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FRIENDS OF FAWNSKIN
Big Bear Valley Environmental Education & Oversight
P.O. Box 422, Fawnskin, California 92333
friendsoffawnskin website
909-878-3091

9 April 2014
Mr. Oxso Shahriari
County of San Bernardino
Land Use Services/Planning Department
385 North Arrowhead Ave.; First floor
San Bernardino, CA 92415
VIA EMAIL: oxso.shahriari

Re: Initial Study—Conditional Use Permit to establish a 6793 square foot convenience store with grocery and type 21 offsite liquor sales and gas station on .9 acres.

Dear Mr. Shahriari,
The Friends of Fawnskin appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Initial Study for the proposed Minor Use Permit to establish a 6793 square foot convenience store with grocery and type 21 offsite liquor sales and gas station on .9 acres. However, we are concerned by the fact that we did not receive a copy of this Initial Study until after the public review comment period, even though we specifically requested in writing to receive all future notifications.

Friends of Fawnskin (FOF) is a non-profit environmental education organization representing a membership of over 500 residents and homeowners of the Big Bear Valley. Residents and visitors come to Big Bear primarily to enjoy the current character of the area and FOF works to preserve and protect these unique environmental surroundings. Our goals are to keep the public informed on issues that may impact their surroundings; to assure proper opportunity for public participation in the decision-making process; to educate the governing agencies regarding concerns of local residents and visitors; and to make certain the environmental laws in place to protect all of us are followed.

First, we are greatly disturbed by the project proponent’s recent attempt to divert or mislead the public. By hosting a public-invited luncheon at the project site on November 16 to ostensibly provide information about the proposed project, he instead used the forum to emphatically state to all attendees that this proposed project was “a done deal” and there was nothing they could do about it. At that time, the Initial Study had not yet been released nor any public hearings held.

Given the recent history of malfeasance in the County over development projects, it is extremely alarming that the applicant in this case is publicly asserting that he already has some inside arrangement or deal guaranteeing County approval, well before the public has had an opportunity to participate. We hope that is not the case and that the County fully intends to follow all the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). But the deliberate insinuation by the developer carries very troubling implications and casts a dark shadow over this particular project. Any shortcuts or circumventions of CEQA will incite serious suspicion and raise major red flags about favoritism or back room deals.

The Initial Study prepared by the County has greatly underestimated the potential impact of this proposed gas station/market complex. In some of the categories, such as Biological Resources, Traffic, Aesthetics and Mandatory Findings of Significance, the document seems to be intentionally misleading and evading the job of presenting the true potential impacts. The poorly-prepared analyses, on which these evaluations were based, were done during time periods when traffic and valley visitors are historically at a minimum and when, due to freezing temperatures and snow, plants and most wildlife are not present in the area.
The purpose of CEQA review is to assure that the public and public officials are properly informed regarding the potentially significant impacts that a project could cause to the environment. Rather than perform that function, this mostly boilerplate document has whitewashed the analysis with statements that either fail to identify or falsely diminish the actual nature of the potential impacts. In some cases, the document bases impact evaluation on assumptions that corrective actions will be taken, but without requiring those actions as mitigations, thereby making the evaluation erroneous.

By negligent underestimation and omission of key information, the Initial Study has concluded that a Mitigated Negative Declaration is sufficient to avoid significant potential impacts. Such underestimation and omissions have further resulted in an inadequate and incomplete list of required mitigations If the complete and accurate information regarding the potentially significant impacts were to be properly considered, the correct conclusion would be reached that this proposed project definitely requires a full Environmental Impact Report to be prepared based on a more thorough and properly conducted analysis. We have outlined below specific issues and inaccuracies in the current Initial Study.

Initial Study Issues and Inaccuracies:

The potential impact to aesthetics has been severely underestimated on all four questions. The evaluation of each of these was based on architectural features as currently proposed, but without requiring that these features be adhered to through a mitigation measure. As such, those features could be changed at a later point with no enforcement or public review possible, making this evaluation erroneous. In addition, there are no examples presented of these alleged mountain-style architectural features nor simulations shown as to how this would actually look in the current forested mountain landscape. Without those, not only is there no possibility of pubic review, but it would be impossible for the County to have evaluated appearance based simply on written promises. Visual samples must be presented and architectural features must be included as mitigations if those are being used as reasons for making this impact less than significant.

All of the aesthetics explanations focus only on the views from the highway and not the views from the residential side street, which would without question be significantly impacted by having the viewshed go from forested landscape to gas station pumps, a large building, paving and parked cars. This is a major omission that serves to gloss over the significance of potential impacts.

Aesthetics item a) greatly underestimates the impact of this proposed project on a portion of a scenic highway corridor. Since the project setback from the highway does not meet the 200-foot requirement for new development along a scenic highway, that alone makes the potential impact significant. In addition, the statements that the trees remaining in the state owned land along the highway will sufficiently buffer the site to reduce impacts is simply a guess, offering no proof through simulations or visuals and is therefore an erroneous evaluation.

Aesthetics item a) is also greatly underestimated according to the Scenic Highway Guidelines as defined by the California Transportation Department. These guidelines, which can be found at: Scenic Highway guidelines 04-12-2012 are hereby incorporated in these comments. According to the clearly defined examples in Appendix E of this document, the changes that would be created by this proposed project constitute both medium and major visual intrusions. Such intrusions, compared with the current conditions of a forested landscape would be potentially significant impacts and must be handled as such.

Item b) under aesthetics incorrectly determines that there is less than significant impact to scenic resources even though most of the trees on the site would be cut down. The explanation only discusses protected trees, but ALL trees, especially in a currently forested area, are scenic resources, not only protected trees. With the trees being cut from this forested area, this potential impact is significant. Having a permit to remove the trees, as described in the explanation, does not in any way reduce the significance of the impact of removing the trees.

Aesthetics item c) only evaluates the potential impact from the viewpoint of travelers on the highway, but this item is for evaluating whether the visual character of the site itself would be degraded, not only the viewshed from the highway. This evaluation has been considered incorrectly and serves only to improperly keep hidden the actual potentially significant impacts to the visual character of the site. This item must be reconsidered correctly, considering and showing the proposed architecture and views from all sides and must also offer proper mitigations measures

Aesthetics item c) explanation states that all required landscaping shall be kept in optimum conditions during the life of the project, but offers no mitigation measures at all that would legally create the possibility of enforcement of such statements. The evaluation of significance of these impacts cannot be done using such empty statements as the basis, leaving this item as having a potentially significant impact..

Aesthetics item d) inaccurately states that simply by following county lighting codes, this impact would be less than significant. Since this is currently a dark, mountain forested area, any light visible from a distance would be a significant impact. Even when the lights themselves fall only on the site, the ambient surrounding light is increased and visible in the viewshed, creating a significant impact. None of the aesthetics items state how any of the supposed project proposals or conditions would be enforced. Since County code enforcement has historically been short-staffed and at best, spotty on enforcement, this offers no lessening of the potential significance of these impacts. A clearly defined enforcement method must be included as a mitigation for any of these statements to have value in this determination. If this project site is being so sufficiently buffered from the highway as to have less than significant impact, then how will any potential customers know to stop there? And if no one stops there, will a failed business not create a blight along the highway as well as in the neighborhood? And if signs are erected to bring attention to the business, then these signs must be included in the analysis of the potential significance of the impacts, but there is no mention of signs in any part of this evaluation. The evaluation is clearly measuring from different standards depending upon which standard will create the least impact for the particular question at hand, showing intent to gloss over and diminish the actual significance.

Under agriculture and forest resources, item d) incorrectly measures the impact based on conditions that would be set or the project but without making those conditions mitigations for the project. Conditions imposed by the County can be changed at any time in the future without public review, making this inadequate for reducing potentially significant impacts. In addition, this explanation only discusses how many trees would remain but not the total number of trees presently on the site for comparison and measure of the significance of this impact. This evaluation is inadequate and the significance of the impact greater than has been stated.

Agriculture and forest resources, item e) does not take into account or mention the growth-inducing nature of this proposed project as the initial commercial enterprise in the midst of what is currently forested and residential area. This growth-inducement and the associated potential for extended loss of forest resources must be considered and mitigations must be offered to reduce this potentially significant impact.

The entire Biological Resources section has not been adequately evaluated, since the General Biological Assessment was conducted in mid-January when the plant species are not visible and much of the wildlife is either in hibernation or migrated out of the area. This shows a clear intent to improperly hide or diminish the actual significance of the potential impacts. Even the study itself mentions numerous times that this is not the “opportune time” for this analysis to be done for the plants and wildlife to be appropriately logged and makes a special note that “other herbaceous species may occur on the site, however, the general surveys were conducted in January due to project time constraints when most herbaceous species are not present.” There are no reasonable project time constraints for this type of retail business that could excuse doing inadequate analysis. A new and complete Biological Resources study must be conducted at the proper time of year for the species under evaluation and with sufficient length of time and detail to accurately make any of these determinations.

Biological Resources item a) does not discuss the endangered stickleback fish ponds located about ? mile from the project that could be significantly impacted, if not completely wiped out, from runoff from potential gasoline spills due to this proposed project. With the near U-turns that tanker trucks must make to enter State Lane from the highway and this project site from State Lane would be extremely precarious in good conditions and highly dangerous in the extensively icy conditions of normal Big Bear winters, this potential impact must be thoroughly analyzed and properly evaluated. The follow-up letter dated February 3, 2014, from RCA Associates to Mr. Shahriari, states that such a situation is ‘unlikely,’ but offers no data or analysis for such a statement, making it purely conjecture. Just last year a tanker truck overturned on State Highway 38, causing a serious fuel spill. The potentially significant impact to a federally listed endangered species must be properly evaluated with actual data and facts rather than guesses.

Since there is no chance of observing Southern Rubber Boa in winter months due to hibernation, the evaluation that this species is not present on this site is inadequate. Proper evaluation of this species with actual data and discussion must be presented.

The General Biological Resources Assessment states on page 12 that the project is not expected to have any significant cumulative impacts on biological resources, but offers no data or analysis to back this statement. Cumulative impacts to biological resources must be determined through analysis of the combination of impacts from this project with those of other recent, current and probable future projects in the same general area. Since no other projects have been listed or discussed and the analysis for the proposed project is inadequate due to improper timing, there is absolutely nothing in evidence for such a statement to be made. Proper analysis must be completed.

The site falls within the U.S. Forest Service’s habitat maps for the flying squirrel, but this information is not mentioned in the General Biological Resources Assessment and this assessment inaccurately determines the site is not expected to support the flying squirrel. Mitigations must be offered for potential impacts to this species since it is within the habitat area.

The Hazards and Hazardous materials section a) falsely states that no hazardous materials will be routinely transported or used on the site, even though a gas station with the associated transport and use of gasoline is part of the project proposal. This is a potentially significant impact that must be mitigated.

Hazards and Hazardous materials item b) again states that there is no significant impact because no hazardous materials are being used, which is inaccurate since the proposal is for a gas station. In addition, there has been no proper analysis of the high likelihood of gasoline tanker accidents during icy winter conditions on the nearly U-turn entry to State Lane in order to enter the proposed project site.

It is inadequate to determine that no significant impact involving wildfires would be created (in item “h” under hazards and hazardous materials) by stating that the facility and structures would be reviewed by the County fire department. This amounts to improperly deferring the analysis, which is not allowed by CEQA. Especially with transport of gasoline to this forested area on icy roads with dangerous turns, the possibility of tanker accidents creates a significant potential for increase in wildfires. This analysis and determination are inadequate.

The hydrology and water quality section does not include analysis of runoff from any gasoline spills or discuss the location or depth of the water table with regard to the site. According to  HYPERLINK "http://geotracker.waterboards.ca.gov/" \t "_blank" \o "http://geotracker.waterboards.ca.gov/" http://geotracker.waterboards.ca.gov/, all but one gas station has leaked in the valley. Even with modern tanks there is no guarantee a leak or spill will not occur at one time or another. There are nearby personal and community wells pumping drinking water for use throughout the valley. Studies done in 2006 for the BBARWA Water Recycling EIR show that groundwater from the site runs toward these wells (see especially page 0226 of Volume 1 of this document—Figure 4.9-3 titled Baseline Groundwater Conditions and Area Wells for Greenspot Recharge Site.) This EIR, which can be found at bigbearwatersolutions.org/EIR, is hereby included as part of this comment letter. A full analysis of the hydrology and water quality must be conducted to accurately determine the significance of potential impacts.  

Items a) and b) of the hydrology and water quality sections state that there is no significant impact because the systems will be reviewed by EHS. These statements amount to improperly deferring the analysis, not allowed under CEQA. These analyses must be conducted now to make proper determination of the potential significance of impacts so that complete and accurate information can be taken into account prior to the County making a decision on this proposed project.

Items d) and e) refer to a Water Quality Management Plan that has been reviewed by the County LUS Drainage Section and states that therefore there will be no significant impact. The County has refused to provide copies of this plan, stating that it is not public information. Since the Initial Study is a public review document, all of the materials used to explain and confirm the determinations made must be available and able to be reviewed by the public. This explanation and analysis is therefore inadequate and must be determined based on publicly available information.

In the Noise section, using standard city-based average residential noise levels is insufficient for determining the significance of the potential noise impacts in a mountains residential area that is quiet the majority of the time. Actual measurements of current noise levels must be taken at the site and compared with the projects of increases in the noise levels to make this evaluation. Normal ambient noise in cities is extremely different than in the mountains where there is almost no ambient noise. Even small increases have significant impacts on wildlife, as well as human quality of life. The analysis must take into account any potential increase in noise levels due to general increase in traffic in the area, increase in often noisy commercial vehicles in the area, increase in numbers of people congregating in the area, engines left running while passengers run into the market, alcohol-induced loud behavior with a liquor store addition, addition of people needing to get out of their cars, stretch and make noise after a long trip up the mountain.

Under population and housing the determination in item a) that this project would not induce growth in the area offers no analysis or data for making that determination. Data analysis from other mountainous areas in similar circumstances would most likely show that when one commercial enterprise is established a few miles into previously non-commercial zones, other enterprises are quick to follow. With added commercial enterprises, additional housing developments would also be likely, thus creating a cascade of development and growth in the area. Proper analysis must be done to make this determination rather than just making an unsubstantiated statement.

Fire protection under public services has not been analyzed by taking into account the introduction of gasoline tanker trucks and the potential for accidents in the dangerous conditions that would be created by the street situations and site location of this proposed project. It is inadequate to simply make blanket statements that there would be less than significant impact without showing data for how that determination was made.

The data used for the traffic analysis are completely inadequate and insufficient for determining actual potential significance of the impacts since the counts were conducting on weekdays during the month of December, a historically low traffic period. Counts must be taken during summer months and busy holiday weekends to get an accurate evaluation of potential impacts and their significance. A full and proper traffic analysis must be conducted from all aspects of the site—highway traffic flow, issues with traffic turning onto State Lane, issues with increased traffic exiting State Lane, issues due to ice and snow during winter conditions, etc. Additionally, the mountain-wide traffic study promised by the Board of Supervisors to be included in the 2007 General Plan has never been provided. Substantial evidence indicated that mountain highways are potentially inadequate to support current levels of population density, especially in an emergency evacuation situation. The tenuous status of the mountain highway system requires a full and responsible analysis prior to any new development.

To properly determine the significance of potential impacts to traffic flow, only observations during busy times make it possible to evaluate the potential for accidents, if a driver unexpectedly applied his brakes to turn at the last minute into State Lane, since the speed limit is 50 mph with no light at this intersection. This situation does not exist anywhere else in the area and requires detailed analysis to determine impacts.

The utilities and service systems section states that there will be less than significant impact because the water and sewage disposal needs will be reviewed by County EHS. This is improperly deferring analysis to a future point, which is not allowed under CEQA. Especially because the valley has been on water restrictions and is again experiencing severe drought conditions and since all of our water must come from groundwater stores, it is essential that proper analysis be done now to determine the significance of potential impacts.

Mandatory Findings of Significance item b), cumulative impacts have been greatly underestimated. First, the document fails completely to identify or discuss existing or proposed development projects in the area. In addition, since there are currently no commercial enterprises along Highway 38 anywhere near State Lane, introducing this proposed project would almost certainly create an associated increase in commercial enterprises to be built along this section of highway on currently forested parcels. In conjunction, there is high likelihood of additional residential developments in the surrounding area, much of which is currently open space or forested. Therefore, this one proposed project would almost certainly result in major cumulative impacts in a very short time period. None of this has been taken into account in the Initial Study. For this item alone, a full Environmental Impact Report must be required.

Item c) under mandatory findings of significance fails to analyze the potential economic effects of this proposed project on the few and often struggling community markets and gas stations in the valley. No determination can be made that the impact is less than significant without proper data and analysis.

Under CEQA, environmental review of a project must provide decision-making bodies and the public with detailed information about the effect a proposed project is likely to have on the environment, to list ways in which the significant effects of a project might be minimized, and to indicate alternatives to the project. Alternative projects and this project at alternative sites must be analyzed and presented for review.

Based on the inaccuracy and inadequacy of this Initial Study and the cursory analyses done to create it, as well as the lack of sufficient mitigations being offered to reduce potential impacts below significance, the Friends of Fawnskin supports the need for a full Environmental Impact Report to be completed for this proposed project so that accurate determinations can be made regarding the significance of potential impacts and appropriate mitigations required to reduce those impacts.

Finally, it is disturbing that County staff considers this “just a small project.” While on the surface it may seem small, thorough examination of all aspects of this type of project in this specific location would easily show otherwise. There would most certainly be significant impacts on the rural forested quiet nature of this mountain residential area at the east end of Big Bear Valley. It seems apparent that County staff members are not sufficiently acquainted with the mountain area to understand the full significance.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Sandy Steers
Executive Director

cc: James Ramos, Supervisor 3rd District
Chris Carrillo, Deputy Chief of Staff
Elizabeth Harris, Field Representative
Ed Wallace, Sierra Club, Big Bear Group
Drew Feldmann, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society
Adam Keats, Center for Biological Diversity


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