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Political Firestorm Flares Up Over Rancho Cucamonga Development

Covered by chaparral and dry brush, the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties are at a perennial risk of wildfire. And when the seasonal Santa Ana winds sweep through, they bring Apocalyptic storms of fire and ash that rain down on, and sometimes consume, the communities that press up against these slopes. Into that path comes a proposal the G. Miller Development Company to build 110 luxury homes on 670 rugged acres just outside the Rancho Cucamonga city limits and bordering San Bernardino National Forest. It's a plan that many locals call a dangerous gamble, one that will place hundreds of new residents � and local emergency responders -- in heart of fire country. More than 30 residents spoke out against the project at an August 2009 Rancho Cucamonga Planning Commission hearing. None spoke out in favor. And yet, the project remains under consideration as the Rancho Cucamonga Planning Commission awaits the release of a revised environmental impact report.  The proposal calls for Rancho Cucamonga to annex the land.   But it's not just the fire risk that has locals up in arms about the proposed development. What has them uneasy about the plan is the big name behind it: U.S. Congressman Gary Miller.  A Republican who has represented nearby communities of Brea, Diamond Bar and Yorba Linda since 1998, Miller is also the sole proprietor of the development company that bears his name. Though Miller's job gives him no direct jurisdiction over local land use, neighbors worry that his influence and reported close relationship with Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Donald Kurth are enabling the looming approval of a project that some consider a disaster waiting to happen. "We all know that there are fires, floods and earthquakes," said Danae Delaney, an opponent of the project who's part of the Rancho Cucamonga Conservancy. "That area is a high fire risk, a high flood risk, and in an earthquake zone with many faultlines running through."  Denaley said that the homes would themselves be a risk to their occupants, and if a blaze were to threaten the homes, "It's just putting our fire personnel and our emergency rescue personnel more at risk," said Delaney. In 2003, a fire known as the Grand Prix burned nearly 8,000 acres in and around Rancho Cucamonga, prompting the evacuation of nearly 2,000 homes, 13 of which were destroyed. City estimates put the damage from that fire at more than $7 million. The next year, a fire destroyed the Carrari Ranch Christmas Tree farm � which, before its crop went up in smoke, occupied the very site that Miller's company is now trying to develop. Since long before he was elected to Congress, Miller has been a prominent developer in the Inland Empire.  His company bought the Christmas tree farm from the Carrari family in 2004 after the fire wiped out their business. Miller has not publicly released details of the sale, but various reports put the final price tag at $2 million. Whether or not Miller ends up developing the site himself, opponents fear that, at the very least, he might flip the property upon receiving city approvals.  "He wants an approved tract map," said Frank Schiavone, a long-time resident who has been a vocal opponent of the project at Carrari Ranch since it was announced in 2005. "I don't think I'm coming from another planet when I say that a property with an approved tract map is going to be worth a heck of a lot more than just a plain old piece of property." Miller's office declined to comment for this article. Final approval of the project is still six to nine months away, according to Candyce Burnett, a senior planner at the City of Rancho Cucamonga. Burnett is currently working with Miller's company on a revised scope of work for the project, which released a draft environmental impact report in June 2009. The new scope of work includes additional studies that would demonstrate acceptable environmental impacts. "Additional studies are dealing with fire safety, as well as a downstream stability study," said Burnett. Though the last major fire was in 2003, she said the area is at regular risk of wildfire during the dry and windy season. "That's why we're looking at the additional fire studies to look at evacuation procedures and the potential for apparatus to fight fires in that area." The project scope would require annexation of the 670-acre site into the city of Rancho Cucamonga, adoption of the specific plan crafted for the 342-acre project site, an amendment to the city's general plan, and a development district agreement. The proposed residential lots range from 10,200 square feet to a little more than one acre each, and the entire project has an average density of 1.9 dwelling units per acre. About 200 acres of open space will also be included. Another of the more contentious aspects of the project is the required inclusion of 41 acres of fuel modification in the hillsides around the development � a requirement that opponents view as proof of the site's inherent danger. "It's just dangerous," said Delaney. "I think it's irresponsible to build in an area where you know there's a greater risk of having a natural disaster." She and others in town are also upset about the aesthetic ramifications. The Carrari Ranch site is located on a hillside that is visible from almost every part of Rancho Cucamonga. And though there is a handful of homes sprinkled up in the foothills around the elevation of Miller's proposed project, some say the sight of a 110-home gated community would be hard to miss . "We can only go so far up into the foothills. There's a lot of scenic beauty looking up, and if it gets developed we're not going to have that," said Delaney. But getting those homes up into the hills won't be easy. Due to the parcel's rugged terrain, the development will require the movement of about 7 million cubic yards of dirt to fill in areas and create an area flat enough to build homes.  It would also alter a landscape that is currently wild.  "I'm looking at it from an environmentalist's point of view," said Schiavone. "There's a very rare habitat there. There's sensitive species there. And I'm sure nothing's going to be done to mitigate the environmental damage this project is going to cause." Despite the local concerns, the project seems to be moving forward. Burnett expects the additional studies will be complete in a few months, clearing the way for a revised environmental impact report. Work on the project could begin by year's end. The first residents could move in within five years. For the vocal opponents in Rancho Cucamonga, the project seems unstoppable. Schiavone said he feels there's little he and other community members can do to halt a project with so much power behind it. However, he concedes that he has seen no proof of abuse of power on the part of Miller -- but he still believes it. "The way Congressman Miller is going about this is what really bothers a lot of people," said Schiavone. "Obviously he's throwing his weight around."

Contacts:

  • Congressman Gary Miller (Washington, DC): 202-225-3201 
  • Candyce Burnett, City of Rancho Cucamonga: 909-477-2750
  • Frank Schiavone: 909-987-6805
  • Danae Delaney: 909-758-0282
-- Nate Berg