Warehouses and trucks
Warehouses and truck traffic in Fontana. Image from Google Maps

Last October, the Beaumont City Council rejected a proposal to build a gigantic warehouse complex, some 2.5 million square feet, near Interstate 10 as it passes through that Inland Empire city. 

In April, the Moreno Valley City Council turned down a proposed, 1.3-million square foot warehouse complex embedded in a project immodestly called the World Logistics Center. The council action came after years of debate and vocal opposition from many residents. 

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On July 25, the Fontana City Council, in a 3-2 vote, turned down a warehouse proposal that would have rezoned 24 acres from residential to industrial so that a developer could place three warehouses covering 541,000 square feet on parcels next to a high school’s ballfields.  

So, what’s the big deal? City councils reject warehouse proposals all the time, right? Actually, no. Not in the Inland Empire, they don’t.

“It’s only three projects,” said Michael McCarthy, a data whiz who lives near March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County and has helped critics analyze warehouse construction in the area. “But that’s more than have been rejected in the last five years combined.”

This being the Inland Empire, even the rejections of those proposals may not represent their end. Opponents say the developer had some misgivings about the warehouses slated for Moreno Valley, so the council decision there may not represent responsiveness to residents so much as solicitousness to the developer. Critics also are bracing for the return of the Fontana project, possibly in amended form.

“I’m skeptical,” said Jennifer Larratt-Smith, who lives near the March Air Reserve Base and a proposed warehouse expansion being considered by a joint powers authority entrusted with that responsibility. “Still, it’s better than just having these sail through.”

Clear sailing has been the watchword for proposed warehouses in the Inland Empire, where very little has slowed the rapid growth of those boxy structures. The number of warehouses in the region increased from 234 in 1980 to more than 4,000 today. Roughly 1 billion square feet of the Inland Empire is devoted to warehouses, and more than 300 warehouses are located less than 1,000 feet from a school. 

Nearly 300 additional projects have been approved for construction. 

That has alarmed some residents and activists, and they are waging a spirited campaign to halt or at least slow the trend. A website created by Pitzer College and the Robert Redford Conservancy tracks the industry’s expanding footprint in the region; it has helped planners and others appreciate the vast reach of the warehouse industry in the region and further fueled calls for a new approach. 

Critics have asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a regional emergency, including a moratorium on new warehouse construction. They have also called on members of the Legislature to intercede. In January, they produced a report, “A Region in Crisis,” that documented the growth of warehouses and some of the health and other harmful implications of that growth. 

So far, however, neither the governor nor the Legislature has imposed new controls, and the expansion has continued at its breathtaking rate.

That is, in part, the result of a deeper truth about California planning. Big facilities — airports, trains, stadia and yes, warehouses — are considered and either approved or rejected at the local level, but their impacts often extend beyond the borders of the agency that decides whether they can get built or not.

In the Inland Empire, residents complain as best they can, but it’s hard to fight proposals whose benefits are local but whose downsides are regional. It may make perfect sense for a small city such as Corona or Upland to approve a big warehouse, but when every city does that, the cumulative effects on traffic, air pollution and community livability become profound.

“That’s the problem,” Larratt-Smith said. “There isn’t an overall authority over all this. … There’s no real accountability.”

Without a single authority to appeal to, residents instead take up these issues one at a time. They fight over this warehouse or that one, in front of one planning commission or council (or joint powers authority or board of supervisors). They almost always lose.

That’s what makes the recent setbacks for the logistics industry guardedly encouraging to those who worry and warn of the Inland Empire becoming an international warehouse hub at the expense of housing, industry and other potential uses.

They may have one other tool at their disposal: economics. At the end of 2022, the logistics industry was booming. COVID had reduced the options for consumers — restaurants were closed, travel was dangerous – and focused their spending on items delivered to their homes. Developers were proposing scores of new warehouses to serve that demand, and local governments were happy to comply.

But as COVID faded, so did the demand for many delivered goods and for the warehouses that make those deliveries possible.

recent report by the Inland Empire Economic Partnership described what came next. “As the danger of the pandemic abated and the economy re-opened, spending shifted again with households tempering their purchases of goods and resuming their purchases of services,” the authors wrote. “The problems of the logistics industry indicate that its fortunes have gone from boom to bust.”

For the Inland Empire, so heavily invested in that one industry, the turn is ominous indeed. 

“At its peak employment level in December 2022, there were 284,000 workers employed in the logistics sector, making it the second largest employer in our region,” the same report noted. “What has happened since then? As of last month, the (logistics) sector is back to just below 265,000 employees, which represents a loss of almost 20,000 positions.”

Will a turning economy encourage local governments to follow the leads of Fontana, Beaumont and Moreno Valley in thinking twice about authorizing still more warehouses for this region? That is the question that activists are asking in the Inland Empire today.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.