The March Joint Powers Authority (JPA) Commission last month tabled a controversial project after hearing more than three hours of public comment in which dozens of people spoke against the project.

“The effect of that tabling of the item would be to basically take it off [the] calendar,” Thomas Rice, attorney for the JPA, said. “It will not come back unless you ask for it back, and it functionally operates like a denial.”

The project, as proposed at the June 12 public hearing, included approximately 143 acres of industrial development within the center of the site, about 65 acres of business park development to the north and south of the center and roughly 42 acres of mixed-use development to the west and south of the center.

“All of the intensity is all focused towards the core of Cactus Avenue, providing the in and out quickly as possible to the freeway,” Adam Collier, with Meridian Park West, said. “So, we’re really trying to focus the most intensity in the middle and slowly weeding out intensity as we go out.”

The development also includes a roughly 60-acre public park to the west of the Barton Street alignment, an approximately 15-acre perimeter landscape buffer, 2.4 acres to preserve two of the former Air Force bunkers, a little under 3 acres for an electrical substation and a water pump facility and the construction of a three-bay fire station.

Many of the public comments against the project, like those from Julie Weatherford, focused on the project’s proximity to homes as well as the documented impact it would have on local traffic, air quality and noise.

“As you know, Riverside already has the worst air pollution in the country,” Weatherford said. “Our streets and freeways are already congested with trucks spewing pollution and particulate matter which results in strokes, heart diseases, lung cancer, acute and chronic respiratory diseases. The truck traffic that this project would force upon this community would further congest our streets and endanger the health and the lives of our residents.”

Others, like Catherine Barrett Fischer, focused their ire on the commission’s inability to meet the demands of the previously executed settlement agreements.

“We’ve been waiting patiently for our park, our police station and our much needed fire station, and our agreement is not contingent upon anyone building one square foot of anything anywhere,” Barrett Fischer, the executive committee chair of the Community Alliance for Riverside’s Economy and Environment, said. “You owe us a park, a police station and a fire station and we would like it now.”

Those settlement agreements, one from 2003 and the other from 2012, require the March JPA to designate up to 60 acres for a public park and a minimum of 664 acres of the property for conservation.

“I don’t think that when [Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice] and Center for Biological Diversity sued to create a park, that they intended for a warehouse to be the way that that got funded,” Susan Phillips, director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College, said. “And I think that by funding it that way, you’ve shifted your responsibility away from yourselves and shifted in loyalty toward the developer instead of toward your residents, which is, I think, really a problematic pattern.”

And while most of the appeals to the commission were based on the impact this project would have on the communities surrounding the site, Aaron Echols, the California Native Plant Society Riverside/San Bernardino Chapter Conservation Chair, and attorney Jamie Hall focused their comments on what they called a “woefully deficient” environmental impact report (EIR).

“The EIR for the project is fatally flawed and must be revised and recirculated,” Hall said. “If the JPA pushes this project forward, which clearly does not have the support of the community, and certifies the EIR, then you’re simply inviting a lawsuit for violation of the California Environmental Quality Act and the citizens here will respond accordingly.”

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The few who spoke in favor of the project focused on the union jobs that would come as a result of the new development.

“This project will create hundreds of high-quality construction jobs with good wages for our local community,” Juan Serrato said. “It will also help our apprentices progress toward becoming journeymen.”

And while there was no shortage of support for the union workers, many in the audience pointed out that after the project was completed, those jobs would be replaced by lower paying warehouse jobs, of which there is no shortage in the Inland Empire.

“My house is on most of the maps you’ve seen today, and I also happen to work in a warehouse,” Steven Hersman said. “I can assure you, and I can corroborate with most of the other people today, there is no shortage of warehouse jobs at all, and the only reason I’m able to live locally is because I have three roommates, otherwise I would have to go somewhere else.”

However, after hearing all of the public comments, the developers requested that the board continue the item to give them time to look into the comments so they could respond accordingly at a future meeting, a request supported by JPA staff.

“Items have been brought up tonight and documents have been presented in the last 24 hours, that we would appreciate some time to carefully review and analyze them to make assessments on the staff side of things,” Rice said. “So, we do concur with the applicant’s request.”

But, with the motion by Commissioner Kevin Jeffries and a second by Commissioner Ulises Cabrera to table the item, a vote was taken and the project was effectively shelved, with Commissioner Rita Rogers voting against.

“I probably would have not supported it if we went to the vote,” she said in an interview following the meeting with TN News. “But I did want the public to have the opportunity to have their concerns heard [and responded to at a future meeting]. We had over three hours of public testimony, so I just thought that was what they deserved.”

For Jeffries, calling for a vote on a motion to table the item was effectively an “instant test” to gauge the willingness of the commission to move the project forward.

“If everybody’s ready to take it off [the] calendar, it means they’re not really interested in the project as it’s proposed,” he said. “For it to come back now, staff has got to find a majority who wants to bring it back. It’s either gonna go into the sunset completely, or they’re gonna completely rework the project, so that it gets community support.”

And while the members of Riverside Neighbors Opposing Warehouses (R-NOW), a group formed to oppose the project, celebrated the decision, they knew that the fight against the project was still not over.

“For us, I think delay is a victory,” Mike McCarthy said. “It’s not the victory, but it’s a victory.”

The decision came less than a month after the agency responded to a report from the Riverside County Civil Grand Jury calling the agency “marginally transparent.”

The report recommended a number of ways in which the agency could improve its transparency including meeting on a regular basis, ensuring speakers use microphones during meetings and live streaming and recording all meetings so those who cannot make it to the meetings in person are able to participate and watch.

The agency responded that its meetings were held on a regular basis, but agreed to be more proactive in noting meeting cancellations on the website and also said that it would continue to work to ensure those speaking at meetings were using microphones. However, when it came to live streaming and recording meetings, the agency said further analysis was necessary for both, but that a discussion would take place at a future meeting.

TN News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet providing Riverside County with high-quality journalism free of charge. We’re able to do this because of the generous donations of supporters like you!

Alicia Ramirez is the publisher of TN News and the founder and CEO of its parent company TN News.

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