A group of Upland residents has sued the city, asking the court to vacate approval of a 65-unit housing development to be constructed in a flood control basin.
Friends of Upland Wetlands vs. City of Upland was filed in late May and is moving through San Bernardino Superior Court. Both sides will meet in the courtroom of Judge David Cohn to set dates for either settlement hearings or a trial, documents show.
At issue is the April 13 approval by the Upland City Council of Villa Serena, a project by Frontier Communities, which would build a horizontal strip of detached homes in 9.2 acres of the 20.2-acre 15th Street Flood Control Basin between Campus and Grove avenues.
The common open space has been enjoyed for decades by residents of nearby Foothill Knolls, who often observed egrets, rabbits and other wildlife while walking on an elevated path.
The approval was controversial because it reversed a denial by the Planning Commission in February after the public raised concerns about destruction of wildlife habitat, noise, traffic, drainage and new two- and three-story homes blocking views of the mountains. Nearly 100 people spoke against the project.
The lawsuit claims the city did not abide by the California Environmental Quality Act. The developer did a Mitigated Negative Declaration, which concluded the environmental effects would be insignificant.
A wetlands group contends more environmental analysis was necessary. Cory Briggs, a San Diego attorney familiar with CEQA lawsuits, was hired by the group’s leader.
“The city erroneously concluded that the project will have no environmental impacts, when in fact the city didn’t do the biological analysis correctly,” Briggs told the Daily Bulletin.
But the city reported that the MND did look at numerous environmental issues and concluded the project would not have a significant effect. Also, the developer made changes in response to the Planning Commission’s concerns, keeping traffic away from 15th Street through a private road into the housing tract and adding a trail on the remaining portion.
It’s a Flood Control Basin, Not a Wetland
As for the need for the EIR, Andrew Wennerstrom, director of forward planning for Frontier, told the City Council the habitat does not fit the category of a wetland and therefore doesn’t require protection under state and federal environmental laws. “It is a flood control basin and that is the way it performs,” he said.
The flood basin has been a fixture in north Upland since a major flood occurred in 1969. It was also functioning as a catch basin for runoff from the recently built Colonies project. But when the developers felt it no longer needed the full 22 acres, Frontier purchased it to build single-family homes.
A second cause of action challenges the COVID-19 restrictions in place during the City Council public hearing. The City Council meeting was not held in-person but by virtual connections. Those who objected to the project had to do so through either a phone or internet connection.
Participants without a phone or internet connection were denied a chance to give their comments, the lawsuit contends.
“The ‘public hearing’ wasn’t done in a way that gave all members of the public an equal opportunity to weigh in on the proposal, which violates the public’s due-process rights,” Briggs said in an email.
Briggs declined to predict the outcome of the case, saying: “The case is in the very early stages.” The lawsuit asks for the court to throw out the approval and/or force the city and developer to do an EIR.