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Court blocks proposed logistics project on environmental grounds

Developers who want to build warehouse distribution facilities in the Inland Empire are almost always allowed to do so.

Mostly because it’s close to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and because it has an ample supply of affordable land – “cheap dirt” in the words of longtime Inland economist John Husing – the two-county region has more than 360 million square feet of logistical space within its border.

Much of that is in the form of “big-box” projects that cover more than one million square feet. The planned World Logistics Center in Moreno Valley, which broke ground last year, will cover more than 40 million square feet after a 20-year build-out, making it one of the largest projects of its kind in the world.

It’s understandable why the Inland Empire is called, as it often is, the warehouse of the Western United States. The logistics industry is a big part of the Inland economy and is one of the region’s major sources of employment.

So it’s a surprise when a developer who wants to build a warehouse distribution center in Riverside or San Bernardino counties gets told no.

That’s what happened last month when a South Bay developer who proposed building a relatively small project in Moreno Valley had its plans rejected by a Riverside County Superior Court judge because of environmental concerns.

Compass Danbe Real Estate Partners in El Segundo wants to build Compass Danbe Centerpointe, a two-building project that would be constructed on 17.7 acres on the south side of Alessandro Boulevard, just east of Frederick Street.

The two structures would cover 295,236 square feet and 101,252 square feet, respectively.

Despite the absence of an environmental impact report – unusual with any proposed warehouse-distribution facility in California – the planning commission approved Compass Danbe Centerpointe in July 2021, after deciding the project would cause no notable environmental problems.

On the surface, Compass Danbe Centerpointe appears to be a routine project, the kind of industrial development that Inland cities routinely approve with little or no opposition. But there were several aspects of the project that caught the attention of two environmental groups: the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice in Jurupa Valley, and the Sierra Club’s Moreno Valley Group.

Both noted that the project site was zoned for community commercial use, not industrial development and that the nearest residential building was only 150 feet from the site.

“That’s basically living across the street,” said Sander Kushen, the Sierra Club’s regional press secretary.

The city also did not address the number of large trucks that would be moving in and out of the facility at all hours, the noise and air quality problems that the development would cause, and the safety hazards it could create.

It also pointed out that some residents near the project site were not told about Compass Danbe Centerpointe, a violation of state law, and that at least nine schools are located within a quarter of a mile of the routes trucks would use entering and exiting Compass Danbe Centerpointe.

Both environmental groups filed a lawsuit in February 2022, asking that the project be put on hold so that an environmental impact report could be conducted, a request the court granted Oct. 16.

“CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] requires an environmental impact report on projects like this, but the developers find loopholes,” said Ana Gonzalez, executive director of the Center for Community Action. “They find ways around that.”

Despite what appeared to be a clear violation of state law, Gonzalez was not confident about getting a favorable ruling.

“These kinds of cases are difficult to win, mostly because they’re so expensive,” said Gonzalez, who began working for the Center for Community Action five years ago and has been its executive director for the past two years. “They can also take a long time, and you have to find an attorney who knows [environmental law.]”

While some warehouse distribution projects meet with public opposition, especially those that bump up against residential neighborhoods or schools, most are built without any protest or opposition.

“You have to get the community involved, and that can be difficult because they know the other side has a lot of money,” Gonzalez said. “There is also a feeling that whatever you do or say doesn’t matter, because the city is going to approve everything. It’s going to do what it wants to do.

“But this time I thought we had a pretty strong case, and I decided to take a chance. It turns out I was right.”

In a 17-page decision, Judge Chad W. Firetag ruled that Moreno Valley underestimated the project’s “significant” health risks, that “substantial evidence” proves the project would have a long-term impact on air quality and that those impacts could have been reduced, either by requiring trucks with lower nitrous oxide emissions or by redesigning the project so the trucks don’t pass close to homes and schools.

Above all, the city acted improperly when it ruled that Compass Danbe Centerpointe’s environmental issues were minimal.

“If substantial evidence exists… what a significant environmental effect may result from the project, the lead agency is required to prepare an environmental impact report, regardless of whether there is substantial evidence to the contrary.”

The court’s ruling doesn’t mean the project is dead. Compass Danbe can conduct an environmental impact report, make changes to the project, and submit another application. That seems likely to happen, although it’s difficult to say when, or what changes might be made.

Compass Danbe officials did not respond to requests asking for comment.

For now, the two entities that blocked Compass Danbe Centerpointe will take a victory lap and await the developer’s next move.

“This is a huge win for the Inland Empire,” said Marla Matime, the board president of the Center for Community Action, in a statement released the day of the court’s ruling. “Our lungs are not for sale and our families deserve to live and thrive in their communities without constant pollutants that threaten our livelihoods.  We applaud Judge Firetag’s ruling, and hope that this is a standard that is followed for unwanted projects moving forward.”

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One comment

  1. Ive been renting my home for 20 yrs and have long adusted my meager income to this place, will bnsf compensate me for forceing me out?

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