S. E. Williams, Staff Writer
In the final analysis the Moreno Valley City Council was asked to consider all of the implications as it made its final decision on the controversial development—the politics and the money; the recalls and the community concerns; the environmental impacts and proposed mitigation measures; the forecasted growth of the city’s economy and real possibility the promised jobs may never materialize. Members of the council were asked to consider the heart of the community and weigh it in the balance as they cast their votes.
The final vote was taken Wednesday night after three days of raucous and often contentious public testimony both for and against Moreno Valley’s controversial World Logistics Center project.
The council’s three to two decision in favor of the development brought to closure an epic approval process that strained the boundaries of civility as politicians, citizens, developer and staff worked through a plethora of tough issues in quest of consensus.
History tells us the city of Moreno Valley was born in conflict with the heart of the community divided almost from its very beginning. In 1986, just 14 months after incorporation, three of the city’s five council members were voted out of office in a recall election. Certainly, it was extraordinary for a majority of a city council to be recalled during it first term.
What a legacy. The 1986 relationship between Moreno Valley City Council members and the citizens they were elected to represent fractured as the result of issues related to over-development, crowded schools, inadequate parks, congested highways and the potential location of a toxic waste incinerator.
Fast forward to 2015, it seems the disruptive nature of recall-elections has become standard protocol in Moreno Valley politics. Although the issues differ somewhat from those in 1986, the community is as passionate and divided as ever over issues of development, congested highways and the environment.
One major difference, however, is the amount of money in the game—according to reports, in 1986 less than $150,000 combined was spent on the recall effort—the majority of it, approximately $145,000 by the politicians who tried desperately to hold on to power.
Today, hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign support has been accessible at various times to Moreno Valley City Council candidates/members through the generosity of political committees largely funded by developer, Iddo Benzeevi via his company, Highland Fairview.
Whenever there has been even the suspicion of a nexus between the influence of a developer’s money in local politics and the possible quid pro quo approval of a controversial (development) project, the ultimate outcome on local communities has been both corrosive and divisive.
With the council’s now certain approval, members of the community now wonder whether the World Logistics Center will be the catalyst that catapults the city out of its current status as a sluggish, underemployed, bedroom community still struggling to gain a viable economic foothold in the wake of the great recession. Others question whether as promised by advocates, the project will ultimately position the city as a center of commerce, a pivotal access point for products being trucked between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to consumers all across America?
According to Benzeevi and his supporters, the World Logistics Center and other warehouses that propagate the area will provide well paying jobs and real careers for local citizens. Those against the center wonder whether such warehouses will attract the upwardly mobile to settle in the area with promises of vibrant career opportunities, affordable housing and great schools; or, whether Moreno Valley will become the Appalachia of the warehouse industry where its workers, like coal miners in places like Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, are locked into jobs that literally provide local employment while at the same time presenting serious health implications for themselves and their community.
Still others are concerned Moreno Valley may become the Karachi, New Delhi, Cairo of California—an environmentally toxic community who citizens struggle for breath amid pollution from the engines of thousands of trucks that will traverse the highways and byways of the area daily. (Karachi, New Delhi and Cairo are considered by most experts as the most polluted communities in the world whose citizens are at risk for increased respiratory and heart disease due to high levels of pollution).
In recent years, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have exploded with warehouse developments. Many prominent retailers now have distribution centers in the area including such giants as Amazon, Wal-Mart Stores, Target, Costco, Home Depot, Nike, Kraft Foods, Toys ‘R’ Us, and the list goes on and on—a boon for an area that has struggled economically since the great recession; and, yet a challenge in terms of balancing the need for jobs with potential damage to the environment.
The real conflict over the World Logistics Center may actually have less to do with the warehouses themselves and be more about potential damage to the environment as a result of goods moving to and from the facilities—there is an argument the added pollution may contribute to catastrophic health consequences in the long run. According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Inland Empire already has some of the worst ozone pollution in the nation; and, the worst fine-particulate-matter pollution in Southern California.
When the increased number of warehouses is considered in context with projections by regional transportation planners who visualize a future with warehouses concentrated along Interstate 710 in Los Angeles County, west on Highway 60, north on Interstate 15 and along parts of I-215, it is more than concerning to many Inland Empire residents who worry about the environment; while to the contrary, it is a cause for celebration among those more focused on the economic opportunities.
However, transportation concerns in regards to the project do not end with the issue of truck emissions. It is has also been widely reported the Executive Director of Southern California Association of Governments has allegedly declared the Moreno Valley stretch of Highway 60 does not have the capacity to handle traffic from the proposed World Logistics Center.
The great recession slammed the citizens of Moreno Valley hard and there is no question that people want/need jobs. Many believe it is the promise of jobs that helped fuel support for the project—at least ten percent of private industry jobs in the Inland Empire are warehousing related. Economists hired by city officials claimed the World Logistics Center could create up to 20,000 permanent jobs and another 13,000 construction jobs. With these projections, it might be hard to understand why residents would be against the development; but, skeptics say you cannot take those numbers to the bank.
Benzeevi was also the developer of Moreno Valley’s Skechers Distribution Center in Moreno Valley. At the time the project was sold to the community, Benzeevi and project advocates claimed it would create 2,500 new jobs. In fact, it may only have created between 600 and 800 jobs (depending on the season) and many of those were allegedly filled by Skechers employees who relocated from the company’s other, nearby warehouse locations.
It is also no secret many warehouses in the area use employment agencies as a way to avoid overhead costs by providing more temporary than permanent job opportunities—often at low wages and without benefits.
It is interesting to note the employers (retailers) who own/operate the warehouses, rarely develop their own properties. Critics believe this is largely due to rigorous environmental stipulations/hurdles that slow the approval process. As a result, retailers rarely negotiate directly with municipalities for warehouse developments. Instead, they rely on developers like Benzeevi to act as forerunners for their industry. Developers like Benzeevi wage the planning battles, advocate with citizens and allegedly leverage whatever financial persuasion necessary with politicians responsible for casting determining votes for land-use. Developers like Benzeevi, reap their rewards when retailers compete to buy or lease the space they work so hard to create.
When the Moreno Valley Planning Commission voted on July 1st, 6 to 1 in favor of the proposed World Logistics Center despite serious environmental impact constraints in at least five key areas, the proverbial die seemed cast for approval of the project by the Moreno Valley City Council as well. The Planning Commission vote also came on the heels of three days of public testimony that appeared fairly split both for and against the initiative.
The City Council, like the Planning Commission was required under the auspices of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to prepare a Statement of Overriding Considerations to justify a potential yes vote. CEQA requires an explanation of how the city’s proposed mitigation efforts will result in a less than significant impact on sensitive environmental issues detailed in the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report. The report expressed concerns in the following key areas—aesthetics, air quality, noise, traffic/circulation and land use.
In an exclusive interview with The Voice, City Planner Mike Gross explained how a Statement of Overriding Considerations provides specific mitigation rationale in support of a project perceived by the municipality as being of greater benefit/value to the citizens and their community than the potential negative environmental impacts.
When the Moreno Valley City Council voted to approve the World Logistics Center project based on the potential for local jobs and increased tax revenue, it stood in clear conflict with the best thinking of a number of state and local agencies including the South Coast Air Quality Management District who expressed legitimate concerns about the project’s environmental impact. Those concerns included health risks that could result from traffic generated pollution as well as possible damage to protected habitat.
In the final analysis the Moreno Valley City Council was asked to consider all of the implications as it made its final decision on the controversial development—the politics and the money; the recalls and the community concerns; the environmental impacts and proposed mitigation measures; the forecasted growth of the city’s economy and real possibility, the promised jobs may never materialize. Members of the council were asked to consider the heart of the community and weigh it in the balance as they cast their votes.
Now, even with the council’s three-two vote in favor of the initiative the future of the World Logistics Center may still be undetermined.
In an exclusive interview with The Voice a few days before council members cast their final votes, Councilman George Price expressed the project’s future in words that were clear, concise and direct, “Whether the project passes or fails,” he said, “I believe everyone agrees that there will be litigation and the courts will ultimately decide.”