations of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and fraudulent use of federal funds carried out by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and state Attorney General’s Office functioning collectively under the scepter of the Inland Regional Corruption Task Force, Spencer was arrested in Boca Raton, Florida and charged with engaging in a conspiracy to steal $1.75 million in public funds from the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, a gambit which ultimately netted him $1.03 million, according to documentation marshaled by investigators and prosecutors.
Ultimately, neither Harrison, whose business office was among the locations subject to a general set of search warrants pertaining to Spencer’s management of the airport served by the FBI in September 2011, nor Rogers were criminally charged. Rogers did resign as the airport’s executive director in the immediate aftermath of the charges being filed against Spencer, who in March 2018 pleaded guilty to tax evasion.
In the aftermath of Rogers’ resignation and the forced departures of Spencer, Harrison and their companies, the airport authority hired A.J. Wilson as its interim director and both the SBIAA and IVDA embarked, in earnest, upon carrying out what each was chartered to do, i.e., redevelop the airport and the surrounding property in an effort to turn them into an economic engine for the region.
Somewhat paradoxically, the success that Harrison’s, Rogers’ and Spencer’s successors have achieved has raised concerns among at least a portion of the local population that the airport and the surrounding development and prospering of the businesses to be located there will not be a boon but a bane to their existence.
Ultimately, the development effort at and around the airport manifested in the Airport Gateway Specific Plan, a collaborative effort between IVDA, East Valley Water District, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and cities of San Bernardino and Highland to create a “framework for local economic expansion.” The Airport Gateway Specific Plan laid out a strategy to redevelop 678 acres between Third and Sixth streets north of San Bernardino Airport between Tippecanoe Avenue in the west and the 210 Freeway at the extreme east into 9.3 million square feet of nonresidential development, including an industrial park, some commercial uses and 75,000 square feet of hotels. The portion of the property lying most proximate to the airport would become the “front door of the airport,” local officials said, while the remainder of the development would be devoted to light and medium manufacturing, technical materials creation and support along with logistics. Officials predicted the businesses to be established in the zone would provide up to 5,100 jobs.
Now, moving on toward three decades after the shuttering of George Air Force Base, which was followed by the exploitation of the region’s taxpayers that took place in the early years of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and the Inland Valley Development Agency and the misdirection of money into the pockets of grifters and charlatans such as Spencer and his associates, the redevelopment of the airport and surrounding property is actually being fleshed out with tangible and achievable goals. Yet, with that positive change represented by the machinery of government achieving what it is designated to do, the environmental and financial impact on the residents of the area, which includes the prospect of the places where they live being rendered inhospitable for habitation, is glaringly evident.
In June, California Attorney General Rob Bonta dashed off a 43-page letter to the Inland Valley Development Agency in which he propounded that what he quantified would be a 700-acre “industrial park” project would qualify as a violation of both federal and state housing laws as a consequence of the way in which it would displace homeowners, most of whom are Hispanic and African American, from their existing homes. Bonta contended that the Airport Gateway Specific Plan “does not concurrently re-zone for replacement housing capacity to ensure no net loss of housing capacity.” Bonta gave an estimated quantification of residents living in apartments, condominiums, duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes, mobile homes, and single-family homes within the targeted project areas as up to 2,500.
The Inland Valley Development Agency would need to carry out a relocation plan for those residents, according to Bonta, for the project to proceed. Bonta suggested the Inland Valley Development Agency was imposing habitat displacement on a vulnerable population that does not have the financial means to insist on the local agencies involved in formulating the Airport Gateway Specific Plan nor the businesses to profit by it abide by requirements that the housing to be eliminated be replaced to accommodate those who have lost their domiciles.
“We have serious concerns about the project’s displacement of existing communities, particularly as it would affect communities of color that are highly socioeconomically disadvantaged and environmentally overburdened,” Bonta wrote. “While we support economic development of the San Bernardino International Airport area and recognize the value of industrial projects, development should be sustainable, comply with all applicable laws, and serve the community. We urge the IVDA to more thoroughly consider project alternatives in coordination with all stakeholders, including affected residents.”
Moreover, according to Bonta, the Inland Valley Development Agency failed to “adequately analyze and mitigate the project’s environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act” and the draft program environmental impact report done for the project omitted or gave short shrift to environmental impacts of the Airport Gateway Specific Plan, most notably how it will leave large numbers of local residents without anywhere to live, worsen air quality, impose unacceptable levels of noise through operations and violate planning and land use principles that apply to the area. The program environmental impact report did not completely identify nor require all of the mitigation measures that could have been and should have been applied to the project, according to Bonta.
Bonta called upon the Inland Valley Development Agency and both San Bernardino and Highland “to comply with all housing laws” and revamp the program environmental impact report in a way that will “fully analyze and disclose all significant impacts and adopt all feasible mitigation.”
Upon updating the environmental documents relating to the project, they should be reposted and recirculated to provoke further citizen and resident input, which should be incorporated in the final formulation of the altered scope and presentation of the project proposal, Bonta said.
The Inland Valley Development Authority board, consisting of San Bernardino Mayor Helen Tran, San Bernardino City Council members Sandra Ibarra and Juan Figueroa, Loma Linda Mayor Phill Dupper, Loma Linda Councilman Rhodes Rigsby, Colton Mayor Frank Navarro, Colton Councilman John Echevarria and San Bernardino County supervisors Joe Baca and Jesse Armendarez, along with Mike Burrows, the chief executive officer of the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and IVDA, have pushed forward with the circulation of the environmental documents as was initially undertaken with the project approval process. It is not clear, however, that the alterations to the project plan as is desired by Bonta will take place.
Of note is that in 2021, Bonta’s predecessor as California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, asked a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for a finding that the Federal Aviation Administration failed to meet its obligation to give adequate consideration to the environmental impacts of a separate freight-handling and distribution operation, the Eastgate Air Cargo facility project, a 660,000-square-foot logistics center to be built on the grounds of San Bernardino International Airport, before approving it. In 2022 Bonta asked the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to revisit that request after the panel that heard Becerra’s request denied it by a 2-to-1 finding.
In the meantime, a coalition of residents and activists want the Inland Valley Development Agency to guarantee that whatever developer comes in to undertake the project will be required to incorporate 100 percent electric vehicle use at any operations in the project area, provide career jobs with wages well above minimum wage that will go to local residents rather than commuters, compensate residents affected by relocation and locate no warehouse any closer than 1,000 feet from homes.
The Los Angeles Economic Rountable, a nonprofit urban research organization which bills itself as seeking to create “knowledge for the common good” aimed at having local governments implement programs seeking “sustainability” and generating “actionable solutions to crucial social, economic and environmental problems …including economic growth, industry energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, raising the wage floor, affordable housing policy, and homelessness,” has now weighed in on the Airport Gateway Specific Plan.
According to the Los Angeles Economic Rountable report released on September 28 entitled “Demolishing Homes for Air Cargo,” the Airport Gateway Specific Plan will not improve the local financial picture but rather intensify homelessness, subject the environs to more air pollution and generate substandard jobs, resulting in unacknowledged “additional costs from the proposed Gateway Project. These costs appear to outweigh claimed benefits from the Airport Gateway Project.”
Both the environment and the general public will suffer if IVDA follows through with the project, according to the Economic Roundtable.
The report states, “The central justification for the proposed Airport Gateway Project is that it will create ‘a thriving jobs center’ with up to 5,097 jobs compared to the 487 jobs in what is now largely a residential neighborhood. Frontline warehouse workers employed near the airport earn an average of $21,522 a year. Over half of these workers are in poverty or near poverty. Twenty-seven percent live in overcrowded housing and 41 percent are rent-burdened. These earnings fall far short of a living wage and raise questions about the credibility of claimed economic benefits from increasing the number of these poverty-wage jobs. Half of frontline warehouse workers near the airport depend on public social safety net benefits for food stamps, government-funded health car, or cash welfare.”
The environmental impacts of the project are unacceptable according to the Los Angeles Economic Rountable.
“The proposed Gateway Project would increase the amount of warehouse and industrial development around the airport by 24 percent, with a corresponding increase in adverse environmental impacts,” the report states. “The Gateway Area is a neighborhood of children and working-age adults, with roughly three-quarters of residents renting their homes. The median annual earned income of employed residents is $23,211. The median income for all of the households in the Gateway neighborhood is $28,553 a year. Thirty-seven percent of Gateway residents have household incomes below the poverty threshold.”
According to the report, “Most rent their homes and have meager incomes. Rent levels are very low – typically $1,064 a month. But a majority of renters struggle to pay their rent. Preservation of this affordable housing is crucial for Gateway residents. If residents of the Gateway neighborhood are displaced from their housing, their prospects for finding comparably affordable housing are bleak. There is a strong likelihood that many would become more severely rent burdened and that some would become homeless.”
Sober and seasoned political observers have told the Sentinel that the importunings of residents, environmental groups, social activists such as those in the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable and politicians and governmental administrators like Bonta will not prevent the Airport Gateway Project from reaching fruition.
The environmental certification for the project is to land before the IVDA board by December. The majority of those board members – the chairman Dupper, Rigsby, Navarro, Echevarria, Figueroa and Armendarez are Republicans and conservatives, who will not be swayed by “social justice do-gooders such as the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable,” it was pointed out to the Sentinel. The majority on the IVDA board will not let a Democrat such as Bonta dissuade them from moving forward with economic development efforts, in particular one which is aimed at establishing an international airport at the county seat, the Sentinel was told.
IVDA points out that neither it nor its board has made a commitment to naming a master developer for the Airport Gateway Project, but that it is seeking to “attract innovative, employment-generating businesses that deliver a variety of job types with a diversity of qualifications, wages and salaries near the area’s residential communities.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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