After a lengthy public hearing, the Ontario City Council Tuesday night, March 1, unanimously approved plans for warehouses and other industrial uses on dairy land located in the southern edge of the city.
A South Ontario Logistics Center plan was approved for 219 acres bordered by Eucalyptus Avenue to the north, Merrill Avenue to the south, the future Campus Avenue extension to the west and Grove Avenue to the east. This allows for commercial, office space, technology, light manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers, according to a city report.
The action included a zone change from low- and medium-density residential and business park to industrial and business park, in which 184 acres would be designated for industrial development and 35 acres for business parks. Changes to the general plan also lay the groundwork for up to 5.3 million square feet of future industrial and business park developments, including warehouses.
“We are planning for future economic development,” said City Manager Scott Ochoa, who emphasized that Ontario is preparing for growth — mostly industrial and residential — within the 13-square-mile area once occupied by dairy farms known as Ontario Ranch.
A total of 27 speakers, 15 arguing against the project and 12 in favor, testified in a packed council chambers Tuesday night. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions allowed for in-person gathering and brought one of the largest audiences to the chambers in many years.
Several members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), as well as members of local carpenter, plumbers and iron workers unions, spoke in favor of the development plans, saying the projects would provide good-paying construction jobs. Those opposed objected to the loss of farm land, emphasizing the need for locally grown crops to address food and supply chain issues created by COVID-19, as well as the harmful effects of warehouses from breathing in soot and particles emitted from tailpipes of diesel trucks.
“Ontario must be ready for industrial and logistical projects that have been flowing into the Inland Empire,” said Wyatt Stiles, an organizer with the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 398, who said he and his members support the projects.
Likewise, Jimmy Elrod, of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America, said of the union’s 60,000 members, 1,000 live in Ontario.
“I urge you to pass this project,” Elrod said. “The amount of good-paying jobs created would benefit the membership, the workforce and the community as a whole.”
Andrea Galvan, an Ontario resident, said the city does not need more warehouses.
“I am opposed to taking away farmland for industrial use. Study after study will show there is no tax benefit, the good-paying jobs never appear and they are empty promises,” she said.
Elizabeth Sena, of the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition, mentioned her group’s fight against warehouses was supported by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who filed a lawsuit challenging the approval of the 205,000-square-foot Slover and Oleander Warehouse project on grounds it would add to the pollution burden of communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
The five Ontario council members voted in lock-step, citing their adherence to the rights of property owners to sell their land and for a developer’s right to build on it.
“For us to pull the rug out from underneath them after they’ve already purchased it, that’s not right,” said Mayor Paul Leon. “If you want to do this, get your group together and buy some of that property and we’d be happy to keep it as farmland.”
Mayor Pro Tem Alan Wapner agreed, saying it was unreasonable for opponents to suggest the city buy up farm land and use it for agriculture.
“You can’t expect the city to pay with taxpayer money hundreds of millions of dollars to grow crops,” he said.
Right after the vote, audience members in opposition began chanting, “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
Leon called a quick recess and the council members hurriedly left the dais, then returned 10 minutes later to adjourn the meeting. Audience members were escorted from the building by police officers and those opposed remained outside the chamber, taking selfies with their signs and planning their next move.
Susan Phillips, professor of environmental analysis and director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College in Claremont, helped organize the opposition that included a petition with more than 1,000 signatures. She said warehouses in southwestern San Bernardino County already cover 25 square miles and create an imbalance of uses.
“I talked to Mayor Leon afterward and he said their hands are tied, that it is the right of the property owner. But the fact of the matter is it is about zoning. And they can do something about it,” she said in an interview Tuesday night.
“People are tired of it. People know how the system works. It is very much tilted in favor of developers,” Phillips added.
Councilmember Debra Dorst-Porada said she was hopeful the warehouses to come would not all be for distribution of packages. She said they could be manufacturing centers for new pharmaceutical drugs, computers or even hydroponic vegetables.
Jeff Johnston of the project applicant Euclid Land Venture, said the logistics center project also would provide $144 million in water pipes, sewer lines and other infrastructure that paves the way for housing projects north of the site, saving the city money.
Phillips said Ontario should not be building one project to allow future developers to more easily build another, saying the hand-in-hand approach is wrong.
“They have a blind spot for cash money,” she said after the meeting. “They are privatizing the building of public infrastructure.”