Joshua Tree discount store gets green light
By Courtney Vaughn Hi-Desert Star
SAN BERNARDINO— Joshua Tree residents don’t pick their battles. They fight every single one of them.
Thursday’s general retail store public hearing before the San Bernardino County Planning Commission was no exception.
Commissioners heard from about 60 Joshua Tree residents and business owners opposing the approval of a Dollar General store in Joshua Tree. Commissioners approved a conditional use permit for the project 4-0-1, with 3rd District representative Theresa Kwappenberg absent.
Initially, the project was subject to a minor use permit, but heavy input from the public caused the county to require a CUP.
As proposed, the 9,100 square foot retail site would be constructed on one and a half acres at the corner of Twentynine Palms Highway and Sunburst Avenue.
Representatives for Dollar General and members of the county’s planning staff said the project falls in line with Joshua Tree’s Community Plan.
“The site is zoned for commercial development, specifically, the adjacent property is within the Joshua Tree commercial corridor,” Gus Romo, a contract planner with the county, said.
The community plan calls for small business development that is compatible with the area’s rural desert character.
“The project is not a big box retailer and no evidence exists otherwise to suggest that the project will have a negative impact on the community,” Romo said.
Mark Ostoich, an attorney with Gresham Savage law firm, said the project “fits within the profile” of what should be built in that area.
Romo, Ostoich and the commissioners were outnumbered by critics who felt otherwise.
David Fick of the Joshua Tree Municipal Advisory Committee, said by phone after the meeting the project clashes with the intent of the Joshua Tree Community Plan.
“The intent was to keep corporate formula retail out of that area,” Fick said.
Speakers argued that a chain retailer would impede tourism, run out surrounding small businesses and scar the landscape.
“Meeting this rural character is not just an aesthetic thing,” Levon Kazarian told the commission. “I think the more chain stores you bring in, even with western architecture, you start to dilute the unique character. I don’t think this is being precious, I don’t think this is NIMBY-ism, this is about the economic heart of Joshua Tree.” Kazarian co-owns Crossroads Café on the highway in Joshua Tree.
Countering Kazarian’s and more than a dozen other speakers’ pleas, was Joshua Tree resident Julian Gonzales. Gonzales said the discount store would offer one of few opportunities to get essential goods within walking distance or a short bus ride. Dollar General, he said, would serve the most vulnerable population of Joshua Tree and represents needed growth.
“I believe if you don’t move forward, you die,” Gonzales said. “The opposition group would have you believe that they would approve of a business that is good for Joshua Tree. Not true. They wouldn’t even approve a cell phone tower to improve the signal for south Joshua Tree.”
Dynamic Development, the firm representing Dollar General, said the space could occupy a Dollar General, or a similar type of discount store.
A Dollar General store opened in Yucca Valley in late 2012 and another store is slated for development in Twentynine Palms.
In Joshua Tree’s neighboring communities, Dollar General’s approval yielded little to no debate, but in Joshua Tree, the discount store is viewed as one of the biggest threats to the area’s economy and character.
“I’m asking you to reject his project because I believe it’s inconsistent with the goals and policies in our Joshua Tree Community Plan,” Peggy Kennedy told the commission. “Dollar General has over 5,000 lawsuits on record in the United States PACER system, that’s more than Wal-Mart.”
Kennedy said the chain retailer accumulates thousands of complaints from employees each year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
But the planning commission wasn’t there to make a determination on the company’s character or even its popularity among residents in the community. County staff said the policies in the Joshua Tree Community Plan were not specific enough to exempt a project like Dollar General from being approved.
The project complies with county development code standards and the goals and policies identified in the community plan, according to a staff report.
Local astronomer and conservation activist, Tom O’Key, said the county standards are lax and would allow for many types of developments that are not suited for the small, rural area of Joshua Tree.
“You don’t know what a gem you’ve got, you don’t know what a crowd you’ve got. What other community comes to you like this at our expense?… I’m an investor in Joshua Tree. I own 20 commercial acres … I could put 17 of these stores on my land and the zoning would permit me to do it, but I would never even consider it,” O’Key said. “This is an abomination on our little village.”
Opponents said they plan to appeal the Planning Commission’s decision, sending the final review of the project to the Board of Supervisors for review.