By S. E. Williams, Staff Writer
In recent weeks elected representatives in the cities of Moreno Valley and Perris faced similar challenges and proved equal to the test in the face of controversial votes to approve the development of major warehouse projects in their cities.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties have exploded with warehouse developments. Major retailers now have distribution centers across the Inland Empire. They include such retail giants as Amazon, Wal-Mart Stores, Target, Costco, Home Depot, Nike, Kraft Foods, Toys ‘R’ Us, to name a few.
Many view these developments as a boon for an area that has struggled economically since the great recession; while critics believe the developments warrant more prudent consideration.
In the meantime, as citizens and politicians debate the merits, warehouse developers scramble to lock the area into as many development projects as possible as long as the warehouse-welcome-sign hangs over the Inland Empire.
In Moreno Valley, the World Logistics Center (WLC) was approved despite an epic and contentious approval process. The effort involved recall elections, questionable campaign contributions, a concerning environmental impact report and debatable projections regarding potential jobs.
In the city of Perris, the Optimus Logistics Center failed to receive majority approval and was placed on an “indefinite” hold status by the council. Not surprisingly, concerns in Perris were similar to those expressed in Moreno Valley—potential health/environmental impacts and minimal confidence in job projections. In addition, there were lingering concerns the commercial/retail development phase of the project seemed tenuous and subject to economic vulnerabilities that could derail its future completion as neither financial nor contractual obligations were extracted from the developer to assure its completion.
In both instances political observers expected city council members to acquiesce to pressures and vote ‘yes’. The most significant pressure—an unspoken inference to the threat of a well funded political opponent in the next election or recall. They were expected to go with the historical flow, following in the ‘footsteps of approval’ already carved into the landscapes of their cities. However, despite these expectations, in both Moreno Valley and Perris, there are city council members who courageously voted “no”. In a series of exclusive exchanges with The Voice, these council members shared their motivation.
Moreno Valley City Council members LaDonna Jempson and George Price voted against the World Logistics Center. Although the development was approved by the majority, their no votes were considered both courageous and insightful. “I voted no on the project because there were too many unanswered questions for me to be comfortable with it,” Price advised. “It seemed like every regulatory agency had problems or issues with the EIR [Environmental Impact Report] that were either not answered or addressed and in some cases ignored.” In addition, Price explained how he did not think it was wise to place all of the city’s proverbial eggs in one basket by changing zoning on so much acreage and limiting it to warehouse development only. However, his concerns did not end there. “I was also concerned that the City has in the past approved two other specific plans of significant acreage for this developer and he has yet to produce on either one,” Price asserted. They remain raw land and unfulfilled promises.
Co-council member Jempson also expressed strong motivation for her “no” vote. Her reservations began with issues related to traffic congestion particularly, “[The] impact of truck trips on our roads with no confirmation of any assistance promised by Cal Trans, Riverside County Transportation Commission, WRCOG [Western Riverside Council of Governments] or the State of California to upgrade our highways.” She also expressed concern about non-designated truck routes coupled with the fact there were no plans for additional truck stops. Her other concerns included the potential impact on air quality.
Jempson also felt the development was being pitched with, “unknown tenants with unknown commodities to be warehoused.” In other words, the developer was unable to provide a portfolio of clients who would occupy the facility other than Skechers.
Also, according to Jempson, statements from several commenting agencies reflected over-riding environmental considerations regarding what was not being mitigated.
Finally, “The project was portrayed as State of the Art automation bringing technology jobs but in actuality there has been no clarification of how many will be built to specify automation.” She explained, “They could all be warehouses similar to the vacant warehouses we currently have. “The developer has also received approvals for other projects which have not come to fruition.”
Within a week of Moreno Valley’s vote, the Perris City Council faced an almost identical decision point. Should they cast a vote in favor of the Optimus Logistic Center—two city council members voted “no”.
Councilmember and Mayor Pro Tem Tonya Burke explained, “After consulting with our planning staff, considering the recommendations of our Planning Commission, hearing many presentations from the developers, and most importantly, listening to the residents of the city, I felt it was the best decision for me to vote ‘no’ on the project as it was presented to the council.”
According to Burke, supporting the Optimus project as presented would require the city to convert a significant portion of the existing parcel of land currently zoned commercial to industrial.
One of the most attractive parts of the project, Burke explained, was the retail development component. “The residents were happy to learn that this project would include retail, but disappointed with the idea building the retail portion would take a back seat to building of the two large distribution centers/industrial buildings.” This disappointment was exacerbated when citizens learned it would be four to five years, maybe longer before the retail portion would be built.
Her motivation for voting ‘no’ was similar to those expressed by Councilmember David Starr Rabb. Rabb also expressed concern the city was going overboard on building. “We will be like Detroit, dependent on one industry and when its goes away what will happen,” he asked rhetorically? Rabb expressed concern about developers coming into the area, advocating building projects and then never completing them and/or promising jobs that never materialize.
“I’m not anti-warehouse,” Rabb explained (a sentiment also expressed by Burke). He then expounded on the area’s need for more point-of-sale warehouses that would generate additional tax revenue for the city. He also expressed concern not only about the quantity of jobs promised but also the quality.
Rabb wants to bring jobs to the area that will offer wages robust enough to sustain a family—he is an advocate for developments that bring jobs with room for advancement and benefits. Such opportunities could include manufacturing, education, corporate and/or green energy jobs.
Burke and Rabb, like Price and Jempson in Moreno Valley, were also leery of re-zoning too much of the city’s available land from commercial to light industrial and locking the city into a future too dependent on a single industry.
All four of the politicians were humble when commended on their courage and clarity of purpose. Rabb said, “I don’t really think its courage. I’m like Shirley Chisholm, un-bought and un-bossed.” He concluded, “I am a man standing up and saying this is what’s right and voting my conscience based on what the majority of the people I was elected to represent want.”
Burke explained, “There seems to be this push of adopting ‘just good enough’ policies, programs, projects, and employment opportunities within our city. Our constituents deserve so much better. They deserve to have leaders that will make sure that they get the very best.” She added, “I vowed to be a leader that will put the needs of my constituents before my own, even if it causes me to get the ‘side eye’ or not gain campaign funding/support from those who are in opposition to my decisions.”
When asked about her courageous no vote, Jempson shared, “I am in this position through the grace of God so I put my trust in Him.” She continued, “I reminded myself that I campaigned based on making decisions which would improve the residents’ quality of life. I received phone calls, emails and posts from several who felt this project would not do that.” Price explained the courage that fueled his ‘no’ vote most precisely, “It was the right thing to do.” He said and added, “Despite what the critics have said, I listened to the voters, especially of District 3 whom I represent, they also shared my concerns.”
Environmentalists and government agencies share a number of concerns equal to those expressed by these council members. September 23 was the deadline to legally challenge the project’s environmental impact report and a number of environmental groups have vowed to join forces to facilitate such a challenge. In the meantime, several government agencies, just as determined to push back against the project’s approval are not waiting.
On Tuesday, September 15, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors cast a unanimous vote to sue Moreno Valley over both traffic and air pollution concerns. The very next day, the Riverside County Transportation Commission voted 20 to 1 in a closed door session to sue Moreno Valley. Its concerns were also focused on traffic and air pollution. (The Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) includes representation from the County Riverside and cities.)
RCTC, Caltrans, the South Coast Air Quality Management District who is also suing the city, and other agencies expressed these same concerns throughout the development process; as did surrounding cities in response to the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
According to the EIR, the World Logistics Center would attract nearly 69,000 vehicle trips per day including nearly 14,000 trucks–this equates to more than 2800 vehicles per hour.
Although the project calls for another lane to be added to the 60 freeway; improving on/off ramps; and, widening overpasses at three exits in the area of the WLC, both Caltrans and the RCTC have no plans and certainly no funding for such improvements. Also, it appears the agencies have little faith in Moreno Valley city officials who have asserted that plans to pay for the improvements will be determined—although the city has also acknowledged its inability to guarantee any improvements to roadways or freeways outside its jurisdiction.
The Riverside City Council also considered but declined to pursue legal action on this issue.