Yuciapa Council Votes 4-To-1 To Initiate 1,094-Acre Wine County Specific Plan

By Mark Gutglueck
Amidst reports federal authorities are scrutinizing them and their city manager and senior land use officials with regard to their ties to the development industry, the Yucaipa City Council Wednesday night gave approval to the Yucaipa Valley Wine Country Specific Plan, which is to suspend building restrictions on nearly 1,100 acres that were incorporated into the 54,524-population city’s 2016 general plan.
Some saw in the action confirmation of the widespread and penetrating suspicions that reportedly invited federal investigators to take up an examination of the somewhat irregular relationship the city’s decision-makers forged with the city manager they hired in a highly controversial move more than a year ago. Others, however, saw the action as a compromise with a development industry that is salivating at the prospect of converting large swaths of open space on the city’s north end, which was once grazing land or long dormant or more recently forsaken agricultural property, into massive subdivisions to include both residential neighborhoods and commercial centers.
The Wine Country Specific Plan is a proposed phased development to subdivide 1,094 acres in what is referred to as the city’s North Bench into lots for both homes and nonresidential areas for vineyards, wineries, trails, and open space. The plan calls for the primarily undeveloped land to be split into what are very close to halves, with residential uses on 547.4 acres and nonresidential uses on 546.2 acres. The proposed nonresidential land use designations including 465.5 acres for agriculture purposes, 73.6 acres for riparian use and 7.1 acres for utility application by the Yucaipa Valley Water District, the last of which has already been put in place by the water district.
One of the areas of controversy in the plan consists of the transition in density it provides with regard to the construction of the residential component. Under the 2016 general plan, any residential development to take place in the area was to entail no more than one unit per one-acre lot, such that homes to be built there would be what are referred to as “estates.” Under the Wine County Specific Plan, the residential use acreage would be divided into two groups. One of those would be the “Villas,” which would consist of 629 lots on just under 146.28 acres with a maximum build-out density of 4.3 dwelling units per acre whereby the minimum net lot size is 10,000 square feet. In addition, the plan would allow 462 “estates” to be built on lots half the size of what is permitted under the 2016 general plan – that is, half-acre lots – which would entail a maximum build-out density of two dwelling units per acre.
Of no little concern to some city residents is that under current state law, property owners will be able to construct on any property containing a dwelling unit a secondary dwelling unit known as an auxiliary dwelling unit, referred to colloquially as a “granny flat.” In this way, the 1,091 units to be permitted under the Wine Country Specific Plan could be doubled to 2,182. Moreover, the possibility exists that in the future, if the agricultural or agricultural-related commercial uses fail or do not materialize, the potential for the land to be repurposed exists. In such a case, either the current or a future council would be at liberty to convert the zoning on the 565.5 agricultural acres and the 73.6 riparian-use acres to either or both residential and commercial use. In this way, the property which was zoned for agricultural or very sparse residential use with a maximum of 1,094 estate homes could be transitioned into hosting upwards of 4,000 dwelling units and perhaps as many as 8,000 units if a future city council sees fit to allow apartments to be constructed there.
While there were elements within the community who supported making the shift, including residents, the majority of those endorsing the project had some order of a financial stake in the process. Those included the current landowners who stood to reap a profit by selling their property to the developers, the developers themselves, those involved in the type of businesses the specific plan area is to feature, to wit, vintners, would-be vintners, winery operators, restaurateurs, hoteliers and entrepreneurs such as those looking to open wine tasting rooms or bed and breakfasts.
The Wine Country Specific Plan evolved over a number of years, having first been proposed under the watch of former City Manager Ray Casey. The concept was more aggressively pursued in the time since three members of the council – Mayor Justin Beaver and councilmen Bobby Duncan and Matt Garner – ousted Casey as city manager in a surprise move more than 13 months ago, on January 9, 2023.
As proposed, the project will, on the agricultural and commercial side, will allow for vineyards, up to 12 micro wineries, 10 artisan wineries, and 4 boutique wineries, restaurants, shops, hotels and bed and breakfasts.
The council on Wednesday, March 27, at last took up what was to be the final consideration of the specific plan, which calls for a deviation from the general plan – a blueprint for city growth – approved in 2016, which called for modifying Yucaipa’s general plan land use map, creating a land use modification overlay district and imposing the Wine Country Specific Plan within the 1,094-acre project area.
Some 300 residents were present at the Yucaipa Performing Arts Center, where the special council meeting to consider the project was held. Fifty-seven members of the public, more than 50 of whom are Yucaipa residents, addressed the council with regard to the specific plan.
David Morgan, a member of the Yucaipa Valley Wine Alliance, said he led the outreach effort to get support for the specific plan. In carrying out a survey with regard to plan, Morgan said, “We went through the entire city. We had multiple efforts. We stood in front of the grocery stores. We did retail. We went door-to-door. We nearly went to about 10,000 doors. It was 9,980 doors. Out of that, we were able to survey 10,590 people. When we did that, we were able to collect over 1,000 support cards. What people liked most about the project – and this is not scientific, but we did talk to the community – they like the idea that it created a scenic corridor and created local jobs and recreation with new trails.”
While Morgan said about half of the community surveyed did not know anything about the proposal, of those who did, he said, 68.9 percent of those surveyed said they supported the Wine Valley Specific Plan concept. “A large part of the community does want to see this happen,” Morgan said. “We listened to what people had to say and one thing is clear: Yucaipa residents want this approved.”
Jonathan Weldy, a resident of the county’s high desert and chairman of the San Bernardino County Planning Commission who owns a considerable amount of property to fall within the Wine County Specific Plan area, expressed the view that the city council should give greater weight and credibility to the recommendation of those who know what they are talking about and are promoting the plan than those who are ignorant and are opposing the project out of emotion and selfishness.
Weldy said he did not stand to profit from his interest in the property if it were to be covered under the Wine Country Specific Plan. “I’m in escrow to well this property for less than I owe on it,” he said. “This concept of a windfall [to him] going into it is just false.” The activation of the plan is good for the community as a whole, Weldy insisted.
“When you receive this testimony, it needs to be filtered by what the perspective is,” he said. “There are two perspectives here. One of them is me and one of them is us. A lot of the North Bench comments are from [the] me perspective: my, home my rights, my rural environment, my expectations, not about the community, not about what’s good for the whole. This plan is a community plan. It’s about a broader perspective.”
Weldy said there were shortsighted city residents who a generation ago opposed the development of the Chapman Heights district in the city. The council should not listen to those who are now opposing the latest effort to propel the city forward. He said the city faced a similar dilemma in 1998, when there were no shoulders and sidewalks on then two-lane Yucaipa Boulevard and Oak Glen was subject to flooding and the city had no recycled water system. Just as the money generated by allowing development in the Chapman Heights district to proceed improved the city in the intervening years, the economic boon to be reaped from the Wine Country Specific Plan implementation will, Weldy said, benefit not just that area of the city but other sections of the city as well.
We ask you to hold the vision that’s been laid out before you,” Welty said.
Philip Schneider, a District 1 resident, said, “The Wine Country Specific Plan is inconsistent with the general plan and causes the general plan to be internally inconsistent.” He called upon the city council to “fix” the inconsistencies before approving the specific plan. He said, “The city is wrong on several of its assumptions and processes.”
Colleen Wong said that the implementation of the plan “will benefit a very few at a cost to many. You may think grapes are great but it will destroy the trails where the community needs to hike, ride, bird and just visit. It’s where kids play. You aren’t even planning to replace the trails with parks. You’ve planned houses that are seven-and-a-half to ten feet apart with narrow streets. You think grapes will make up for it but no one will be able to hike, bike, ride or bird in the grapes. All your rural areas will become private property without access. We will no longer be a community under this plan.”
DeDe Chudy, the president of the Yucaipa Valley Conservancy, emphasized “inconsistencies” between the city’s general plan and the Wine Country Specific Plan. While acknowledging that “We know the land is going to be developed,” she expressed concern that if the “vineyards would fail, someone else will buy it [i.e., the land] at which point the property will then be subject to development at an intensity far greater than the 1,094 estates that can be built there under the auspices of the 2016 General Plan.
Kathy Bryan called the Wine Valley Specific Plan a “masterful compromise.”
Kathy Dupper said she was opposed to changing the 2016 general plan and changing the lot sizes in the area to be covered by the Wine Valley Specific Plan to less than RL-1, that being one residential unit per acre.
“That’s why my husband and I moved here: for rural living. We did not move here for up to 26 wineries, tasting rooms, distilleries, bed and breakfast, villas, restaurants and wedding venues,” she said. “This is not rural living. We don’t want a Temecula squeezed into this very small area of the North Bench. The roads are crowded enough. The roads – Ivy, Fir and Carter are residential streets and will be unable to accommodate the many thousands of visitors your EIR [environmental impact report] states will come. These quiet residential streets are now used by young children bike riding, teenagers walking their dogs, retirees like myself horseback riding. If this Wine Country Specific Plan is approved, these roadways will have a massive increase in traffic. No amount of traffic studies or new lights will make these residential neighborhoods safe again.”
She said the activation of the plan will see the neighborhood she live in “turned into a commercial area with no freeway access and up to 188,000 visitors per year. This will destroy the quiet communities of those of us who live near the project.”
Lloyd Rekstad decried that the maximum density in the specific plan area would be upped from the one dwelling unit per acre to 4.6 dwelling units per acre if the plan were given go-ahead.
“Once these lots are sold, the details of the lot placement and design of the homes and other development details will not require planning commission approval but will simply be a decision made by staff review,” Rekstad said. “
This removes broad, community-based oversight form the process and puts these decisions in the hands of unelected city staff. This is not consistent with Yucaipa development protocol, and it may lead to unbridled developments.”
Citing “26 wine tasting rooms, proposed bed and breakfasts, restaurants, boutique hotels, entertainment venues and other extensive commercial development,” Rekstad said, “This is in direct opposition to the general plan. It is totally inconsistent with the existing environment of the North Bench neighborhood. It is a virtual slap in the face of all of those citizens who spent many hours creating the award-winning general plan.”
Rekstad added, “It is entirely unreasonable that the city should be the promoter of a project.”
Hanson Wong questioned the validity, ethics and legality of the ploy by which those gathering petitions in favor of the project had offered signers 5 dollars off each bottle of wine to be sold in the plan area as well as free food from a local restaurant.
Wong countered Weldy’s suggestion that those opposing the project were being selfish by acknowledging his selfishness extended to wanting to see the land preserved for his progeny.
“I want my children and grandchildren to have open space to walk around the city on,” he said. “Private agricultural land is not open space.”
Holly Grimm said the project was dividing the community and “fracturing of our residents. This plan is pitting Yuciapa residents against each other. The division amongst the residents has been orchestrated by outsiders that plan to gain financially from these developments,” she said. “This division has been promoted by a few well-positioned residents that stand to gain from the project, whether that is an immediate gain or a gain in the future, only they can tell you.
Scott Riley questioned why the Wine Country project plan has built into it an expectation that the wineries might fail. “This plan has got verbiage “if they fail,” Riley said. “What?” He said the city’s contemplation of something officials were not sure would succeed was “offensive.”
According to city staff, an environmental impact report for the adoption of the Wine Country Specific Plan led to the conclusion that some consequences of the project pose no environmental problems. Further, most of the significant or potentially significant environmental impacts identified can be offset and reduced to an acceptable level. These pertain to land use, water use, noise, traffic, and biological and cultural resources.
Nevertheless, according to Section 5 of the environmental impact report, there is one significant or potentially significant environmental impact that will or may result from the project – that relating to air quality – which has been identified and which the city has determined cannot feasibly be mitigated to a less than significant level.
City staff conceded that “the viticultural uses” anticipated from the project “would be new and additional land use types compared to the 2016 general plan. Depending on the accessory uses of a winery, operation of wineries could generate greenhouse gas emissions from sources such as passenger vehicles associated with employees and guests, vendor and delivery trucks, off-road equipment (e.g., forklift), energy usage (i.e., natural gas and electricity), water demand, and solid waste and wastewater generation. Emissions from operation of the viticultural uses accommodated under the proposed project in the Wine Country Specific Plan would be new and additional emissions compared to the 2016 General Plan. Although individual future viticulture land use projects may not potentially exceed the 3,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year threshold, the combined viticultural land uses accommodated under the proposed project would exceed this threshold and would increase the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions impacts compared to the 2016 General Plan.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, a project’s environmental impacts, including ones that will have a deleterious effect on the health, lifespan and quality of life of those living within an impactful range of the project, can go unmitigated, but only if the decision-making board for the agency overseeing the development that is to take place makes a finding of overriding consideration to allow the project to proceed.
In this way, city staff prepared a declaration of overriding consideration for the Yucaipa City Council relating to the Wine Country Specific Plan.
According to Yucaipa city staff, “The California Environmental Quality Act requires the decision-making agency to balance, as applicable, the economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits of a proposed project against its unavoidable environmental risks when determining whether to approve the project. If the specific economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits of a proposed project outweigh the unavoidable adverse environmental effects, the adverse environmental effects may be considered ‘acceptable.’” Thus, if the city council believes the benefits of the project will outweigh its drawbacks, it has the option of allowing it to proceed.
With City Manager Chris Mann, City Attorney Steven Graham, Director of Development Services Fermin Preciado, Deputy Director of Community Development/City Planner Benjamin Matlock as well as one of the city’s consultants, Justin Wallin along with the city’s environmental consultant, JoAnn Hadfield, recommending that the city proceed with the approval of the specific plan, a majority of the city council concluded the proposed project “would support the Yucaipa Valley Wine Alliance’s American Vitacultural Association petition to designate the Yucaipa Valley as a federally recognized wine region by providing a framework for future viticulture development.”
Furthermore, the council majority made a finding that the “proposed project would promote financial feasibility and promote economic development through the tax revenue and jobs generated by the winery and viticultural components, and through the residential component which would create additional housing options for existing and new residents to support local businesses” and that “the proposed project’s development of a wine industry would expand the city’s tourism industry and encourage the development of winery-related accessory uses, further promoting economic activity in the city.” This extended to the council majority’s belief that the “proposed project would create a regional draw for the city with the potential to host wine festivals, wine tasting events, harvest festivals, weddings, and corporate events, thereby singling [out] Yucaipa as a premiere destination for wine lovers in the region and state.”
In recent weeks, the Yucaipa City Council, has been dogged by reports that federal authorities have interested themselves in the way in which they have empowered City Manager Mann, who formerly and perhaps currently served as an advocate for the building industry, to promote development projects calling for extensive upgradings in both density and intensity of use over what is permitted in the city’s zoning codes and growth regulations. In the face of citizen concern that the city’s land use processes have been compromised, a majority of the council concluded that the conditions of approval it imposed on the Wine County Specific Plan balanced the project’s benefits against its significant unavoidable impacts. The city council majority determined that the proposed project’s benefits will outweigh its significant unavoidable impacts. The city council, accordingly, issued a statement of overriding consideration with regard to the specific plan. That statement of overriding consideration was capped with a 4-to-1 council vote in which Mayor Justin Beaver, Councilman Bobby Duncan, Councilman Ennis Venable and Councilman Matt Garner prevailed over dissenting Councilman Jon Thorp accepted the Wine Country Specific Plan.

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