In a move that would have seemed inconceivable a year ago, the City of Industry has agreed to sell the 2,445-acre Tres Hermanos Ranch to a conservation authority to be managed by Chino Hills, Diamond Bar and Industry.
Industry will purchase the land for $41,650,000 from its successor agency and transfer ownership to the newly-revamped Tres Hermanos Conservation Authority (THCA).
Chino Hills and Diamond Bar together will contribute 10 percent of that amount, with Chino Hills paying $2,959,967 and Diamond Bar paying $1,205,033.
The announcement was made by the Chino Hills city council during a special meeting Tuesday after almost a year of negotiations among the three cities.
The same announcement was made by the Diamond Bar and Industry city councils the same evening.
The transfer of ownership, approved by THCA at its first official meeting Thursday night at City of Industry council chambers, effectively dissolved the six lawsuits filed by Chino Hills and Diamond Bar in 2017 and 2018 against Industry to prevent it from building a solar farm.
An about face
Industry backed away from plans to build a solar farm last year after the two cities filed the lawsuits. Industry reportedly lost $20 million after entering a lease with the San Gabriel Valley Water and Power, a limited liability company.
Chino Hills Mayor Cynthia Moran said the City of Industry took a new direction and recognized that “this beautiful natural property in the middle of our urban area is a valuable environmental asset that should be protected.”
The undeveloped cattle ranch is bound by a deed restriction limiting the use for “open space, public use, or preservation.”
The restriction was placed on the land by the oversight board governing its sale in 2017.
Approximately 1,750 acres are in Chino Hills, and 695 acres in Diamond Bar.
“Spending just under $3 million to protect nearly 2,500 acres, from my perspective and experience, is pennies on the dollar,” said Chino Hills city manager Rad Bartlam during the announcement on Tuesday.
Chino Hills’ share of the money is coming from Community Facilities District (CFD) regional funds.
There are a number of CFDs in Chino Hills where residents pay an annual tax for streets, drainage, parks, and public improvements.
Mr. Bartlam said the CFDs have local and regional pots of money and the regional pots can be used for acquisition of open space that is beneficial to the community at large.
In a hand-delivered letter to Chino Hills city hall on Tuesday before the meeting began, the San Gabriel Valley Water and Power stated it was “nothing short of collusion and bad faith” for the three cities to concurrently approve a joint powers authority 35 days after the lease for the solar farm expired when Industry had 16 months to acquire the property.
William Barkett, who signed the letter, said the action demonstrated a conscious, coordinated, and well-planned attempt to avoid public awareness, scrutiny, and comment regarding the matters being considered by the three city councils.
He said the cities are apparently attempting to make significant decisions regarding the purchase of Tres Hermanos without public input by including the action as part of a settlement agreement regarding pending litigation, in clear violation of the law, including the Brown Act.
He concluded the letter by stating his company would take legal action.
Mr. Bar-tlam responded, “We believe they will litigate — it’s eyes wide open. We don’t think they have good cause, but who’s to say?”
Industry’s city manager Troy Helling will serve as executive director of THCA for two years, after which the position will be rotated among the city managers of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar.
Mr. Helling was named city manager last October after former city manager Paul Philips, who oversaw the solar farm agreement, was fired in February 2018 along with other Industry officials.
The seven-member board will consist of three Industry councilmembers, two Chino Hills councilmembers and two Diamond Bar councilmembers.
Mr. Helling said THCA is a public body with posted agendas and opportunities for public participation.
The original THCA was formed in 1999 by Chino Hills and Diamond Bar to protect its land interests from what was then an unknown future with Industry.
The cities allowed Industry to attend as an ex-oficio member with no voting power, but Industry representatives didn’t attend once in 20 years.
Besides the annual meetings to adopt the budget and select new officers, the group met rarely.
Claire Schlotterbeck, executive director of Hills for Everyone, the group that founded Chino Hills State Park, has been watching Industry’s actions for decades.
After observing the proceedings on Tuesday, Ms. Schlotterbeck said Industry turned a corner after Chino Hills and Diamond Bar filed their lawsuits.
She described the new THCA as the best outcome because it maintains local control for the two cities.
Ms. Schlotterbeck expressed caution about the words “public use” contained in the deed restriction because it could potentially be interpreted by the city councils in a variety of ways, such as affordable housing, reservoirs or even a mall.
According to the agreement, any proposed future uses of the ranch will be subject to the approval of the board and must be consistent with the deed restriction and applicable land use regulations of the cities of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar.
THCA’s stated purpose is to “create a public entity to coordinate the overall conservation, use and potential improvement of the land.”
The agreement contains language that if Industry withdraws from the deal, Chino Hills and Diamond Bar would have the first right to purchase the portions of the ranch in their jurisdictions: with Chino Hills paying $26,615,698 and Diamond Bar $10,844,312.
Likewise, if Chino Hills and Diamond Bar withdraw, Industry would pay back the cities the amounts they contributed.
The cities will equally share in the ranch’s maintenance costs estimated at $100,000 per year and a one-time repair of the Arnold Reservoir dam consisting of erosion control measures.
Documents related to Tres Hermanos including the conservation authority, press releases, agenda reports, and the settlement agreement can be found by visiting chinohills.org/treshermanos.