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12-14-2009, 1:52 PM

01:19 PM PST on Monday, December 14, 2009

The Press-Enterprise


Tom Paulek’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Riverside County supervisors on Tuesday will consider what many say could be one of the largest developments ever in the county: the 11,150-home Villages of Lakeview, a project opposed by hunters and environmentalists because of its proximity to a state wildlife preserve.

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The proposal by Upland-based Lewis Group of Companies, if successful, would bring a population of more than 30,000 people to a scenic valley below Mount San Jacinto that is now mostly farmland between Perris and San Jacinto.

The 2,786-acre project would mean thousands of construction jobs for years to come, and increased tax revenues and property value, said Randall Lewis, executive vice president of the company group.

"We tried to make this a place where people will be very eager to live," Lewis said.

Bird watchers, hunters, environmental groups and state Department of Fish and Game officials have expressed opposition because it would abut the south side of the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, a 10,000-acre state wildlife preserve. They fear urban encroachment would scare off migratory birds as well as possibly damage a fragile eco-system.


"What they are proposing is creating a new city. When you create a city, you devalue the conservation area," said Tom Paulek, a former manager of the area for state Department Fish and Game, who is now active in the Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley, which organizes nature tours in the wildlife area.

The developers say they want to be a good neighbor and have included buffer zones into the plans and will disclose hunting is allowed on the preserve, Lewis said.

The developers' plans call for seven villages with a mix of apartments, condos and single-family homes, and a shopping center along the Ramona Expressway.

It includes playgrounds, parks, a library, a community center, gymnasium, a community garden and more. More than a third of the area would be left as open space.

No groundbreaking time has been set, however. Building won't start until real estate values recover, Lewis said in a telephone interview.

Opponents say that noise, lights and traffic from any community of 30,000 could scare away many of migratory birds, including ducks, geese and shore birds. Lost and abandoned cats and dogs from the homes would become feral and prey on wildlife. Invasive plants from suburban gardens could choke native plants in the preserve. And the wildlife area would be tempting for offroading and other illegal activity.

Fish and Game officials also fear future residents would be alarmed by nearby hunting and would lobby to ban it as has happened in other areas that faced urban encroachment.

"They (future residents) will hear the discharges and see the guns, they'll call the sheriff and that will be the end of it," said Scott Sewell, the state Department of Fish and Game wildlife habitat supervisor for the wildlife area.

The preserve was created in the 1970s and '80s to offset the loss of habitat from the California State Water Project, the system of aqueducts and reservoirs that supplies Southern California with water. It is rich with wildlife, containing more than two dozens species of plants with specials protections, including several listed as threatened or endangered of extinction, such as the Stephens' kangaroo rat and the least Bell's vireo, a creek-bed dwelling songbird.

It includes Mystic Lake, an important stop on the Pacific Flyway for migratory waterfowl and is one the few public places left in Southern California where duck, goose, pheasant and dove hunting are allowed on specified days.

A Good Neighbor

Lewis said the project is designed with the wildlife area in mind.

The design includes a 500-foot buffer zone between the subdivisions and the wildlife area. The developers would also build fences between the project the wildlife area.

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Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
Scott Sewell, state Department of Fish and Game wildlife habitat supervisor for the wildlife area, walks on a field north of Ramona Expressway in the area where the proposed Villages of Lakeview would be developed. "They (future residents) will hear the discharges and see the guns (of nearby hunters), they'll call the sheriff and that will be the end of it," Sewell said.
"We think with the buffer zone, the project is appropriate and compatible," Lewis said.

The developers also won't build apartment buildings and have reduced the number of housing units to 1,780 in a 353-acre area that now mostly has wheat fields between the wildlife area and the Ramona Expressway, Lewis said.

Single-family homes would go along the buffer area, while attached housing -- possibly condos and townhouses -- would be closer to the expressway.

They also plan to disclose to homebuyers the hunting activity, build an earthen berm to shield the hunting and establish a program to educate residents about living near wildlife.

Residents also would support preserve operations through a fee-based community fund.

Homeowner association rules would prohibit planting invasive plans and excessive exterior lighting.

Too Close

Still, homes would be too close to the north border of the wildlife area, a place where hunters now shoot pheasants, dove, quail and rabbits, among other upland game, and train dogs with live ammunition, said Sewell of the Department of Fish and Game.

Earlier this week, Sewell stood at a surveyor's stake marking the buffer line, as a hunter and dog trainer, Steve Wall, of Moreno Valley, could be seen as he fired two shotgun blasts inside the hunting area. The discharges were clearly heard, though muffled by the distance.

It would be just be a matter of time before birdshot landed in someone's yard, Sewell said.


"With the right trajectory and wind, they could get lead raining down on them," Sewell said.

Sewell wants no development north of the expressway, which would leave the wheat fields as a 2,500-foot buffer.

But Lewis said the area next to the wildlife preserve is an important part of the entire project.

The proposed 500-foot buffer, he said, is more than adequate because state law prohibits discharge of firearms within 450 feet of homes or shooting across roadways. Marvin Road runs along the border of the wildlife area.

Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley, who represents the region that includes Lakeview, said concerns about hunting are overblown.

"If you shoot right at this property with a shotgun, you couldn't come near it," Ashley said.


Ashley said he has been impressed by how the developers have repeatedly changed the project to address environmental and other concerns as the project was the subject of five county Planning Commission meetings.

"They really worked it over," Ashley said. "It may be the biggest project, but it should also be the best. It should be better than anything ever done in the Inland Empire."

Development in the area will help dairies in the area by increasing their property values, said Darin Ferreira, who raises about 1,400 Holsteins on his farm off the Ramona.

But one hunter, Jeff James, of Redlands, fears a loss of hunting grounds.

He used to hunt waterfowl on federal lands along the Santa Ana River just north of Redlands.

But then came neighboring housing tracts, then complaints about shooting, then a hunting ban.

After San Jacinto, the next nearest public waterfowl hunting area is near the Salton Sea in Imperial County.

Paulek, the former wildlife area manager, said the area site was selected because of its rural location. The farmland now provides ample buffer between wildlands and urban areas.

Crops like wheat even help attract waterfowl by providing a food source.

Bringing in 30,000 people would mean profound change, he said.

"It would be more of an urban park than a wildlife conservation area," he said.

12-14-2009, 3:37 PM

12-14-2009, 5:47 PM
I just spoke to Ileene Anderson, Biologist and Public Lands Deserts Director, for The Center of Biological Diversity. They are against this of course and they will be present at the meeting. These are the same folks that filed the petition to restrict hunting in the Mojave preserve

12-14-2009, 5:55 PM
I live in Hemet and with the area's C3 unemployment approaching 20% and C6 unemployment/under employment exceeding 1/3 of the local population and friends in construction that haven't drawn a paycheck for months I'm all for anything that brings jobs to the area. If building a few hundred homes and a new shopping center brings jobs then bring it on.

12-14-2009, 7:17 PM
It's not a couple of hundred homes, it's 11,500 homes.

I'd say your local traffic problems are going to be a big issue. Especially since most of those people will no doubt be commuters.

12-14-2009, 9:14 PM
It's not a couple of hundred homes, it's 11,500 homes.

I'd say your local traffic problems are going to be a big issue. Especially since most of those people will no doubt be commuters.
It might be 11,500 homes over 10-15 years but we have empty housing tracks right now. But if it brings jobs then start building. People need the work now! New shopping centers, new business, and construction. It's all needed right now. Lots of people out here haven't worked more than odd jobs in a year or two.

12-15-2009, 12:33 AM
Problem is the developers are looking into future when the economy and real estate values recover, not right now. Considering the real estate market crash experienced in Moreno Valley, Riverside, and Hemet area, I don't think there is going to be enough demand to justify bulding new houses. The economy that we had from 2003 to 2008 was a big bubble, and getting back to that level takes time. The developers want to gurantee that they have the land and to develop it when the 'right time' comes. And it isn't now.

As for developers, their view seems to be that every inch of the land must have something built on them. The more houses, the better it is. Considering how Inland Fish & Game was treated, I have sad feeling that eventually we will see similar thing happening with the wildlife preserve. Maybe 20-50 years from now, that area, along with areas around I-215 will be as develpoed as areas around I-10 in LA. But I'd rather see some natural spaces left for folks who want to go hunting instead of rows of houses.