USAA and McDonald Property beat appeal for Ontario warehouses

4.5M sf project prevails against environmentalists trying to protect burrowing owls

USAA Real Estate's Len O'Donnell and McDonald Property Group's Bruce McDonald with Ontario International Airport
USAA Real Estate's Len O'Donnell and McDonald Property Group's Bruce McDonald with Ontario International Airport (Wikipedia/Quintin Soloviev, USAA Real Estate, McDonald Property Group)

USAA Real Estate and McDonald Property Group have overcome opposition by environmental  groups and will move forward on developing nine warehouses in Ontario.

CanAM Ontario, an affiliate of San Antonio-based USAA and Newport Beach-based McDonald Property, won a unanimous vote by the City Council to deny an appeal of the 200-acre project near Ontario International Airport, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reported.

In December 2021, Ontario airport agreed to lease 200 acres of empty fields to CanAM Ontario for warehouse development in a deal estimated at $625 million.

Plans call for nine industrial buildings of nearly 4.3 million square feet east of Haven Avenue, west of Doubleday and Dupont Avenues, north of Jurupa Street, and south of Airport Drive. 

They were approved by the city’s Planning Commission in January. 

The 200-acre development was then fought by environmental groups trying to protect burrowing owls, which have made their home in the field. They questioned the owls’ designation as a hazard to the airport, as well as the safety of the birds in a plan to move them off the property.

“Conservation areas and aircraft movement are not compatible,” said Lisa Harmon, an aviation consultant for CanAM Ontario during the appeal hearing.

The City Council’s decision to deny the appeal after a years-long process that included an appeal from the Pomona Valley Audubon Society that challenged a Planning Commission decision to use an addendum to the supplemental environmental report from the Ontario Plan 2050, rather than conduct a targeted environmental study.

The environmental groups argued that the land is important habitat for the nesting burrowing owl, a species of special interest close to becoming threatened or endangered.

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But the city argued the addendum to the EIR looked at biological and cultural resources as well as hazards, and found there was no additional mitigation needed for the project.

The applicant for the project, CanAM owner Bruce McDonald, said it has mitigation efforts in place and is planning to relocate the owls. The site is zoned for industrial use and is not a suitable habitat, he said.

“These birds live within three feet of a curb that is constantly trafficked with public street activity and constant urbanization that is not the best life for these owls,” McDonald said during the meeting.

Opponents argued the relocation of the owls could be harmful, and said the fields have historically been a good place for the birds to live.

“To say the potential impact on the burrowing owls is less than significant is just a misstatement,” said Suzanne Thompson of the Pomona Valley Audubon Society. “Translocation itself presents a risk to the owls.”

Ultimately the City Council weighed the safety of the owls and the safety of airport operations and chose to deny the appeal, she said.

Before construction can begin, the developer has a couple steps to complete, said Dan Bell, the city’s communications director. The developer will need to submit construction plans for review and an application to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to relocate the owls, he said.

A recent study showed that Ontario has become the hub for distribution warehouse growth in the Inland Empire, with 650 warehouses containing 222 million square feet, making up 16 percent of the city’s land.

— Dana Bartholomew

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