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Can Banning New Warehouses Improve Air Quality in the Inland Empire?

A sea of warehouses extend across Redlands
A sea of warehouses stretch across Redlands, California. In February, planning commissioners unanimously recommended the city council place a moratorium on new warehouse applications. | Anthony Victoria
Warehouse moratoriums have come up for vote at numerous city council meetings across the Inland Empire, the region with the worst air pollution in the country. Advocates argue for temporary pauses in development to analyze health impacts of facilities and implement regulations.
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Over the last two years, warehouse moratoriums have become a popular policy among residents, community groups, elected officials and others concerned about the growth of the shipping and logistics industry across the Inland Empire.

As clusters of warehouses and their related infrastructure are increasingly linked to serious health problems in local populations, moratoriums have been introduced for city council vote in Chino, Colton, Jurupa Valley, Perris, Riverside and San Bernardino. Most recently, planning commissioners from the City of Redlands unanimously recommended the city place a moratorium on new warehouse applications.

Advocates and residents argue for temporary pauses on development in order to further analyze the health and pollution impacts of warehouse facilities. The moratoriums also buy time to devise and implement improvements in the way the logistics industry operates.

Mandated pauses on warehouse development have ranged from 45 days to year-long delays on activity. Other efforts to implement moratoriums have fallen flat, voted down by city officials sometimes after facing strong opposition from groups such as carpenters unions.

In Colton, officials have embraced a temporary pause on warehouse development in order to further evaluate how warehouses are impacting land use, traffic, local roads and environmental and public health, explains the city’s development director Mark Tomich. After initially approving a 45-day moratorium last May, the City Council decided to extend the pause for almost another year. It also established an ad-hoc committee tasked with setting forth recommendations on how to tackle community concerns.

We’re concerned about the particulates in the air, as well as congestion and public safety issues from increased truck traffic on our streets.
Mark Tomich, City of Colton Development Services Director

According to city staff reports, the moratorium prohibits the approval of new truck storage facilities, distribution and warehouse projects and other logistics facilities to allow officials to further study impacts. Pre-existing facilities are allowed to continue operating. Some warehouse development applications that were active prior to the moratorium will be allowed to be processed, according to Tomich.

"We’re concerned about the particulates in the air, as well as congestion and public safety issues from increased truck traffic on our streets. We’re also concerned about the impact on our city budget of maintaining streets from the wear and tear," said Tomich.

In January 2022, the ad-hoc committee provided Tomich and his staff recommendations that include making zoning code amendments, requiring health risk assessments for facilities that attract over 150 truck trips a day and ensuring facilities are not placed within 1,000 feet of sensitive areas as required by state law.

Tomich confirmed that the City Council may consider making adjustments to the city code by April – right before the May 3 end date for the moratorium.

In January 2021, Jurupa Valley staff and city leaders put a moratorium on any project that would add to the area’s existing truck-related pollution issues. Over the following months, officials studied truck impacts citywide and ultimately adopted what’s referred to as a "truck-intensive use ordinance." The policy restricts high truck volume to heavy manufacturing areas, prohibits new trucking and storage yards, and forbids new truck stops from being approved moving forward.

Restrictions on trucking operations make sense in a place like Jurupa Valley, which experiences some of the worst smog pollution nationally because of diesel truck pollution, said Barajas.

"We looked at anything that was truck intensive and put a stop to it," said Barajas. "We’re not banning development or business. We’re just not willing to continue to put incompatible [land] uses near sensitive areas like schools, parks and houses anymore."

Whereas Colton and Jurupa Valley have been able to pass moratoriums and use the time to study and regulate how industry operates, other cities have hit roadblocks. The Perris City Council decided not to move forward with a potential pause on warehouse development during their January 25th meeting. San Bernardino’s effort failed for a second time on February 16th when Mayor John Valdivia vetoed the 4-3 vote that would have put the warehouse moratorium up for decision in March.

San Bernardino County residents raise signs in favor of the warehouse moratorium. Some "Warehouse Moratorium Now! Good Jobs & Clean Air" while another reads "End the Bad Job, Dirty Air Crisis!"
San Bernardino County residents and local Teamster union members show their support for a proposed warehouse moratorium during the San Bernardino City Council meeting on February 16, 2022. | Anthony Victoria

Jeffrey Scott, who conducts outreach for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, told officials at the February 16th City Council meeting that building warehouses has provided struggling, local young people with job training and career opportunities.

"Warehouses have their pros and cons. They are not perfect by any means. But with us, it's putting our apprentices to work."

Stephen Robertson, a member of Teamsters Local 63 in Rialto and a UPS worker residing in San Bernardino, believes leaders have failed to consider the long-term impacts of warehouses on local communities. He expressed deep disappointment in the city’s most recent decision.

"When I moved to San Bernardino in 2011, there weren't many warehouses," he said. "But then they came in droves. At first the city was proclaiming that these were great jobs. But we weren’t getting anything out of it."

Robertson is particularly concerned about companies like Amazon, that have been criticized for contributing to regional air pollution while offering little job security to residents. "They’re forcing workers to live paycheck to paycheck in low-income communities. They’re not telling the whole story," said Robertson.

Susan Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis and the director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College, called Ontario’s March 1st decision to rezone 219 acres of farmland for warehouses "business as usual." She believes warehouse moratoriums allow people time to present solutions that may bring some systemic change.

"People need a chance to think and create plans of what they want to see," Phillips said a few days before the Ontario decision. "Right now, people don’t have a chance because of how fast things are moving."

Some residents, along with environmental and labor groups, remain eager to use the temporary pauses to encourage local cities and agencies to establish Community Benefits Agreements. In January, members of the San Bernardino Airport Communities coalition sent Colton city staff its recommendations to improve public notice of warehouse projects, prioritize significant portions of warehouse jobs for residents and create an ‘electric vehicle master plan’ to require industry to transition to zero-emission technology.

Tomich said Colton encourages "public benefit agreements" and noted that one recently approved project – the Barton Road Logistics Center – will include $10 million to help rebuild an outdated bridge that currently serves residents in the city and in nearby Grand Terrace. The project developer will also be required to install electric charging infrastructure for zero-emission trucks, Tomich said.

Nearby, the recent veto of a warehouse moratorium vote in San Bernardino will not stop San Bernardino Airport Communities leader Victoria Aguilar from fighting.

"I don’t want to pass away and not see any changes" she said. "I am demanding a seat at the table."

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