Grading Restrictions Stir Tensions between Via Verde Ridge Homeowners Association and Residents

A lot in the Via Verde Ridge community remains vacant. Some residents argue grading changes to Area I of Specific Plan 11 (see map below) could lead to more properties being developed. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

By Joshua Bay

UPDATE MAR. 16, 2021: On Tuesday, Mar. 9, San Dimas City Council voted 4-1 to initiate a municipal code text amendment to codify and allow 1,000 cubic yards of grading for Area I properties in SP-11.

Editor’s note: Mayor Emmett Badar and City Councilmembers Eric Weber and Denis Bertone did not respond to requests by San Dimas Community Post for comment. Councilmember Ryan Vienna declined to comment, and John Begin did not attend a scheduled interview with the reporter.

San Dimas City Council voted 4-0 to postpone their discussion to change a decades-old grading limit for the Via Verde Ridge community during a study session with the Planning Commission on Oct. 13, 2020. Councilmember John Ebiner abstained from the vote.

This months-long discussion began on Jul. 14, 2020, when the Council voted 3-2 to initiate a municipal code text amendment to the grading limit meant to preserve the natural hillside slopes in portions of the Via Verde Ridge community. 

Grading is the process of leveling dirt for construction projects. The grading limits in question apply to Planning Area I of Specific Plan 11, or SP-11, which refers to roughly 262 acres of land within the Via Verde Ridge community.

The vote to postpone was initiated by Mayor Emmett Badar, who raised concerns about the community’s ability to participate in the discussion.

“I personally would like to recommend that we continue this matter to a date uncertain when everybody can be in attendance face-to-face in this council,” Badar said during the meeting. “We’re receiving daily communications from different members of the community, and subsequently, I’d like to hear all of those things.”

Councilmember Ryan Vienna said he also received numerous calls from community members.

“Many people called me today alarmed thinking that whatever we were going to discuss today was somehow going to undo or undermine their HOA authorities … That’s just simply not the case,” Vienna said before the vote. “I really do encourage members of this community, when they have questions, to call their council members.”

Some members of the community expressed that they were unhappy with the decision to postpone the conversation. 

“I wanted to mention how disappointed I am that you didn’t have your study session,” Gary Enderle, San Dimas resident and HOA board member, said during the Oct. 13 City Council meeting. “All the city council members were there, all the planning commissioners were there, our board of directors were there waiting to discuss this issue.”

San Dimas City Council and the Planning Commission had reviewed the grading limit for the Via Verde Ridge community during a study session on Sept. 22, 2020, and were originally scheduled to continue the discussion on Oct. 13.

Days before the Oct. 13 study session, Matthew Plaxton from the Tinnelly Law Group sent a letter to the City Council representing the Via Verde Ridge Homeowners Association.

In the letter the HOA claims any modifications to the grading limits would create a conflict between the HOA’s governing documents and the San Dimas municipal code. The letter goes on to explain that HOA members could ultimately end up paying for “meritless lawsuits” due to the discrepancies between the HOA and city’s regulations.

City Council’s discussion to change grading limits would apply to Planning Area I of Specific Plan 11, as seen in the map provided by city staff on Sept. 22, 2020. Map courtesy city of San Dimas.

The original intent of SP-11 was to allow for large single-family homes while still maintaining the natural slopes present within the lot.

When SP-11 was originally established in 1983, no grading was allowed except as required for the main residence and driveway. 

In 1987, the Development Plan Review Board (DPRB) approved an additional 200 cubic yards of grading on a case-by-case basis. 

During the Sept. 22 study session, Assistant Planner Ken Fichtelman presented the City Council and Planning Commission with four options for grading in Planning Area 1.

The first option is the most restrictive and supports the DPRB limits currently in place.  Fichetlman said this is the most environmentally friendly option and ensures any development to the rear yards works with the natural features of the land.

The second option proposes unlimited grading outside of the scenic easement area and offers the greatest amount of flexibility to develop the rear yards of the lot.

The third option allows grading based on the size of buildable area within each rear yard of the lot.

And the fourth option treats all properties equally, regardless of size, allowing each rear yard the same amount of grading. This option would also increase the grading limit currently in place.

Via Verde resident and civil environmental engineering student Madelaine Tew strongly opposes eliminating all grading limitations as proposed in the second option. 

“The main focus is how much land they can use and how many additional features they can add in to potentially increase the property value,” Tew said. “They aren’t going to be taking any of the surrounding environment into consideration.”

During his presentation to the City Council on Jul. 14, Fichtelman said property owner John Begin suggested eliminating all grading limitations.

“The current policy obviously does not work, otherwise this 37-year-old tract would be 100% developed,” Begin wrote in an email to the City Council.

Out of 36 lots within Planning Area I, seven have not been developed.

According to the HOA’s letter, “Mr. Begin’s statement is misleading and predicated on self-interest.” 

The HOA letter went on to say, “after inquiring with several owners of undeveloped lots, their decision not to develop is unrelated to the grading limitations imposed by SP-11 (or the Association’s governing documents).”

However, Begin is not the only Via Verde Ridge resident to express support for eliminating all grading limitations.

In addition, Via Verde Ridge resident Robert Prata, who lives in Planning Area I, called in during the Oct. 13 Council meeting to support unlimited grading due to an inability to build a basketball court on his property.

“We could not get approval because of that restriction,” Prata said. “Because of that restriction, we have a basketball [hoop] on the driveway.”

A footnote in the HOA letter further points out that Begin’s construction company, JB Contractors, Inc., made a “substantial campaign contribution to Councilmember Eric Weber.” 

According to California Form 460, Schedule A, JB Contractors, owned by John Begin, contributed $2,500 to Weber’s 2020 City Councilmember campaign.

The HOA letter suggested Weber recuse himself from the discussion “to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

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