SAN BERNARDINO — County officials Tuesday kept alive a controversial proposal by a financially beleaguered developer to construct a swank residential neighborhood and private golf course on ecologically sensitive land at the edge of the San Bernardino National Forest.
At stake is an attempt by Landmark Land Co., which is under the conservatorship of the federal Resolution Trust Corp., to substantially increase the value of the property before the government sells it at auction. Other government agencies have argued that it would better serve the public as an undeveloped ecological preserve unique in Southern California.
The San Bernardino County Planning Commission previously rejected the development proposal as too vague and ecologically insensitive, and sent it back for more basic negotiations. Landmark successfully appealed some aspects of that rejection to the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Despite stinging criticism of the project by opponents, ranging from state and federal wildlife officials and private environmental groups to local school officials and Native Americans who say the land is sacred, the supervisors ordered the Planning Department to discuss the project again with Landmark. The vote was 4 to 0.
Board Chairman Jon D. Mikels, who four years ago received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Landmark and another $1,000 from one of its officers, said he wanted the project--including plans for the golf course--back to his board before the end of October.
Mikels indicated his concerns about some aspects of the project, especially involving how Landmark could address key environmental concerns. But, he said, "a major redesign of this project is not required."
By negotiating aspects of the project with the Planning Commission instead of with the county's development review committee, Landmark essentially will be able to skirt scrutiny of the proposal at lower staff levels, where it has run into strong opposition.
Neither Mikels nor the other three supervisors responded to a parade of speakers who denounced the project during an acrimonious, two-hour public hearing. Two audience members were ejected for their outbursts.
Mikels immediately left the meeting without talking to reporters, and he did not return phone calls placed later to his office.
Previously, he had said "there's nothing special about the property" and argued that its development would be a "net plus" for the county.
To many observers, Tuesday's action contributes to the presumption that the project will be approved by the Board of Supervisors.
"This project appears to be a done deal," said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League. "This board is pro-development and will do whatever Mikels wants, and he sent out a clear message to Landmark that he'll shepherd their project through to approval. In the end, Landmark will get what it wants.
"The only reason to approve this project is madness," Silver said. "This shows the corruption of government by the development industry."
Vera Rocha, chief of the Gabrielino-Shoshone Nation of Indians, which considers the land sacred and historically has used rare white sage found there for ceremonial purposes, promised that opposition to the project would not end.
"I can't find anything in their language to describe how low they are," she said of the supervisors. "These are the kind of people who have no respect for themselves, so how can they have respect for other cultures?"
The 762-acre site, known as Oak Summit and situated just north of Rancho Cucamonga, is in a flood plain and brush-fire zone at the confluence of three earthquake faults. The property includes one of the state's last stands of a threatened flora and may support at least two endangered animal species.
Despite the land's ecological significance and opposition from other governmental agencies, the RTC and Landmark are aggressively pressing plans for approval of the residential and golf course project. By increasing the property's worth, the RTC has held, the federal government's savings and loan bailout agency would recoup more of Landmark's losses incurred when it became insolvent in 1991.
The RTC has allowed Landmark--which has developed a number of other championship golf courses, including La Quinta and PGA West near Palm Springs--to continue to manage the local property.
Unclear is what role Landmark would continue to have when the acreage is auctioned, and when the auction would occur. It is scheduled for Tuesday but may be delayed, given the uncertainty over Oak Summit's ultimate fate.
Times staff writer Michael A. Hiltzik in Los Angeles contributed to this story.