Heide DeWitt came to work one morning and noticed that a wall had gone up barely 20 feet in front of her store. DeWitt, the proprietor of That Smoke Shop, a tobacco shop located at the intersection of Highland Ave. and Palm in the Highland Star shopping center, didn’t get alarmed at first. Vehicles driving past through the intersection would still be able to see her neon-lit sign and California Lottery banner. The walk-in purchases she enjoyed from passers-by represented a large share of her business.
Then the wall grew. When it topped out at 20 feet, the Highland business owner DeWitt knew she was in trouble—big trouble. That Smoke Shop, as well as several other businesses adjoining it, have been hit hard by a new corner commercial development called Highland Square, which the business owners say has choked off a good share of their profits and left them wondering how the city could have approved such a commerce-busting development. Though DeWitt retains a base of loyal customers, she says these developments come at her expense.
“I’m losing three to four thousand dollars a month,” DeWitt says, adding that she isn’t getting any help from the city of San Bernardino. DeWitt can’t move her business because San Bernardino has recently made permanent a moratorium on “vice” related businesses in the city, a list of 13 types that includes tobacco shops. In a word, she’s stuck at her present location.
The complications arising from the corner development seem to bring about more questions than answers. For starters, even though the parcel of commercial land is located in Highland, all licensing fees and property taxes go through San Bernardino. Then there’s the question of notification—when DeWitt contacted her landlord, Steve Hidman, he told her he knew nothing about the new Highland Square development. Hidman later confirmed this when contacted. In his own words, San Bernardino “had the wrong address.” By the time Hidman received the documents from the San Bernardino Planning Commission, the appeals process was finished. “I had no chance to dispute,” Hidman maintains.
Not satisfied with this, DeWitt took it upon herself to contact city officials in hopes of obtaining concrete answers. She called Lisa Sanford of the Development Services Dept. and asked her about the legality of building a retail shop in front of a retail shop. DeWitt claims Sanford said that “no, you can’t,” but Sanford herself denies that. When questioned about the retail parcel Sanford referred the matter to San Bernardino’s City Planner, Terri Rahal.
Rahal knew all about the Highland Star/Highland Square situation, but didn’t seem to think there was much of a controversy. “They were issued a Conditional Use permit on April 4, 2006,” she says. As for Hidman’s claims that the city botched the notification process, Rahal couldn’t specifically remember how it was handled, only that mistakes in the postal system “happen occasionally.” Rahal is certain about one thing: Once a project is approved by the Planning Commission, the rules are clear. There’s a 10-day period for public hearings on the matter and after that, a 15-day period for disputes. Once the action is final, the matter is closed and the construction process begins. No exceptions.
As for the moratorium, Rahal says that there is a subcommittee looking into exemptions and that the Ward 4 (where DeWitt’s shop is located) Councilman, Mike Derry, is a member of the subcommittee. On that point, DeWitt was way ahead of Rahal. DeWitt had already sent a fax to Derry in June detailing her dire situation and asking for a one-time exception of the moratorium so that she could relocate her business. She circulated a petition signed by close to 100 of her customers. Derry, DeWitt says, never got back to her.
A call to Derry by the IE Weekly was not returned.
Other businesses behind the wall are struggling. Nazca Signs moved to another location in the shopping center, but has not recovered much of the business it had previous to the wall going up. Becerra Income Tax can’t move because it’s in the middle of a five-year lease. Several other storefronts are now vacant.
And there is very little chance of the wall coming down. According to Richard Veloz of Woodburn Construction, who’s building the development according to plans approved by San Bernardino, tearing down the wall “would be a lot of trouble.” More trouble than a few disgruntled businesses could bring.
As for DeWitt, she is resigned to her fate and has no other choice but to remain. She just re-upped her lease for another two years.
“I have nowhere else to go.”