Once the largest concentration of dairy cows in the United States, the San Bernardino County Dairy Preserve is on the verge of becoming home to more than 200,000 people. The City of Chino is finishing work on a specific plan for 5,435 acres, and City of Ontario officials are refining a development fee schedule, the last document needed before the city begins processing development applications for 8,200 acres on the south end of town.

To different degrees, both plans depart from the large-lot, single-family home development that characterizes much of the area. Chino's plan squeezes 9,700 dwelling units and about 10 million square feet of office, retail and industrial development onto 2,261 acres, or slightly less than half of the specific plan area. The remaining land lies in the floodplain behind a flood control dam on the Santa Ana River and will be set aside for open space, habitat, parks and even some farming. The Ontario plan devotes about 4,400 acres to low-density single-family home development at 4.6 houses per acre. But the plan also devotes numerous areas for housing of 12 or 18 units per acre, and calls for about a dozen neighborhood centers, a town center and two other major centers at either end of the plan area.

"Ontario and Chino, I think, can lead the way in the Inland Empire for smart growth," said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League. Three years ago, Silver's group and the Sierra Club sued Ontario over its "New Model Colony" plan. Earlier this year, the environmentalists settled when the city agreed to impose an additional development mitigation fee. Silver has become at least partially a fan of the plan.

"It's kind of halfway there," Silver said. But the Chino plan, he said, "is the single most progressive land use plan I've seen in the Inland Empire."

Even Ontario Planning Director Jerry Blum acknowledges that Chino has taken a number of "smart growth" principles — mixed-use development, public transit, a pedestrian orientation — farther than Ontario did. But, Blum and others note, Chino's plan was at least partially driven by the flood control project that makes more than half the site off limits to development.

Whatever the respective plans say, developers are eager to start building. Lewis Homes of Upland has purchased more than half of the developable land in the Chino plan area. Forecast Homes and Lennar Homes have both submitted applications to Ontario, and three other developers are talking with the city, Blum said. Together, the Ontario projects would total about 2,000 housing units.

The dairy preserve is a prime location, said Frank Williams, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Southern California's Baldy View Chapter. It is near job-rich Los Angeles and Orange counties, and it could attract some of the businesses that are getting squeezed out of coastal areas by high real estate prices.

The land is becoming available for development after about 50 years as the center of California's dairy industry. San Bernardino County began the phase out of the agricultural preserve in 1993, and since then at least half of the 400 dairies in the area have moved, mostly to the San Joaquin Valley, the high desert and Arizona (see CP&DR, August 2000; CP&DR Local Watch, March 2000). Although urban development has encroached to the border of the dairy preserve, the area remains home to tens of thousands of cows, and farmers still grow feed and row crops.

The Chino Plan, called "The Preserve," is centered around a tight, 125-acre community core that is intended to feature a wide variety of residential, retail, office and civic uses. The plan urges pedestrian-friendly development along a lively promenade. Residential development of varying densities would surround the community core. To the north and west, near the Chino Airport, the plan provides 475 acres for industrial development. A regional commercial center is designated for the western edge.

The plan "captures the best of what we see occurring in the best planned communities in Southern California," said Chuck Coe, Chino community development director. The plan recognizes the need for a wide range of housing and for transit.

"Theoretically, you could spend your whole life there," while moving from one type of housing to another, said Robert Prasse, of Hogle-Ireland Inc., who is managing the project for the city.

The plan also recognizes the desire to continue developing industrial uses near the airport. The overall mix of uses should provide a strong sense of community, Coe said.

Exactly what will happen with the nearly 3,000 acres that lie in the Prado Dam floodplain is uncertain. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Orange County Flood Control District own most of the property, so the city has little control, Coe said. Much of the land will probably remain as undeveloped open space.

One hurdle Chino officials will need to overcome is The Preserve's isolation from the rest of the city. The airport, a state prison and the City of Ontario separate the plan area from the existing city of 67,000 people. To help connect the new with the old, the city plans to open branch offices in the community center, and The Preserve will get street names with historical Chino connections, Coe said. City officials also figure The Preserve residents will come to the older part of town for cultural activities.

Chino officials hope to circulate a revised environmental impact report this month before moving into the public hearing process in August. The City Council could adopt the plan this fall. The city would then proceed with annexation, Coe said.

Ontario's planning process, which began in 1995 with the appointment of an advisory committee, is farther along. The city adopted the New Model Colony plan as a general plan amendment in 1998, and completed annexation in late 1999. Environmentalists sued over the project's impacts but lost in trial court. The plaintiffs appealed but dropped the suit early this year when Ontario officials agreed to impose an addition $2,000-per-acre mitigation fee. The fee, when added to the originally proposed $2,700-per-acre levy, means developers will provide about $25 million for habitat. The money will likely to go to a land conservancy for the purchase and maintenance of property and open space easements, although many details remain unfinished.

Unlike the Chino plan, Ontario's plan calls for developing nearly the whole area, with even the open space being designated for active-use parks, a golf course and bicycle paths. Silver, of the Endangered Habitats League, calls it "wall-to-wall development." But he concedes that decades of industrial dairy operations, and the enormous buildup of cow manure, have highly degraded the landscape.

To Blum, the approach makes sense.

"In its truest sense," said Blum, "this is a brownfield — about four feet thick! … Our point was, let's build the hell out of this place because it's the doughnut hole. It's surrounded by urban uses. It's not habitat for anything. Maybe we could prevent, for a time, the development of more sensitive land out in desert or along the Santa Ana River."

Besides the 4,400 acres of single-family homes at 4.6 units per acre, the New Model Colony plan designates about 800 acres for multi-family housing development (including mixed-use housing in the town center), 500 acres for neighborhood and regional commercial development, and about 340 acres for industrial uses and business parks. The plan is not as transit-oriented as Chino's, Blum noted.

Chino's proposed plan includes design guidelines and would allow developers to move right to the tract map stage. Ontario's plan requires developers to bring in a new specific plan proposal with every project, which makes for a longer process. Blum expects the first project will receive approval in 2003.

The area has very little infrastructure, which everyone acknowledges will add to development costs. Chino's portion of the ag preserve will require approximately $220 million in infrastructure, not including schools, Prasse estimated.

Although the cities share a boundary, Chino and Ontario have not coordinated their planning efforts. Coordinated planning is not something that occurs in San Bernardino County, Blum lamented. Both cities commented extensively on the other's plan, and the two entities eventually talked about traffic circulation, Blum said. The cities have not coordinated at all with Riverside County, whose unincorporated Eastvale district is adjacent to Ontario and Chino. Riverside County's proposed general plan places a new town center in Eastvale, but most of the area is designated for large tracts of single-family homes.


Jerry Blum, Ontario planning department, (909) 395-2199.
Chuck Coe and Robert Prasse, Chino community development department, (909) 590-5549.
Dan Silver, Endangered Habitats League, (323) 654-1456.
Frank Williams, Building Industry Association of Southern California, Baldy View Chapter, (909) 945-1884.