Supervisors deny mega development in the desert

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PAUL YOUNG
CIty News Service
RIVERSIDE — The Riverside County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposed 1,800-acre residential development just east of Coachella and south of Joshua Tree National Park, deeming the project incompatible with area habitat and devoid of the transportation infrastructure and other necessities to make it viable.
“Is this ambitious project even feasible?” said Supervisor Manuel Perez, in whose Fourth District the Paradise Valley Project would have been located. “Maybe it’s the right project, but the wrong place. You would literally be creating a town for over 15,000 people, similar to Blythe. When we’re planning for the future of families who will live in a place like that, we have to do it in a sustainable way, and above all, make sure it’s safe.”
Palm Desert-based GLC Enterprises had been working on the proposal for 15 years, making modifications to get the specific plan approved, along with a general plan amendment and a zoning adjustment for the Chuckwalla Zoning Area.
However, the county Planning Commission found numerous problems with the concept after a half-dozen public hearings, the last of which was in August, when the proposal was submitted to the Board of Supervisors for final review, with a recommendation from staff for denial.
“GLC has spent countless hours and millions of dollars to address the concerns of the county and ensure this meets or exceeds the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act,” said company attorney Howard Wilkins. “This will bring jobs and tax revenue to the county, where there’s a housing shortage.”
Wilkins requested a 90-day continuance to afford the real estate developer additional time to rework blueprints and further fine-tune elements that were creating stumbling blocks. But only Supervisor Jeff Hewitt was receptive to the idea.
“If we took the environmental community out of this, there wouldn’t be a problem with it going through,” Hewitt said, though signaling his intent to vote with the majority of his colleagues, led by Perez. “It pains me to think this is about keeping all these critters alive. We need more places to live. We’re going to need a lot of (housing) projects.”
The project site was slated to be situated in an area known as Shavers Valley, bounded by the Mecca Hills Wilderness to the south, Joshua Tree National Park to the north, Box Canyon Road to the east and the Cactus City rest area off of Interstate 10 to the west.
The development was proposed as mixed-used variety, with a maximum 8,490 dwellings and 1.38 million square feet of non-residential space, including stores, parks, schools and other amenities.
Planning commissioners cited a host of drawbacks, including obvious conflicts with the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, with disturbances to wildlife corridors and roaming grounds, such as for the desert tortoise, sheep and kit fox. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity were consistent voices in opposition to the proposal.
“By their own words, they have come out with a flawed plan, and that is unacceptable,” said environmental activist Ruth Sinfuego. “This is a vital area of protection. The project would do irreparable harm to the environment.”
Another critic, Steve Bardwell, quoted from the Planning Commission’s report, saying “‘This project represents poor planning practices for a large-scale leapfrog development.”’
Planning analysts flagged the developer for failing to design the project with two or three ingress and egress access points, instead of just one principal way in and out of the community — an interchange connected to I-10.
That issue, in particular, worried Perez.
“We have to have open access for safety,” he said. “What if there’s an earthquake, chemical spill or tanker explosion that puts that single interchange out of commission? One traffic jam could foul it up, giving residents no option to leave.”
Additional concerns were raised regarding water supplies, traffic-related pollution and the availability of county services in the proposed community.
Its close proximity to Joshua Tree National Park fueled considerable opposition. One area resident noted that the preserve is designated a “dark sky park,” giving visitors the opportunity to take in astral sights without the intrusion of city lights. The Paradise Valley Project would have posed a threat to that recreation, she said.
GLC underscored the jobs creation potential associated with the development, with 19,000 construction jobs and 4,700 permanent positions predicted. The county would also look forward to an estimated $5.7 million in annual property and sales tax revenue, according to the developer.
Of the two dozen or so people who spoke over 80 minutes during the hearing, only two supported the project.
“This would ripple out and provide many things not out there now,” said Margi Chiriaco Rusche, a Chiriaco Summit resident. “You would have markets, medical assistance and a fire station. We need to support projects that have been invested in for 15 years.”
It was not immediately clear whether GLC intended to junk the endeavor, or overhaul the proposal and restart the application process.