By Douglas W. Motley
Lake Arrowhead-based Church of the Woods (COTW) won unanimous approval from the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors for its proposed Sonrise in the Woods project in Rimforest at an Oct. 20 hearing held to counter a previous appeal filed by four environmental groups questioning the validity of the church’s environmental impact report and requesting a thorough reexamination of the report.
By a 5-0 vote, the supervisors gave their approval for the 13.6-acre portion of a 27.12-acre wooded parcel adjacent to Highway 18 on the east side of Rimforest, where the church plans to construct a religious facility consisting of a 41,037-square-foot, two-story assembly building with maximum seating capacity of 600, a 27,364-square-foot, two-story youth center and gymnasium, a 1,500-aquare-foot, two-story maintenance and caretaker unit, recreational facilities and a sports field.
COTW Building and Maintenance Director Pat Hopkins told The Alpine Mountaineer he was quite pleased with the board’s decision: “It’s wonderful, that’s what we’ve been praying for. The board of supervisors felt the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) was a good document and, obviously, they passed it.”
Asked whether he expects any more hurdles to overcome before beginning construction, Hopkins replied, “We don’t know; the only options for the appellant are legal, the board of supervisors was the last stop.” He noted that there are still grading, building and Fish and Wildlife permits to obtain.
When asked when he expected construction to get underway, Hopkins said they couldn’t begin until the completion of a flood control project, which would likely be next spring.
In his opening statement before the board, COTW Pastor Rod Akins recalled an old adage: “It reminds me of what Charles Spurgeon once said, that through perseverance, the snail made it to the ark.”
Continuing, he said, “This whole project began as a God-given vision on how we can love and serve our community more effectively… this is a well-planned project.”
Countering Akins’ contention that Sonrise in the Woods is “well-planned,” ardent environmentalist Steven Farrell told The Alpine Mountaineer on Monday that, among other things, opponents of the project object to the bulldozing, flattening and clearcutting of a 14-acre forested hillside, resulting in a watercourse and a riparian habitat crucial to the mountain’s diminishing species being leveled and buried by the debris of the buried hill.
Citing both quality-of-life and environmental concerns, the project’s detractors have complained of potential harm to endangered wildlife species such as the California spotted owl, yellow-legged frog, southern rubber boa and San Bernardino flying squirrel, as well as the diversion of a riparian stream, interruption of an established wildlife corridor, flattening of the hilly terrain and removal of hundreds of old-growth trees, increased noise levels near a residential area, increased highway traffic from some 600 parishioners attending worship services on Sundays and Wednesdays, weekly Bible studies, daily social gatherings and daycare and recreational activities, including sports practices and sporting events.
In addition, according to the draft revised environmental impact report, installation of as many as five traffic signals would eventually be required at the intersections of Highway 18 and Pine Avenue, the Church of the Woods entrance driveway, Daley Canyon Road, Daley Canyon Access Road and Highway 173.
Some 50 persons – with a maximum of 11 persons at a time – gathered in the former courtroom at the county’s administration building in Twin Peaks, where the board of supervisors hearing in San Bernardino was streamed live on a television monitor. One-by-one, several dozen local residents voiced their opinions, both pro and con, which were, in turn, streamed back to those assembled in the board of supervisors’ chamber in San Bernardino.
Lake Arrowhead environmental activist Sue Walker commented that the planning commission’s report was inconsistent with the Lake Arrowhead General Plan, saying, “There would be heavy traffic on Sundays, just as weekend tourists are leaving the mountain, causing traffic congestion, which would discourage tourists from returning, especially with three more traffic lights planned. This is an inappropriate location and there is the potential for an economic loss to the mountain.”
On the other hand, Rim Forest Lumber owner Butch Bauman, who has resided and worked in the area since 1949, said that, while he’s not a member of COTW, he is in favor of its planned project. Noting that his mother had lost her home to a landslide on the rim several years ago, Bauman said, “Because of the landslide in Rimforest, we need to divert water away from the rim.” He said a storm drain to be constructed on a portion of the church property that was sold to the county would do just that.
Pointing out that a lawsuit is likely, Farrell said that no decision has been made. “Much will depend on the community’s response and support for such an action as they become better informed about what has actually been approved. Any challenge would naturally be against the county, asserting that the approval was in conflict with its own General Plan policies and that the environmental review required by the state was flawed, or its mitigations inadequate, and that the approval should be reversed. Even though county planning and the planning commission somehow approved the project way back in 2003, so many flaws were identified by the public during that process, everyone realized after the fact, the approval would be indefensible if challenged.”
Farrell added that it has taken the church 17 years “of hedging, of hemming and hawing with the county about the project’s significant impacts and issues. It is still a significantly flawed implementation of a well-meaning dream, that I suspect eventually exhausted the county to the point of wanting to simply let it move forward. To paraphrase one planning commissioner’s comment from January, ‘This has taken far too long. It’s time to approve it or kill it.’ In my view, they made the wrong decision.”