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Preservation or Development: County’s Final Decision

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Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2020 10:05 am

On Jan. 23  at 9 a.m. the County of San Bernardino Planning Commission will decide whether or not to approve the Church of the Woods Project for development. Mountain residents may attend the hearing in the Covington Chambers at 385 N. Arrowhead Avenue in San Bernardino. A live video feed of the hearing will be available at Twin Peaks Government Center located at 26010 State Highway 189 in Twin Peaks. 

The Site

It’s 8:11 a.m. on Sunday, Jan 12. A coyote moves up a hill in Rimforest and emerges at the opening of the woods. It trots past a white cross erected near the dirt path leading to the edge of Highway 18. Looking like it might cross the road, the coyote stops. A car traveling eastbound rushes past. The coyote turns and retreats back in the direction it came, into the forest. 

This forested land is a 27.12-acre parcel owned by the Church of the Woods, a Christian church with an estimated congregation of 300 to 350 people, said its Pastor Rod Akins. Since 2003 the church has attempted to construct a campus on this property, but has been met with constant resistance from portions of the community. Years of continued persistence from each side has generated controversy over this development project. 

Church leaders, including Akins, have been scrutinized for their plan to level 13.6 acres of wildlife and ultimately impact an estimated 16.9 acres during the construction of the campus, according to the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR). The church has faced opposition from environmental groups such as the Save Our Forest Association, The San Bernardino Mountains Sierra Club and residents from Crestline to Big Bear. 

Thus far, opposition has kept the project grounded in its planning stages and putting pressure on the Church to partake in the County of San Bernardino’s regulatory planning process. 

According to Pat Hopkins, a member of the church and advisor of the Church of the Woods Project, the process has cost the Church upwards of $1 million — and that’s excluding the purchase of the land. 

So what exactly has the church spent this money on? The answer is environmental consultants and the surveys these firms conduct, all with the hope that their findings will satisfy the state and county requirements in the FEIR. The environmental review process began in 2003, but on Jan.10, 2020, the FEIR was released. In it are the survey findings deemed to be most important by regulatory bodies and the mitigation measures that the Church and its contractors must follow, should the project be approved by the County of San Bernardino Planning Commission. Leaders from the church said they feel confident with the thoroughness of the FEIR and the diligence of the county-approved consultants who they hired to collect the data. They and their congregation said they are eager to present residents with a safe and centralized communal campus venue — one where kids can hang out and people build community. 

But those hoping to keep the property untouched and the habitat intact find the FEIR to be a document riddled with disingenuous findings and dangerously vague details based on an amorphous regulatory framework. They fear that without more accurate surveying, the impact of erosion in Daley Canyon, potentially toxic water runoff beginning at the headwaters of Little Bear Creek and irreversible wildlife destruction and riparian habitat decimation will cause profound damage and yield unintended consequences to the mountain communities.  

Some members of the church said the price tag alone is reason enough to believe that now is the time to build their new facilities and finally bring their project to fruition.  

Church of the Woods

At the corner of Calgary Drive and North Bay Road, a sign reads “Church of the Woods” with an arrow pointing uphill. Multi-level residential properties line Calgary Drive. Many of their driveways are level with the road. Some homes are positioned downslope, while others are partially obscured by tree cover.  

The street curves and dips before coming to a parking lot. The church building is situated towards the back of the lot. Near the entrance to the church, congregation members talk and laugh.

At 11 a.m. the last of the congregation filters into the building — greeted at the door by members distributing the service’s program and a collection envelope. Church hymns resonate from the inside the hall where a band plays on stage. The walls of the room have painted quotes from bible passages. Either side of the stage has screens where lyrics are displayed. Music notes reverberate through the church. Members sway to the music, others close their eyes and sing the words. A man, his eyes closed, raises his arm, extending it toward the stage. Another couple embraces, arms wrapped around each other’s backs in a side hug. The service is mostly full. 

After the band finishes, Akins walks onto stage, a microphone-headpiece curled around his ear. He smiles, greets the congregation, and instructs everybody to walk around the room and introduce themselves to each other. They do with a series of handshakes and pleasantries. When the group finishes, the congregation returns to their original seats and a prayer is said.  

“I want to ask you to be in prayer for our Jan. 23 meeting with the planning commission,” Akins says to the room. He is speaking about the hearing for the FEIR when the Planning Commission will announce its decision on whether or not to approve the Church of the Woods Project.  

There’s a “Wooh!” from a member of the audience.

“If God wants this to happen it’s going to happen, if he doesn’t we don’t want any part of it,” says Akins. “This is going to be a great campus of influence to provide needs on the mountain that aren’t being provided in other areas.”

Faith in the Process

The FEIR details the scope of the Church of the Woods Project and outlines any mitigation measures that are necessary during development. According to the report, the church campus will include a two-story building consisting of a 27,364 sq.ft gymnatorium and 41,037 square foot assembly building/children’s ministry, a 1,500 square foot two-story maintenance building, caretaker residence and lavatory facilities and a 54,000 square foot ft. sports field, sports courts and children’s play areas. Additionally, a 311-space parking lot will be paved. If approved, the church campus will rest on 13.6 of the 27.12 acres of land. Though, under the plan’s section “Construction Details” it states “...the Project would disturb approximately 16.9 acres as a result of grading…” 

Church of the Woods members and leaders have voiced their excitement about ministering to the community. Akins said the ultimate goal of Church of the Woods is to help minister to people spiritually. But he said, in order to reach someone spiritually, it may mean helping with his or her physical, emotional, relational and financial needs. The campus will help them accomplish this type of outreach.

“We’re a church made up of community people who want to serve the community — that’s the heartbeat,” he said. “We want to minister to [organizations] like Operation Provider right there in Rimforest. We would probably allow them to utilize our facility to minister to people in need.”

Additionally, Akins believes the church will provide a safe space for youth to relax and have fun —  the type of space he feels is lacking in the mountain communities. 

Members from the Church of the Woods congregation shared the Pastor’s sentiment. 

“I’m in favor of it because as a mom on the mountain my kids participated in pretty much all the sports — soccer, baseball and basketball. I helped coach soccer and every time it was a battle for a field,” said Teresa Alexander, a youth group leader. “One of the major things this development is going to do is give fields to the community.”  

Her understanding was the fields would be open to anybody, from the Church of the Woods congregation or otherwise — with no fee. 

“This will be another place for the kids to hang out. But also we’ll be able to do services there, too,” Alexander said.

Freedom of Private Property 

While the church and its members said the new campus will be a safe facility for kids to have fun,  those wanting to preserve the natural habitat and wildlife question the location and size of the campus.

When asked about the motivation behind having the church on Highway 18, Akins affirmed that  a portion of the motivation was to bolster the congregation’s numbers. But having the new church campus along Highway 18, means Church of the Woods is more centrally located than in its current building.  

Currently, the Church of the Woods congregation has between 300 and 350 members, according to Akins. However, sixteen years ago, when the Church of the Woods Project  began, the congregation was larger. 

“The (population) on the mountain has dropped and so has the attendance. We’ve had numerous families move off the mountain or out of state,” Akins said. 

Church elder, George Stalzer echoed the pastor’s sentiment. 

“I think it’s going to be good for the community because of its location and its ability to serve the mountain a lot better than from this location here,” said Stalzer. 

Though he did not know what the activity schedule would be like, George said he was certain the church would be open to anybody who wants to use the campus. 

When asked, why the church has to be the size and in the location it is knowing that it will disrupt the to provide the spiritual message. 

“Well, first of all, did you know in the San Bernardino National Forest there is 677,982 acres?’ Akins responded. “That’s the National Forest in the San Bernardino Mountains. We have 15, privately-owned acres. Don’t you think property rights are still valid? We should be able to develop a campus to minister with, with our own property.”

Alexander replied, citing the steps the ministry had taken to protect the environment.

“There was an environment report done and it showed that it’s not going to disrupt the environment—that the animals and all of it is going to be just fine,” said Alexander. When asked where the animals will go to stay safe Alexander answered, “There’s still going to be a lot of forest all around us because we gave up the land to the county.”

She was referring to the sale of 10 of the original 37-acre parcel the church sold to the county. The county will be developing the Rimforest Storm Drain Project to address water flow down the mountain. The drain project will be completed before the Church of the Woods Project, if approval is granted to the latter.

While the Final EIR makes little mention of animals being displaced, the Habitat Assessment states, “The project site has the potential to support the movement of mule deer, bobcat, coyote, and black bear through the project site and surrounding areas.  Wildlife movement through these areas will be impeded by project-related disturbance” It goes on to say that adjacent habitat will remain open space and provide opportunity for movement. The assessment then says “As a result the project site and the surrounding open space will continue to provide opportunities for local wildlife movement and will remain as a corridor for highly mobile wildlife species.” 

The relocation of animals has also been concerned raised by those opposing the development. When asked about the concern those opposing the project voiced about the development being abutting a wildlife corridor, Stalzer said that he thinks it’s a hypocritical argument considering some of the opponents have likely developed their own properties on wildlife corridors. 

“I’m sure we have just a minute fraction of the available wildlife corridors on the mountains.” 

Akins agreed. 

“We have a whole bunch of other acreage that is the same environment that they can be a part of. But the most important species on planet earth is human beings,” he said. “Humans matter—and I know some people think animals are more important than humans but I beg to differ. I think animals are important, we care for them, we have provided mitigation acreage for all of these species.”

Conserving Natural Habitat 

On Jan. 13, President of the Save Our Forest Association and mountain resident, Dr. Hugh Bialecki, stands in front of a projection screen in a mostly darkened room. He speaks to a group of about thirty members from the San Bernardino Mountains Group of the Sierra Club and other residents who have come out to voice their concern about the Church development.  He discusses how the Final EIR fails to abide by the Lake Arrowhead Community Plan. The plan—crafted by community members in 2007 and adopted by the County of San Bernardino— was implemented in order to preserve the character and identity of the communities in the area during land use and development.

Bialecki discusses the series of infractions to the plan and within the Final EIR—from the unaccounted for erosion at the corner of Daley Canyon and Highway 18, to the riparian lands not included in the Final EIR. drainage that runs towards Daley Canyon and becomes the headwaters of Little Bear Creek. According to Bialecki, Little Bear Creek provides between 50 to 66 percent of water flowing into Lake Arrowhead. 

The promontory is one of the highest points in elevation on the project. The Church plans to level the promontory, pushing the soil into the “valley” below.  However, according to Bialecki the plans of how that gets accomplished remain vague. 

In the Final EIR it is stated, “According to the Church of the Woods Earthwork Analysis Report preliminary grading qualities are calculated to be 195,297 cubic yards  of excavation or cut materials and 119,313 cubic yards of fill material.” 

Organic topsoil may cause an even greater challenge to the project. According to the Final EIR, the organic topsoil is not suitable for fill, meaning it cannot be used to fill in the “valley.” Consequently, it needs to be moved off-site. The Final EIR states, “There is approximately 42,368 cubic yards of material on Project site consisting of highly organic topsoil that is not considered suitable for reuse as engineered fill. This unsuitable material would be transported to Heaps Peak Transfer Station by truck as a part of the Project’s construction process.”

The Final EIR stipulates that trucks will move this soil, approximately five miles, along Highway 18 to Heaps Peak Transfer Station. From there the soil will be loaded into larger trucks and transferred approximately 37 miles to the Mill-Valley Landfill in Rialto.

“The hillside would be level and the valley would be filled,” Bialecki said.

 

The Strawberry Creek Corridor

Another issue raised by Bialecki is the disruption of natural habitat in the Strawberry Creek Corridor— a stretch of designated land connecting wildlife populations that are otherwise separated by human-made structures or activities.  According to the Habitat Assessment, the Strawberry Creek Corridor “provides movement opportunities (for wildlife) between the San Bernardino National Forest and the Mojave River.”  

Depending on who one asks, the Project site either abutts or is within the corridor. The Final EIR, states that “The eastern boundary of the Strawberry Creek Corridor abuts the western boundary of the Project site, indicating minimal overlap.” However, in the Habitat Assessment, a map shows the Project site outside of the wildlife corridor. 

ELMT Consulting, an agency based in Santa Ana, was hired by Church of the Woods to perform the Habitat Assessment surveys at the Project site. According to the Habitat Assessment ELMT visited twice, once in November of 2017 and again in February of 2018. They determined that the project site lay outside the Strawberry Creek Corridor. 

Bialecki and opponents believe that the corridor extends onto the property. Akins, however, did not think animals would migrate through church property and across Highway 18. 

“There’s Highway 18 right there and right across Highway 18 is the drop off. That is not a corridor that animals pass through.” Akins said. “The animals aren’t going through our property, crossing Highway 18, and going down the front of the mountain.”  

Bialecki responded when asked if he agrees with this assessment.

“Periodically, there are animals that are killed on Highway 18 that are in the process of crossing the highway. Yes, there are animals living on that property now and the surrounding areas,” he said. “You’re going to have migration of wildlife through areas that are undeveloped and areas that are partially developed.” 

“If the project passes, I believe that (the Project) will reduce the passage of animals through the corridor as it would be another impediment within the corridor,” said  President of the San Bernardino Mountains Land Trust James Asher.

Residents On Scenic Way

On Sunday, Jan 16 between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. the Mountain News conducted door-to-door interviews with residents living close to the proposed development site along Scenic Way and Bear Springs Road.  Six residents gave interviews—all of which were opposed to the development. Two residents on Scenic Way and two residents on Bear Springs Road had not heard of the project and did not wish to comment on the record. At two homes nobody answered the door.

Tamara Gayle has lived in Rimforest since Nov. 2016 and had read portions of the draft EIR. 

“I think that their building is obscenely huge,” Gayle said. “I’m highly opposed to it for multiple reasons. Firstly, they’re going to be leveling so much terrain—they’re going to be removing hundreds of trees.” 

She mentioned the disruption of the animal habitat, water runoff and the probability of increased traffic along Highway 18.  She felt that the impact statement in the Draft EIR did not take into account all the species. She has seen coyotes, bears, raccoons and a variety of birds, yet these were not mentioned in the Draft EIR she said.

“I moved up here because I like the quietness of the mountain community. And, despite the fact that Highway 18 is so close, it is very quiet right here where I live. To look out my window or sit out on my back deck, it’s like I’m living strictly in the forest. All I see are the trees and the wildlife and it’s serenity to me.” 

Holly Griffiths has lived in the Mountain communities for twenty-three years and two of those on Scenic Way. 

“I don’t see why we need to develop more land. We can fix up other spots,” Griffiths said. Griffiths mentioned a property in Valley of Enchantment where a trailer park used to be as a viable alternative location. 

“If I wanted to live somewhere without the woods or without wildlife I would go anywhere down the hill in Southern California.” 

“This isn’t a vendetta against the church at all. I just don’t think that this is the right spot,” said another resident, Judy Weber. “There are times when I am home and it’s so quiet and serene. I don’t want to wake up to the sound of construction. I might as well go live down the hill.” 

 

Comments from Other Mountain Residents

Scott L. Rindenow, Lake Arrowhead resident:

“I would question on a project like this whether they have the where-with-all to complete the project and I would be concerned as a resident that this could possibly start and not get finished. But that aside (...) what they’re putting in there are great elements for the community but where they’re proposing it is not so great,” Rindenow said.

Rick Dinon, Crest Forest Municipal Advisory Committee Chair also commented on the Project:

“The Church of the Woods Project is difficult personally and is polarizing within the mountain communities, said Dinon. “While I am a strong supporter of property owner rights, this church and recreation campus project is large, disruptive and visually clashing with the existing mountain aesthetic. I appreciate the church has significantly downsized the scope of this project and has incorporated modifications to it to address concerns. Still, the project will change the area materially.”

The EIR and the County of San Bernardino 

The Church of the Woods was permitted to find their own consultants to conduct environmental surveys. While this is not uncommon, according to opponents of the project, this methodology presents a problem. 

“The consultant on behalf of Church of the Woods doesn’t verify much. They misconstrue things and they obfuscate things. They purposely have disingenuous interpretations,” said Bob Sherman, a now-retired, Certified Professional Wetlands Scientist. “Then when you turn around and challenge them, they say ‘Well we covered that on page 36. That’s their modus operandi,” Sherman said.

Dr. Allard and Bialecki, and Sherman agree that the EIR has serious gaps when it comes to hydrology and water flow from the mountain into Lake Arrowhead. Not everybody shares this thought.  Tom Nievez, Planner at the County of San Bernardino, Land Use Services Department, defended the methodology used to validate the FEIR.

“The drainage regulations are very strict. By law, the developer cannot increase the amount of water that leaves the site.” Nievez said. “So if 100 gallons historically leaves a site during a storm. They cannot put 150 gallons down there. They cannot by law.” 

Nievez added that whatever given quantity of water leaves the project site must avoid causing corrosion downstream and must be clean. Additionally, he indicated that the water quality management plan must be submitted for review and approval to the County to make sure all the conditions are met. Hopkins emphasized that every report required by the EIR has been completed, including hydrology, complete water quality management plan, and a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan.

 “These are really good, good reports that really (...) intelligent consultants and licensed professionals,” Hopkins said. “The guy, Bob Sherman who claims he’s a wetlands expert. Well, we don’t have any more wetlands on our project. We sold that whole streambed to the San Bernardino Flood Control.” 

In a written comment to the Draft EIR, the Sierra Club of San Bernardino states “We believe this DREir remains functionally insufficient…” “Fundamental project information and predictable impact information is still missing, deliberately skipped or seemingly deferred (to) until after the project is approved.” They conclude that because of the vital missing information a thorough action/analysis cannot be performed on the environmental impact of the project. 

The Planning commission responded. “The DREIR was prepared in full compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), State CEQA Guidelines, and the County of San Bernardino Guidelines including project definition, foreseeable impacts, and feasible mitigation measures.”

To some members of the opposition, another conflict of interest was made by the County.  The County scheduled two events for the mountain communities at the same time, on the same day, — the Point-in-Time Count for the homeless and the Church in the Woods Project hearing. Although different departments scheduled these events, when Supervisor Rutherford’s office declined to intervene and request a schedule change. Instead, she deferred to the departments. “There often scheduling conflicts that can arise. And also understanding that people don’t have to be present to be able to speak on the item. They can submit written comments,” said Heidi Duron, Supervising Planner for the County of San Bernardino Land Use Services ”  

According to Hiedi Duron, ten days is the minimum for the amount of time for availability between the Final EIR’s release and the hearing. 

Akins likened the church to the biblical story of Zerubbabel — a story he has shared with his congregation: After the Israelites were exiled in Babylon, the first group to come back to Jerusalem was led by Zerubbabel. The man laid the foundation for the temple but was met with political opposition. 

“So he stopped building the temple for sixteen years until they started again and built and finished the temple."

“We’ve been at it 16 years,” Akins said, about the Church of the Woods Project. “I believe God’s saying it’s time. Let’s rebuild the temple.” 

Sherman said at the Sierra Club meeting that the last paragraph of his letter he wrote a year ago for the Draft EIR still applies to the final report on the Church of the Woods Project:

“To sum up, in over seventeen years of professional environmental review, I have never seen such an environmentally-harmful project, proposed on a more sensitive, unique and ecologically important site, and based upon such faulty and unfounded assertions of legitimacy.”

  • Discuss

Welcome to the discussion.

2 comments:

  • LeadAmerica posted at 6:54 am on Sun, Jan 19, 2020.

    LeadAmerica Posts: 0

    I totally support every Christian church, as this is a Christian nation & OUR mountain is a Christian community! I do not support any more development of OUR forest: No more houses, no more development of any kind. Much of OUR forest wildlife are currently homeless because of over development (Where wildlife used to roam freely, they are now gone)! - This needs to stop as this is their home & we are the guests here in the mountain. All development should stop & the population be maintained at the current or reduced level - we have no room for more people.

    Some new people coming into OUR community have brought graffiti & crime - We do not want this kind of criminals here in OUR community - They are a blight on OUR community!

     
  • Virginia posted at 1:07 pm on Sat, Jan 18, 2020.

    Virginia Posts: 1

    Build more soccer fields? What do we pay the Recreation and Parks for? Bring more spirituality to our citizens? Why are there so many churches up here with vacant peus? Crestline only has about eleven thousand people and fewer children than in the past. There are more needed causes that this church can spend the funds on to help our current citizens with programs in need already in place. The local community is definitely NOT a priority with this church.