Rea: Why Are OC Supervisors Playing Developer in San Bernardino County?

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Orange County is exporting their most rapacious of developers and investors of yesteryear to San Bernardino County, and planning to develop 1600 acres of open space on the banks of the Santa Ana River. Not only does this constitute a shocking private benefit using public tax funds, it’s putting the water supply for millions of Californians at risk.

More than 45 miles from the border of Orange County, five miles from the nearest freeway and deep in the canyons of San Bernardino County lies the easternmost branch of the Santa Ana River headwaters, a quiet little canyon with less than a hundred residences known locally as “Greenspot.”

The unincorporated town of Mentone nearby is full of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the investors that remained long after the collapse of the founding citrus industries, railroads, war defense sites and resorts.

Now those residents have filed suit to stop a development that lies on the San Andreas Fault, with increased fire and flood hazard for the downstream communities that lie below the high-risk Mill Creek tributary on the Santa Ana River.

The suit seeks to demand a more thorough examination of the environmental and contamination risks of the development under the California Environmental Qualities Act (CEQA).

But the question remains: Why is Orange County investing time and tax dollars into as the lead agency on a project with a heritage of property shuffles, high-dollar investors, questionable entitlements, and eminent domain for private benefit?

So how did Orange County end up fronting a project on a remote peninsula of land with infrastructure costs expected to exceed one billion dollars?

Part of the property was purchased as the “borrow site” for clay deposits in the Seven Oaks Dam. Then, when transporting the clay became problematic, San Bernardino County Flood Control went ahead and seized 600 acres of groves from a small, multi-generational family owned citrus company for a giant conveyor belt. Despite federal funds supporting the acquisition and transfer to Orange County, first right of refusal was not offered back to the family it was taken from and the 600 acres of heritage orange trees were recently yanked out by a crew with wood chippers. Add to the fact that the “Harmony” project will require taking even more land by eminent domain from at least two other small independent grove owners, including the primary economic support for an 80-year old widow and her two 30+ year employees, it’s enough to whip local residents into a frenzy.

The most immediate concern for Orange County and local residents stems from the lack of adequate hydrological studies for the project, in the same zone once called “the greatest flood hazard west of the Mississippi river.”

It’s clear that paving and developing 1600 acres of open space will change the hydrological profile of the tempestuous canyon. The lack of disclosure as to what the mitigation measures might look like has concerned both residents and analysts alike, and drove locals to form their own resistance group known as Greenspot Residents Association. The south side of Mill Creek has a several-mile long, 15-foot high levy constructed to protect downstream communities from the annual flash floods and any repeats of the 1938 and 1969 devastation. However, the levy was not designed for the modifications the development brings, and hydrologists are concerned it may lead to overflowing the levy and grossly increase the contamination risk for the Bunker Hill Basin and Santa Ana River.

Within two thousand feet of the development begins a mid-century industrial zone with a lengthy list of defense and manufacturing contamination sites.

Those include a 200-acre 20th century pottery plant with known asbestos contamination and whose use reportedly included use of lead-based and uranium color treatments, a large trash dump that was utilized until the 1950s, two firing ranges with significant lead contamination collected over more than 50 years of use and the 400-acre toxic WWII and Cold War site formerly known as Grand Central Rocket which later became Lockheed. The Lockheed site is terribly troubling, it was home to years of experimental solid rocket-fuel testing. These days it’s full of the residual disposal burn pits with contaminated soil that has never been subject to significant soil testing or removed, but that we know has created the multi-mile plumes of Perchlorate and TCE moving their way westward along the Santa Ana. In the absence of soil testing, we suspect Perchlorate and TCE may be the tip of the contamination iceburg.

It’s a small wonder that the namesake of the town where Erin Brockovitch first challenged the water districts in San Bernardino County was named after one of our local residents and noted engineer of the County’s water system, Horace Hinkley.

Having lived in Orange County through the 1990s and scandals that rocked the area, I find it disconcerting that the affiliations with questionable interests appears to be continuing at the expense of taxpayers.

Under Orange County CEO Frank Kim’s leadership, Eric Hull and OCFCD’s James Campbell have driven the project forward despite strong and persistent opposition.

As the two distinct lawsuits were filed by six environmental and resident groups last week, we wonder if the close supervisor’s race between Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michelle Martinez and incumbent Supervisor Andrew Do may encourage calling the wisdom of supporting this project into play.

The groups behind the suits have long argued that the flood risks and endangered habitat made it better suited for the tax breaks afforded by an open-space mitigation bank rather than high-density housing and commercial. Considering the questionable heritage of the project, risk for flood, contamination, and expense for Orange County taxpayers, as well as the costs of litigious opposition? That seems the wiser course of action.

Wendy Rea, is a 3rd generation resident of Greenspot 

Opinions expressed in this editorial belong to the author, as an individual and not of any organization, or the Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

  • OCservant_Leader

    Interesting. I was wondering when this OC land deal in San Bernardino County would hit the news.
    This is one of the BIG secrets. The Public Works “Band of Brothers” have been working the deal and now with their Brother Frank Kim at the helm they can make significant progress before his time is up.
    Can’t wait for the BOS explanation of how this benefits OC taxpayers.

    • David Zenger

      I think the idea is that OC Floods gets lots and lots of revenue. Of course OC Floods is already awash (heh) with revenue since the agency gets an ad valorem tax income.

      However, here is the real problem I see: Orange County cannot possibly be an impartial “lead agency” reviewing the CEQA review or the entitlements for this massive project. The lead agency should be the San Bernardino County or whatever city this will be incorporated into.

      County Counsel will tell you that a government can’t have a conflict of interest, which is patent nonsense.

  • David Zenger

    Wendy, thanks for the background.

    One thing, however:

    “Orange County is exporting their most rapacious of developers and investors of yesteryear to San Bernardino County…”

    My recollection is that the developer was none other than the Lewis house tract-building conglomerate – the family that has basically built the Inland Empire housing market.