Nearing the 20th anniversary of its incorporation, the high desert city of Hesperia is simultaneously confronting its past and future. The city continues to install infrastructure that was never provided in the first place and is working on a plan to create what would be the first real downtown in a city of 86,000 people. At the same time, Hesperia is considering plans from two developers that would open up a whole new part of town for growth and potentially increase the city's population by two-thirds.
Hesperia completed a new city hall and branch library in 2006, and it intends to build an adjacent park in the first half of 2008 — all as something of an anchor in a new downtown area. Officials also hope to complete a comprehensive general plan update and two specific plans for the Main Street and Interstate-15 corridors during 2008. Investment in streets, sidewalks and water and sewer lines is ongoing. That's the catch-up part.
Meanwhile, developers are pressing forward with plans for projects in a mostly undeveloped area in the south end of town known as Summit Valley. Proposed are the 16,000-unit, 10,000-acre Rancho Las Flores project, and the 4,200-unit, 1,500-acre Majestic Hills project. Both are planned to have retail and recreation components as well as various public facilities. City officials see the projects as an opportunity for new, more up-to-date style development in a city that has half-acre lots spread far and wide. A specific plan adopted for Rancho Las Flores in 1990 is being reworked with a fresh approach in mind.
"There are a lot of different things we would look at today that we didn't look at in 1990 as far as walkability and mixed-use," said Dave Reno, principal planner for the city.
When Hesperia incorporated in 1988, it started at a disadvantage. Although 46,000 people lived in the desert community a few miles northeast of Cajon Pass, the place had few paved roads, limited water and sewer service, and minimal civic buildings other than schools. Moreover, a landowner during the 1950s had subdivided a huge tract into primarily half-acre parcels. Hesperia was very much a desert city, where people kept chickens in the front yard and kids rode dirt bikes down the street.
While much of that desert feel remains in the original core area, Hesperia has also become a bedroom for commuters to the Inland Empire and the Los Angeles Basin, which is the primary reason the population has grown by 40,000 since incorporation. Much of the new housing lies in large, walled-off, suburban-style tracts that bear no resemblance to the old Hesperia of modest homes and dirt yards. The growth is reflective of the Victor Valley as a whole, where population has increased by about one-third — to more than 400,000 — since 2000 (see CP&DR Local Watch, August 2005).
Over the years, the city has undertaken major sewer and water projects funded by ratepayers and developers, explained Tom Harp, deputy director of development services and community development. However, streets remained a problem. So about eight years ago, the City Council decided to start spending general fund money on a street paving program. After a few years, tax increment from a large redevelopment project area started making a big difference, as the majority of the 75-square-mile city is in one of two redevelopment project areas and annual tax increment is approaching $20 million. In addition, the city started enforcing more aggressive development impact fees. Although work continues, the push has resulted in many miles of paved streets and even some sidewalks. In addition to more street paving, the city is working on two large storm drain projects, a new overpass above the railroad tracks that split the town, and a variety of infrastructure needs in a large, lightly developed industrial area.
Besides funding infrastructure, the redevelopment agency has also done some land assembly, as all of the half-acre lots remain "a very big challenge for us," Harp said.
In addition, the City Council decided to upgrade public buildings, and in 2006 Hesperia opened an architecturally striking 58,000-square-foot city hall and an adjacent 20,000-square-foot branch library. A park and either a community center or movie theater (negotiations with a developer are ongoing) are planned across the street. All of this lies one block off Main Street, and the idea is to turn Eighth Street into a pedestrian-friendly connector lined with shops between Main and the civic facilities.
It's a small area, Reno conceded, but "It's a way of creating a sense of place."
Not so small are proposals for the south end of town in Summit Valley, where Hesperia's future may lie. The biggest project is Rancho Las Flores, a 10,000-acre swath of desert that the current owner assembled partly through Bureau of Land Management land swaps. In 1990, the city approved the Rancho Las Flores specific plan, which called for development of 16,000 mostly low-density housing units in eight villages.
"Then we ran into a series of delays," recalled developer Donald Hutchings, chairman of the Dana Point-based Rancho Las Flores LLC. "The first was the listing of the arroyo toad as an endangered species. The second was the water adjudication suit for the entire Mojave River Valley filed by the City of Barstow."
In fact, the toad was one of three species in the area, along with the Bell's least vireo and the willow flycatcher, listed as endangered in the early 1990s that have required a fair amount of study and planning adjustments. The toad is present on a portion of Rancho Las Flores, but Hutchings said he has a biological opinion that clears the way for development.
The water lawsuit ultimately led to a stipulated settlement among a variety of water rights holders and even a state Supreme Court ruling that was favorable to the Hesperia Water Agency (City of Barstow v. Mojave Water Agency, (2000) 23 Cal.4th 1224; see CP&DR Legal Digest, September 2000).
By the time the endangered species and water issues were resolved, however, the specific plan and its environmental impact report were outdated, acknowledge both city planners and the developer. The updated plan, which Hutchings said he will present to the city in early 2008, still contains eight villages. But changes to the land use plan will make for more walkable development. Each village will be self-contained, and one will include a town center with extensive retail space, restaurants and recreation facilities, according to Hutchings, who likens Rancho Las Flores to successful Orange County master planned projects such as Rancho Santa Margarita and Ladera.
The revised plan will provide for everything from two-acre equestrian lots to neo-traditional housing to apartments and senior citizen housing, Hutchings explained. "We will have every single variety of housing product that is available in the market today," he said. "That's really the key to have a successful master planned community. You're appealing to the full range of the market."
In a concession to the city, Hutchings has agreed to start development on the north end of the project site, adjacent to currently developed areas, and work south. He had originally planned the opposite.
"We'll basically put in all of the core infrastructure. We'll bring all of the utilities down from the north, where they are existing," Hutchings said. The developer then intends to sell "blue top lots" containing about 60 to 80 parcels to builders for actual housing construction.
Next to Rancho Las Flores lies 1,500 acres controlled by SunCal, which is proposing 4,200 housing units on a little more than half of the site, plus 25 acres of commercial uses and 11 acres of industrial development. Like Rancho Las Flores, SunCal's Majestic Hills would have an extensive open space and trail system that allows pedestrians and cyclists to get around easily. Unlike the Rancho Las Flores site, SunCal's property does not lie within the city limits, so annexation is required.
The city's Harp said he is encouraging the two developers to work together on infrastructure, although it is not clear that is happening yet.
Opposition to the Summit Valley projects has been fairly low-key so far. In a different part of town known as Oak Hills, residents of large-lot homes have unsuccessfully fought nearby suburban-style development. Summit Valley is largely undeveloped, so neighborhood opposition may be minimal. However, traffic could become an issue, as access to the area is limited.
The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) are expected to present objections. "It's absolutely toad habitat," said Lisa Belenky, a CBD attorney. "It's occupied and it's some of the best habitat in San Bernardino County." In addition to the species issue, the projects raise questions about sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions because most of the new residents would likely commute long distances, she said.
Water may also become an issue, as Hesperia's growth depends on importing water from the oversubscribed State Water Project to recharge a groundwater basin that is in an overdraft situation.
Of course, the housing market has crashed in the Victor Valley, as elsewhere. Thus, even if Hesperia were to approve development in Summit Valley, it could be several years before construction begins.
Tom Harp and Dave Reno, City of Hesperia Development Services/Community Development Department, (760) 947-1220.
Donald Hutchings, Rancho Las Flores, (949) 248-2300.
Lisa Belenky, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682.
Majestic Hills website: http://www.suncal.com/community/?id=40