Kern developers look to avoid Inland Empire’s logistics problems

The Inland Empire’s overcrowded logistics and warehousing industry presents more to Kern County than just economic opportunity. It offers what some see as an example of how not to proceed. Growing concern about air pollution in San Bernardino and Riverside counties last month prompted dozens of environmental and community organizations to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for a regional moratorium on new warehouse development. He declined, but expectations are that legislation will be reintroduced soon for imposing a 1,000-foot buffer zone between new construction of warehouses and sensitive sites like homes.

As industrial development accelerates in Kern County — in large part, to take up slack created by obstacles to continued expansion in the Inland Empire — developers hope to avoid making the same mistakes in a region that already suffers from air quality that typically ranks as the worst in the country. With its haphazard, inefficient development, the Inland Empire is “not the model that anyone wants to emulate,” said John Guinn, the former Shafter city manager now overseeing private development of the Wonderful Industrial Park, a 1,600-acre, master-planned logistics hub expected to jump from 9,000 employees in Shafter now to 25,000 in the years to come.

The property’s Los Angeles-based owner and developer, The Wonderful Co., for which Guinn works as executive vice president of real estate, says it engages regularly with local environmental justice groups on ensuring sustainability and maximizing community benefit. The company’s Shafter industrial park is located more than a mile from the nearest residence. Wonderful points to investments, existing and planned, for providing renewable energy at the site for operations and transportation fuel. The company also highlights plans for rerouting drayage trucks away from vulnerable communities around Shafter.

“We have carefully planned and worked in collaboration with partners in the region to ensure operations are efficient without adding to those burdens where people live,” Guinn said. “This is where our own employees live, and these communities are our priorities.”

Lebec-based Tejon Ranch Co., another major developer of distribution and industrial space in Kern, with housing proposed within the same commerce center as millions of square feet of warehouse space, sees a “night and day” difference between Kern’s and the Inland Empire’s buildouts, in terms of density and number of projects, spokesman Barry Zoeller said by email.

Under a voluntary agreement with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, Zoeller noted, the company has funded regionwide measures estimated to make up for all emissions generated by its Tejon Ranch Commerce Center at full buildout. He emphasized the project’s economic benefits.

“Given the number of jobs and economic opportunity it creates, the logistics industry is an important component of Kern’s economic development and diversification strategy,” he wrote.

Activists in the Inland Empire are less certain. Ana Gonzalez, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, which co-sponsored a report attached to last month’s letter to the governor, said the group’s health concerns would apply to development of distribution centers in Kern.

“It’s the same folks, same mentality,” she said. “They want to get away with the minimal regulations.”

“They’re putting these developments in low-income communities that don’t even benefit from e-commerce,” she said. “At this point we just need state intervention.”

The report CCAEJ put out with the help of the Sierra Club and the Robert Redford Conservancy called the Inland Empire’s warehousing growth a critical environmental justice issue that, because of diesel engines’ heavy emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, has led to inequities in cardiac, respiratory and reproductive problems in vulnerable communities.

More than 300 warehouses stand 1,000 feet or less from 139 schools in the Inland Empire, the report said, adding that 367,584 people live within a quarter mile of a warehouse, about 60 percent of them Hispanic. Besides calling for a one- to two-year moratorium on development while protective new policies can be crafted, the report recommended raising project approval standards, codifying best industry practices and doing more to enforce existing regulations.

A deputy air pollution control officer with the valley air district said all new development, not just warehouses, introduces new emissions from construction, operation and associated truck traffic. The decision on whether to allow them, he noted, comes down to local agencies’ mandated considerations of environmental impacts.

The district generally suggests local governments condition their approval on investments in zero- or near-zero emission vehicles and other equipment, limitations on engine idling, provision of electrical power for refrigeration trucks and planting of vegetative barriers.

“They don’t adopt every measure we put forth,” Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer Morgan Lambert said.

Based on its experience with communities and land-use agencies in warehouse-heavy places like southwest Fresno, he said, the district suggests government work closely with community members “in trying to help address what those impacts may be in those different communities.”

Assuming distribution work can be done responsibly, warehousing and logistics work is seen as a crucial activity that can make sense in Kern.

Industry wages are seen as low, but applications continue to outpace job openings, Bakersfield industrial property broker Wayne Kress said in an email. He noted warehousing uses far less water than ag, and generates greater property tax revenue, at a time when massive fallowing of farmland in the southern valley is expected in the years ahead.

The free flow of goods by road, rail and air must be a primary consideration, said Executive Director Ahron Hakimi of the Kern Council of Governments, which has responsibility for managing congestion throughout the county.

Kern COG has been working with Wonderful and others, including regional and state agencies, on a plan to smooth the flow of cargo through the county for the benefit of local residents and businesses alike.

Rerouting trucks away from communities is part of the idea, along with greater use of intrastate rail, greater automation of goods movement and development of a large intermodal facility to increase efficiencies. No changes are expected soon, and there remains the question of how to fund changes under consideration.

A spokeswoman for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, a locally active environmental justice group that The Wonderful Co. said it has been working with on equity and sustainability matters in Shafter, said Friday the group could not provide a comment for this story.

Wonderful says it doesn’t plan to move forward in a major way with its development plans in Shafter until it has resolved issues like how to provide renewable energy including truck fuel at the site.

As a company that has made deep investments in different communities in Kern, primarily Lost Hills and Delano, Wonderful says it wants its work in Shafter to help build a community that sustains itself.

“We have a tremendous opportunity,” Guinn said, “to help a lot of people help themselves with better jobs and prospects for their families.”

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