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Suit Stalls Start of Business Park on Site of March Air Force Base

Warehouse and distribution businesses would worsen air pollution, opponents say. June hearings are planned.

May 20, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Plans to turn part of Riverside County's former March Air Force Base into a business park, in the works for years, are in limbo after a last-minute court challenge by community and environmental activists.

As many as 15,000 jobs would be created by the project, according to supporters, who say it would ease serious regional commuter woes and pump millions of dollars into the area economy.

But opponents charge that the first piece of the 1,300-acre development would be a pollution nightmare that could clog surrounding residential areas with diesel fumes, eliminate cherished views and lower property values.

The planned groundbreaking in late April was abruptly postponed after a local environmental group and community organization sued, alleging that state environmental law had been ignored. The project is now on hold, with a June 5 settlement conference and a June 23 court hearing before Superior Court Judge Lawrence W. Fry in Indio.

Officials who worked for nine years to obtain federal, state and local approvals for the base conversion seemed stunned by the lawsuit.

"You ever been hit with a sledgehammer? That's what it feels like," said Phil Rizzo, head of the March Air Reserve Base Joint Powers Authority overseeing the project.

Jeff Gordon, vice president at Lennar Properties in Irvine, the developer of the business park, said possible contracts with a beer distributor, two manufacturers and others worth millions of dollars are now on hold. The first phase, south of the Cactus Avenue exit of Interstate 215, includes nearly 200 acres of industrial space.

"It's very frustrating," Gordon said.

Attorney Barrington Daltrey, who lives near the base and represents the opponents, said such dismay was "truly nonsense" considering that he and others had raised the same concerns at meeting after meeting, and that he has sued Riverside County before on transportation issues.

Riverside County environmentalist Penny Newman, whose Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice filed the suit, said of the first phase, "It draws thousands of diesel-spewing trucks into an already highly polluted area -- we have the highest levels of particulate pollution in the nation."

Newman and Daltrey said that if the developer would eliminate warehouse and distribution operations from the plan, they would have no problem with the rest of the development, which could include a variety of uses, including light manufacturing, financial institutions and medical clinics.

But Gordon said that was impossible, because the only market right now in the area was for warehouses, distribution centers and industries that rely on trucks.

He and others said that in coming years, as the demographics of the county continue to shift, other types of businesses would become interested.

Daltrey scoffed.

"What bank is going to want to have its office looking out over diesel trucks?" he said.

Gordon said the industrial businesses, which could employ workers from nearby Moreno Valley, Perris and Riverside, would cut pollution by keeping those workers from making longer commutes.

"I just don't see, when we're right next to a freeway with three on- and off-ramps, why they think the traffic is going to be terrible because of this project," he said.

Attorneys for both sides say the outcome of the case could hinge on technical lapses.

Michelle Ouellette of Best, Best & Krieger in Riverside, who represents the March authority in the lawsuit, said that because Daltrey had not included the developer by name in his original filing, and because the 30-day statute of limitations for amending it had expired, the case should be summarily dismissed next month so construction can proceed.

Daltrey argues it is the authority that made a huge mistake, by not giving the correct name of the developer on applications or in the ordinance it passed approving the project.

He added that if future phases of the base conversion included warehouses as well, officials could expect more lawsuits.

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