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Official’s land deal is a ploy, critics say

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Times Staff Writer

For years, Rancho Cucamonga residents trekked up to the Carrari Ranch in the foothills every December, chopped down their Christmas trees and carried them home to layer with garland and lights.

This year, the gates to the old tree farm have been locked. Most of the trees were lost two years ago in a fire. And the farm’s new owner, U.S. Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar), has plans to reshape the hillside and turn the farm into a 110-unit housing development.

Residents who live nearby say that Miller is trying to force the city to buy his land by raising the specter of a development that would make the hillside unsafe and unsightly.

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“You don’t have to be an environmentalist to be angry about this project,” said Frank Schiavone, a freelance grant writer for public lands projects. “He has no intention of building on this land. He’s deliberately made this project so distasteful that people are bound to push the city to buy it from him. That’s what Monrovia did.”

Miller’s game plan, Schiavone and other critics said, is similar to one he successfully used four years ago in Monrovia, about 25 miles west on the 210 Freeway, where a plan for hillside development met with fierce local opposition. Ultimately, Monrovia citizens voted to tax themselves to buy the property from Miller and preserve it as open space.

Miller, a major Inland Empire developer just elected to his fifth term in Congress, bought the 341-acre hillside tract outside of Rancho Cucamonga in late 2004. He declined to comment on his proposed development.

Miller bought the land from Joe and Charlotte Carrari, siblings who had inherited the land from their parents. The Carraris were asking for $3 million.

The Carraris declined to comment, saying that they had signed a confidentiality agreement with Miller.

Charlotte Carrari’s daughter, Maria Fernandez, said that Miller told her mother and uncle that he would build a $1-million bridge spanning a drainage ditch on the property and name it after their brother, Barnard Carrari, who had just died, if they would lower their price by $1 million. Still grieving, Fernandez said, they agreed and sold him the land for about $2 million.

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Five months later, Miller reported on his congressional financial disclosure statement that the land was worth at least $5 million.

Miller initially told the Carraris he was only going to make modest adjustments to the land and build about 30 homes, Fernandez said. When the family saw his plans for 110 homes -- and no bridge named after Barnard Carrari -- they were distraught, she said.

“That farm was a family tradition where people went up there and made a day of it,” Fernandez said. “And when he broke his word and didn’t do all the things he said he would, it just broke our hearts.”

The land is in an unincorporated part of San Bernardino County. It is zoned partially for open space and partially for housing.

Under current rules, Miller could build about 66 homes, according to the city’s initial study of the project. The number of homes is restricted, in part, because the hillsides are too steep.

To get around those barriers, Miller is asking Rancho Cucamonga to make his property part of the city and to change its rules to allow him to build more densely packed homes. It would be the first major development on the hillside.

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He proposes to fix the problem of steep slopes by leveling a 74-acre section of the hillside and making a plateau, according to plans submitted to the city. Representatives of Miller’s design firm, San Francisco-based EDAW, say the project will respect the natural shape of the land while leaving more than 250 acres untouched.

“Mr. Miller has directed us to do everything that needs to be done to respond to the concerns of the community and to maintain the high standards that have been set in Rancho Cucamonga,” said Ken Ryan, who is heading the project for EDAW.

The plan calls for homes ranging in size from 4,000 to 7,000 square feet and in price from $1.6 million to $4 million. With a change in rules, Miller would be able to increase the number of homes allowed by about two-thirds.

“He’s talking about cutting off the top of the hillside, covering up a waterfall and moving 1.7 million cubic yards of dirt,” said Sandra Maggard, who has a view of the waterfall from her house. “The rules don’t allow it, so he’s going to get the city to change the rules. Who can fight someone as big as he is?”

Maggard said she believes that Miller is getting preferential treatment. After the city refused to give her a copy of its environmental review of the project, she learned that the city’s consulting firm had given the document to Miller’s consultants.

City officials now say giving the document to Miller’s consultants was a mistake and have agreed to give Maggard a copy.

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She and other opponents of the project have three main concerns.

First, they argue that altering the hillside to that extent will mar its natural beauty and drive out deer, bighorn sheep and other wildlife. They worry that blocking a waterfall and making other changes to the contours of the land will destabilize the hillside and lead to a mudslide. And they fear that the one access road to the property could become jammed if a mudslide or fire occurred, despite assurances by Miller that the plan would include a second emergency access road.

Danae Delaney, a local wildlife preservationist, is developing a proposal for the city to buy out Miller, as Monrovia did.

She said she is hoping to rely less on taxes and more on government grants and support from various wildlife groups. “We know that these things don’t happen in one day,” Delaney said. “And we know that we’ll have to pay him a fair price. We just hope he’s willing to work with us.”

She said she has been trying since November to meet with Miller about her proposal.

In Monrovia, the city secured $9 million in state funding and combined that with funds from a city tax approved by voters to buy land from Miller and other owners to preserve more than 400 acres of wild hillsides.

Some of the people Miller worked alongside in Monrovia are watching the Rancho Cucamonga deal with interest. Pat Ward, the president of MetroGroup Realty Finance Co., attempted to sell a similarly sized piece of land to Monrovia at the same time Miller was making his sale. Both of them were on a committee the city formed in the early 1990s to write guidelines for hillside development.

Ward said building on the land was not feasible. The terrain was too difficult, and, with a growing public sentiment against development, they knew it would be a hard fight.

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Still, Ward said, Miller argued effectively that his land was ready for homes and ended up getting twice as much for his property as Ward did. He said Miller was able to pay for multiple third-party appraisals of his property.

The city ended up paying for three appraisals of its own, moving the price gradually up from $5 million to about $12 million, despite the objections of some state officials.

“All of his political connections allowed him insight into how the system worked,” said Glen Owens, a member of the Monrovia planning commission. “It was a numbers game, and we kept getting appraisals until we had a number he was happy with.”

Miller in turn reported that the land had been taken from him by the city under eminent domain and was able to shield an estimated $10 million in profit from capital gains taxes, The Times reported in August.

He used the same eminent domain exemption again in 2005 and 2006 when he sold land to Fontana. In all three cases, city officials say that there was no threat of eminent domain.

william.heisel@latimes.com

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