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The Commons fate unknown after marathon council meeting

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Tuesday night was to be the big showdown for the proposed development known as The Commons, which has been struggling to gain approval from city officials for years.

However, following hours of deliberations, including presentations from the city and from the developer, Clare Properties, the final decision was punted by the Claremont City Council because public comments thrust the meeting well past midnight and into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Staff had recommended the city council uphold the denials of The Commons proposal from both the architectural and planning commissions, which had been appealed by Clare Properties. On October 6, the planning commission “recommended denial based on noise and safety concerns and that sound planning consideration has been given for many years that [the] parcel should remain [zoned] highway commercial/commercial,” according to a presentation from contract planner Jennifer Davis.

The plan, which would be a mixed-use development at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Monte Vista Avenue, first came before the architectural commission in June 2014. Initially, the commission gave a favorable review the of the design, but in July of 2020 the body denied the proposal “due to site plan and architectural concerns and approval process out of order,” according to Ms. Davis.

The commons has met with fierce public resistance mainly due to concerns that the site is unsuitable for housing because it is located in the flight path of Cable Airport. Indeed, in its denial the Planning Commission decision was “based on health and safety concerns and guidance from Caltrans Airport ‘handbook’ which discourages residential uses close to airport runways,” according to Ms Davis’ presentation.

Public input Tuesday night had shifted somewhat due to the 11th hour decision by Clare Properties to include 15 percent affordable housing in the plan, with four of those units designated as low income. Although the four units amounts to a drop in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment bucket, it has apparently inspired some residents to now support the project, including the grassroots housing advocacy group Inclusive Claremont.

Under RHNA, which is part of Claremont’s updated housing element, Claremont needs to plan for 1,707 new homes, of which 553 need to be very low income, 308 low income and 296 moderate income units, in addition to market rate units. The housing element is scheduled to be completed in October.

The fact that the city needs housing does not change the council’s responsibility on minimizing the public’s exposure to excessive noise or safety hazards under the state’s aeronautics act.

City attorney Alicia Patterson’s presentation focused on the city’s responsibility to consult with L.A. County Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) for review to ensure the project is consistent with the ALUC plan. However, the ALUC has not created a airport land use compatibility plan for Cable largely due to the fact that the airport is in San Bernardino County and only an “airport influence area” is in L.A. County. Without a specific plan the ALUC recommends using the Airport Land Use Planning Handbook for making compliance determinations.

The “handbook” strongly discourages residential development in safety zone two and only recommends low density in safety zone four, both of which are found within the project’s location.

In a letter to the city, the ALUC stated, the project could be submitted to them, “to seek a consistency determination that the project is in compliance with the State Aeronautics Act for public Health and safety due to its close proximity to the airport.”

Mark Schoeman, architectural commission chair, said the project changed relatively significantly from 2014 to 2020 and was “a different scaled project” that was ultimately inconsistent with the general plan.

“If you take what is in the general plan and compare it with what they were proposing it did not match it,” Mr. Schoeman said.

The commission looked at internal inconsistency of design such as the park in the middle not being a park, lack of trees, compatibility with the surrounding area and environmental considerations. Mr. Schoeman said there were very nuanced comments from the commission that led to the denial.

Also, because the architectural commission was asked to make a determination before the planning commission, they were put in a position of potentially approving something they had not seen based on the applicant’s intention to have the lot rezoned and amend the general plan.

“For us to approve this design not knowing what those conditions are going to be is not only a waste of time, we would be approving something and giving tacit approval that we agree with this general plan change where we have no authority in that,” Mr. Schoeman said.

Mayor Jennifer Stark asked whether the applicant had requested that architectural commission look at the project before planning, which was confirmed by Ms Davis.

“It’s impossible for us to recommend to city council that housing be built in those two zones...where it’s not recommended to build housing. In the draft EIR [environmental impact report] that was a measure that could not be mitigated,” planning commission chair Leigh Anne Jones said.

She credited the developer for putting in the time and hard work to make some kind of housing development work but that the problem was the site itself.

“We all understand that there is huge need [for affordable housing], but it just came down to this is not the right place,” Ms. Jones said.

Director of Community Development Brad Johnson said the inclusionary housing ordinance gives a developer the choice of allocating 10 percent of units for low income residents or 15 percent for moderate or pay an in lieu fee. He said no builder in the ten years that the city has had the ordinance has chosen to build low income housing.

“We have had zero low, very low or extremely low categories chosen by any of our developers for a for sale product in any of the projects, Mr. Johnson said.

Clare Properties’ decision to build low income units was such a new development that Mr. Johnson said he first learned of the plan in a conversation with the applicant last Thursday.

Clare Properties representative Ben Swenson said most of the issues identified by the commissions are related to airport land use and the basis for these concerns is related to state and county land use documents that are often in conflict with their guidance.

He confirmed that they had added four low income units at the request of housing advocates and asked the council to consider this “particularly since housing is a priority at the state and local levels.”

“It is in the city council’s purview to utilize information that may not have been aired during these previous public hearings to support a different outcome, in this case approval of The Commons development,” Mr. Swenson said.

He also introduced risk management specialist Jim Hudson who conducted an “aircraft individual risk analysis” for The Commons at the city’s request.

“The rationale for the study was to have data that is directly relevant to [Cable] airport.” Mr. Swenson said, noting that no such study previously existed.

Mr. Hudson’s analysis revealed that 22 relevant aircraft accidents occurred over a 27-year period, 12 of which were on or near the runway. There were no ground fatalities during the study period, and in the time since the report was completed still no one on the ground has been injured due to aircraft accidents around Cable.

He also said that houses provide a substantial barrier of protection to occupants against injury from small aircraft which accounts for 90 percent of operations at Cable. And most of the airport’s traffic is during the day when people tend to be at work or school.

“The highest site risk is 27 chances in a million. To place this in perspective, the annual risk of being in a car accident and being a casualty according to the National Transportation Safety Board is 7,000 chances in million—in other words, it’s 260 times higher than the highest risk at Claremont Commons,” Mr. Hudson said.

After the live public comment concluded at 11:30 p.m., staff indicated that 42 written comments remained to be read into the record. The council decided to set a deadline of one hour to read the letters, at which point the members would adjourn, saving council deliberation on the applicant’s appeal and the final vote for the May 11 city council meeting.


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