“Consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Civic leaders in Upland appear to have taken Emerson’s admonition to heart, particularly with regard to its policy on who should serve on the city planning commission, for how long and in what capacity, pursuing a variable tact when it comes to sustaining the tenure of members and promoting them into the panel’s chairmanship.
The planning commission in the City of Gracious Living is of no little consequence. As the penultimate and in some cases the ultimate arbiter of what sort of development will take place in the 15.62-square mile city with 79,838 residents, the planning commission plays a key role in Upland being able to maintain its top-drawer status among municipalities in San Bernardino County. Set below picturesque Mt. San Antonio and its two accompanying lower elevation summits of Ontario Peak and Mount Harwood, Upland, which occupies the highland above Ontario, was established as an upscale neighborhood where the movers and shakers in the Ontario business community at the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th Century made their homes. It became a paradise of Victorian, then Edwardian and eventually Craftsman homes intersticed among citrus groves. From the time of the city’s founding in 1906 onward into the middle of the 20th Century and then into the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Upland rivaled Redlands on the Inland Empire’s east side for the disputed claim to being the county’s most stately city.
Today, more than two decades into the Third Millennium, that section of Upland above Foothill Boulevard, Old Route 66, remains, along with sections of Redlands, Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga and some neighborhoods in Lake Arrowhead, among the most majestic of expansive San Bernardino County’s districts.
Upland Planning Commission members, who have traditionally been chosen on the basis of their own professional accomplishments, wisdom, social standing, sophistication and good taste, are entrusted with ensuring that Upland maintains its vaunted status. Moreover, the planning commission has long been considered, and in fact is, a training ground for at least some of those who ultimately make it onto the city council. Current Mayor Bill Velto was a longtime planning commission member who acceded to the position of chairman. Likewise, former councilwoman Carol Timm and former Councilman Sid Robinson were members of the planning commission.
Membership on the commission is not easily or freely granted, and the competition for appointment to the panel can be stiff, so intense, in fact, that many who might otherwise apply do not out of a belief that doing so is futile, given that the path to membership involves prevailing over so many other well-qualified contenders.
An issue that has evolved, therefore, is the belief, which sometimes prevails and sometimes does not, that the field of candidates to serve on the planning commission is so deep with talent that some order of limitation on the number of terms one individual can serve should be imposed. In fact, such a limit has been put in place, but it is not absolute. While to gain membership on the Upland Planning Commission one must be a city resident of the age of majority nominated by the mayor and confirmed by a simple majority vote of the city council for appointment to a first term and reappointment to a second term, an individual cannot be granted a third term or more without being approved by a four-fifths vote of the council. This has, on occasion, resulted in some members having their incumbency curtailed, such as when in 2019 Shelly Verrinder, who at that point had served the entirety of two terms, was nominated for a third go-round in office by then-Mayor Debbie Stone but was prevented from continuing in that position when four votes to keep her in place did not manifest.
In 2014, Carol Timm, who had originally been appointed to the planning commission in 1998, was nearing the close of her fourth consecutive four-year term in that appointed capacity and was confidently looking toward appointment to a fifth term. Then-Councilman Glenn Bozar, however, was able to convince his council colleagues that Timm should satisfy herself with the four bites of the planning commission apple she had already had. Timm was not reappointed but, based in no small measure upon the name recognition she had garnered in her capacity as a planning commissioner, she ran successfully for city council in that year’s election, joining Bozar on the council dais as his co-equal.
Upland residents, chaffing at what is perceived as a few insiders’ monopolization of planning commission berths, have not limited themselves to protesting merely about one individual acceding to repeated terms on the commission, but have extended their objections to allowing one person to continuously occupy the chairmanship of that august panel, as well. There grew a substantial determination on the part of some that the chairmanship of the commission should not reside with a single member of the commission for too long.
Gary Schwary was appointed to the Upland Planning Commission in 2002, reappointed in 2006 and then was granted a third term in 2010. Subsequently he was further entrusted with the commission chairmanship, which is bestowed in two-year allotments. Schwary’s aplomb in running the meetings and his ability to ensure inclusion of input from all parties and viewpoints was such that even those who disagreed with his own positions and votes on matters before the commission acknowledged that he was the model of what a presiding officer of a public panel should be. In 2015, his board colleagues elected him to a third two-year term as chairman and again, in 2017, to a fourth two-year term as chairman.
In 2019, an issue was made of the consideration that he had already had four terms as chairman conferred upon him and that renewing him as chairman would result in him having parliamentary control over the commission for a decade. As a consequence, the planning commission was encouraged to choose another chairman. It did so, designating Commissioner Robin Aspinall as chairwoman in August of that year. The city council approved that nomination and appointment. Aspinal was reappointed in August 2021.
Aspinal and Schwary are neighbors in one of north Upland’s more upscale neighborhoods, which lies within Upland’s First Council District.
Next year, the current term of First District Councilwoman Shanan Maust, elected in 2020, will elapse. Word is that she is leaning against seeking re-election, which, if true, would leave the contest to represent the First District wide open. Among the names heard as potential candidates in that race are Aspinal and Schwary.
In August, Aspinal’s second term as chairwoman of the commission expired. At the August 23, 2023 regular planning commission meeting, Commissioners Christine S. Caldwell and Brian Staton nominated Aspinall to continue serving as chairperson. The commission voted unanimously to appoint Commissioner Aspinall to serve for two more years as chairwoman.
There are practical, legal and political considerations that go into decisions relating to commission appointments.
In 2020, a notable set of events involving the planning commission and the city council occurred. In February of that year, the planning commission, in two of its last open meetings before the COVID-19 crisis forced the revamping of public meetings as ones conducted remotely, engaged in action which is yet reverberating.
On February 12, 2020, the Upland Planning Commission, with then-Commissioner Alexander Novokov absent, considered a project proposal by Bridge Development Partners to construct on the west side of Upland a 201,096-square foot distribution center for on-line retail behemoth Amazon.
The commission decided by a margin of 3-to-2, with commissioners Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker prevailing and commissioners Robin Aspinall and Carolyn Anderson dissenting, to recommend that the city council not approve the project.
After two weeks during which the commission members were intensely lobbied, the commission on February 26 met once more to reconsider the project despite its previous rejection, this time with Novokov present. Even though Novokov cast a vote against recommending approval of the project, two of the commissioners who had voted against the project previously – then-Commissioner Schwary and then-Commissioner Brouse – switched their votes, such that in a move unprecedented in Upland’s history, the planning commission reversed itself, voting 4-to-2 to recommend that the city council approve the project.
On April 1, 2020, the Upland City Council by a 4-1 vote approved the project, in doing so accepting a $17 million development agreement offered by Bridge Development Partners. That approval included the council’s mitigated negative declaration, which is a far less exacting review of environmental considerations than an in-depth environmental impact report. Thereafter, a contingent of Upland citizens banded together as a group, taking on the name Upland Community First. The group’s members retained attorney Cory Briggs, who then filed a petition for a writ of mandate, seeking from the court an order that the city revisit the environmental review process for the project, make a determination that the mitigated negative declaration was inadequate and require that a full-blown environmental impact report for the project be carried out before the project is allowed to proceed.
As a consequence of the Upland Community First legal filing, any action toward the completion of the project, including site grading has been suspended. A ruling by Judge David Cohn found some elements of the environmental challenge to be valid, further blocking the project from proceeding. Bridge, Amazon, the city and their respective legal teams are yet engaged in action and discussions that have not been publicly disclosed which are intended to find some solution that will allow the project to move ahead, including plugging the gaps in the environmental reporting with regard to the project that tripped it up previously. As a direct consequence of her vote against the project, Walker was bounced off the planning commission by then-Mayor Debbie Stone. Because of their initial votes against the project, Schwary and Brouse were viewed with some degree of skepticism, and they are no longer members of the planning commission.
At its first meeting last month on September 11, the Upland City Council considered the ratification of the planning commission’s appointment, the previous month, of Robin Aspinall to serve as chairperson of the planning commission for a third consecutive term. The council confirmed that appointment.
A possible implication in that vote is that it will allow Aspinal to run for city council in the First District next year while she is serving in the capacity of not only a member of the planning commission but as its chairwoman, perhaps giving her a leg up on the competition.
With the issues relating to the Amazon warehouse still up in the air and the legal sparring over it yet ongoing, the majority of the city council as it is now composed would in all likelihood prefer that Councilwoman Maust be replaced with a member who will support the city’s position in trying to get the court to allow the warehouse project as approved to proceed. Aspinall, who supported the warehouse project all along, fits that bill. The council, on the other hand, may be a bit less enthusiastic in its attitude toward Schwary, who initially voted against the warehouse project before acceding to the pressure and coming around to support it when an unprecedented second vote on the matter was taken.
The Upland City Council, in its determinations with regard to who should be appointed and/or reappointed to the planning commission, has been less than consistent. It has not followed a single standard with regard to the criteria for appointment and who should remain in place and who should be cleared out to make way for a replacement, who should be privileged to head the panel as chairman or chairwoman and who should defer to others who are to take his or her place. If there is a consistency, it does not appear to be one of dispassion and impartial evaluation, but rather of whether the individual to be appointed has views which align with the political goals of, and the positions already taken by, the council members who have the power of appointment.
By all reports, Schwary and Aspinal, neighbors and former commission colleagues, are close friends. With circumstances and ongoing events on a trajectory toward seeing them vying against one another for First District councilman or councilwoman next year, that friendship might be put to the test. Upland history, California history, American history, indeed world history, is chock full of examples in which politics has transformed close friends into dire enemies.
“Consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”