Court voids Moreno Valley’s agreement for World Logistics Center, in what foes call a setback for the project
An overview of the area where the World Logistics Center is proposed to be built in eastern Moreno Valley, as seen from Cactus Avenue looking north to the 60 Freeway in August 2015. The Skechers warehouse is in the background. (File photo by Kurt Miller, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
An appeals court has tossed out an agreement between Moreno Valley and a developer to build a massive warehouse complex because of the way it was adopted.
The 4th District Court of Appeal, Division 1, decided Thursday, Aug. 23, to reverse a 2016 lower court decision that sided with the city and Highland Fairview, which plans to construct the World Logistics Center.
Attorneys for the five environmental groups who sued and later appealed over the matter said the appellate ruling prevents developers from using ballot initiatives to shield their projects from legal challenges on environmental grounds.
And they say the ruling has sweeping implications far beyond the Riverside County city. Moreno Valley spokeswoman Kimberly Sutherland and a developer’s spokesman said the decision won’t impact the project.
The appeals court determined that, under state law, cities may not adopt development agreements by voter initiative. The judges directed the Moreno Valley City Council to set aside adoption of its World Logistics Center agreement, which paves the way for construction of the warehouse complex.
Moreno Valley and Highland Fairview pursued the strategy of getting voters to approve the same agreement the city council OK’d in 2015.
They pointed to a 2014 California Supreme Court ruling that said voter-approved development initiatives are generally exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act. Also, state election law permits municipalities to approve ordinances that are part of a potential initiative if signatures supporting the measure represent 10 percent of registered voters.
That’s what happened in Moreno Valley. After 16,000 signatures were gathered — well more than the 10 percent threshold — the council adopted the initiatives itself.
In an emailed statement, Highland Fairview spokesman Eric Rose wrote Friday, Aug. 24, that the court decision clarifies “a constitutional issue” but has no impact on the project.
Sutherland, the city spokeswoman, said the ruling “does not impact the development of the WLC project, which is projected to bring 13,000 construction jobs and 20,000 permanent jobs to Moreno Valley and the region.”
Attorneys and officials with the environmental groups who sued and appealed called the ruling a significant setback for the 40-million-square-foot project and a clear statement that cities may not use initiatives to shield development projects.
“You just can’t run some kind of initiative to try to skip environmental review,” said Allen Hernandez, executive director for the Jurupa Valley-based Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
Adrian Martinez, a Los Angeles attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that represented the groups, said the decision blocks “this bizarre loophole that the developer was trying to use. … The court foreclosed using this clever gimmick.”
Martinez said the decision also represents “another legal blow for the this mega-warehouse development.”
Sierra Club attorney Rachel Hooper said the decision has far-reaching implications for land-use law.
“This was a case of first impression,” Hooper said. “Until yesterday, no court of appeal had addressed the issue of whether project proponents may use the initiative power to adopt development agreements. The Fourth District’s well-reasoned decision provides a clear answer to that question: no, they may not.”
Suing were the Sierra Club, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Coalition for Clean Air and San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.
The decision comes two months after a Riverside County Superior Court voided the project’s environmental impact report. Highland Fairview has since revised the crucial analysis and the public has until Sept. 7 to submit comments.
The City Council originally approved the center in a narrow 3-2 vote in August 2015. The project, for which a street has been renamed, called for more than 40 million square feet of logistics businesses on 2,610 acres on the city’s far-east side, south of the 60 Freeway. The development would span the equivalent of 700 football fields or 10 percent of Moreno Valley’s 51 square miles.
According to plans, the logistics center was expected to create 20,000 permanent jobs and generate 68,721 daily vehicle trips — more than 14,000 of them trucks. Rose, the Highland Fairview spokesman, has said the company reduced the anticipated traffic by about 15 percent in a recent rewrite of the environmental report.
Hernandez, the Jurupa Valley group’s director, said 15 percent is “not nearly enough when you’re talking about 14,000 daily truck trips on those roads, and the amount of diesel and air pollution that that is going to bring. It’s going to harm a lot of people in the region.”