Forces of Nature

By James Abraham

Posted April 29, 2010 in News

With friends like these . . .  the plants and animals that call a San Jacinto area wildlife preserve home might be spared from potential new neighbors: A 2,786-acre residential development that critics say was improperly approved and would wreak havoc on the environment and its feathered and furry denizens.

And the Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley aren’t alone in their effort to thwart the Villages of Lakeview project spearheaded by the Upland-based Lewis Group of Companies. The Friends group’s lawsuit is mirrored by suits also filed last week by the City of Riverside and one filed jointly by The Center for Biological Diversity and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society. The Sierra Club sued jointly with the Friends group.

“This is going to have a major impact on and degrade the quality of the wildlife habitat,” Tom Paulek, a board member for Friends, tells the Weekly.

The Villages is proposed as an 11,350-home (a city unto itself, some critics say) community featuring parks, homes, trails and open space. A portion of Villages cuts into the roughly 10,000-acre San Jacinto Wildlife Area. This area is considered important habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds, migratory birds as well as other sensitive or endangered species (Stephens’ kangaroo rat, for instance).

The Friends group has been monitoring and voicing concerns over the Villages project for about five years.

“We think it will essentially destroy the wildlife values of this wildlife area,” Susan Nash, another board member, tells the Weekly.

A spokesman for Riverside County, which approved the development, declined to comment other than to say officials had yet to be served with the suit.

“The only thing I can tell you is that we’ll follow the same process we do every time: Counsel will assess the allegations and make a determination about how to proceed and respond,” county spokesman Ray Smith says.

The Villages project was approved last month and is projected to add more than 30,000 new residents to the region. When built, it’s nearly 11,400 homes would lie between Perris and San Jacinto.

The Villages site covers an area south and north of the Ramona Expressway, southeast of Lake Perris State Recreation Area and southwest of Bridge Street.

Other cited problems with the Villages project include increased air and light pollution, the loss of prime agricultural lands and issues associated with  “mega” development in an area that is currently neither suburban or urban.

Critics also say Riverside County officials violated state environmental laws and the county’s own general plan when they approved Villages.

The hope is that one or all of the lawsuits will prompt the court to order the county to set aside or nullify its approval of the project.

“I was thrilled to see that many people are looking at and thinking about this project and seeing how horrendously damaging it is,” Nash says.

The wildlife area in question was established in the mid-1980s as a means to mitigate the loss of important habitat during the construction of a state project to bring water from Northern to Southern California.

The irony is not lost on critics of the Villages project.

“We have this wonderful wildlife area that was set aside to allow development elsewhere in the county and we have a situation where the county is approving a mega urban development adjacent to this sensitive wildlife area,” Paulek says.

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