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'We Were Surrounded': Battling the Warehouse Boom in California's Inland Empire

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A white middle-aged man and woman, both white, stand in a field with wildflowers, in front of a 'No Trespassing' sign.
Riverside residents Michael McCarthy and Jen Larratt-Smith walk through a large expanse of open space bordering their homes, on April 18, 2023. The two are among a group of residents fighting a proposal to build six huge warehouses on the land. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

It’s a sunny spring morning in Riverside, and Jen Larratt-Smith is walking through a field of yellow and purple wildflowers behind the home she shares with her husband and two kids.

“It’s a place near and dear to us,” she said, recalling how her family used the space constantly during the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020. “I would do my ‘science class’ with my son out here. He’d get his mountain bike and we’d come out here, and he would have to draw pictures of flowers that he saw or animals that he saw, and he took pictures of wildlife tracks.”

But she’s worried it may not be an open space for long.

Formerly part of the March Air Force Base, this 360-acre expanse is still dotted with bunkers that were used to house munitions before the base was closed in the early 1990s, and the military handed over control of the land to a local joint-power authority.

It’s now surrounded on three sides by suburban homes and a megachurch; to the east sits Interstate 215. On this morning, cyclists fly along the dirt trails and dog walkers meander among the blooming flowers.

Soon, though, nearly the entire open space could be paved over and developed into a commercial park that could include more than 4 million square feet of warehouses — about the size of 69 football fields — used by companies like Amazon as a repository for goods from across the globe that millions have come to depend on.

If approved, the six new warehouses would join the roughly 4,000 other warehouses that have already been built in the Inland Empire, this region east of Los Angeles spanning both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. All told, those warehouses already cover more than 1 billion square feet of land, with an estimated 170 million additional square feet of planned or proposed warehouse construction in the pipeline, including this project.

A man and a woman, with their backs to the camera, stand on a path looking out on a large expanse of grassland .
Michael McCarthy and Jen Larratt-Smith surveying the open space near their homes they hope to preserve. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

For neighbors like Larratt-Smith, whose house overlooks this field, it’s enough.

We’ve been here since my son was an infant, in 2011,” she said. “When I look out in my backyard, I look out on the fields and on the military bunkers that they’re planning to blast. So I’m right here on the edge.”

‘It really snuck up on us’

This region has long been known as a logistics hub — it’s close to the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and for years had relatively cheap, open land to build on. But Larratt-Smith says the pace of construction over the past decade has been staggering.

“It really snuck up on us,” she said. “Over time, we looked around and we were surrounded.”

There’s a lot of support behind the proliferation of these giant industrial buildings — including from virtually every chamber of commerce in the Inland Empire and many labor unions. Most city councils and other local government agencies have been happy to welcome the developments, citing the influx of trucking and warehouse jobs they bring, and their proximity to the two largest ports in the country.

A map showing the many warehouses scattered across the Inland Empire region.
There are currently more than 3,800 warehouses in the Inland Empire, with more than 450 more proposed or approved for development, according to groups tracking the growth. (Mike McCarthy/Radical Research/Pitzer Redford Conservancy)

But the pace of growth is causing a backlash among some residents, community groups and environmental organizations. They argue that the warehouses have not brought an economic boom, but rather low-paying, sometimes dangerous and often seasonal jobs. And they say the trucks bringing goods to and from the warehouses around the clock are emitting dangerous chemicals that are making people here sick.

“With all these corporations coming in from outside, buying these warehouses, basically they’re exploiting our land,” said Larratt-Smith, who has created a group called R-NOW, or Riverside Neighbors Opposing Warehouses.

“We have to pay the price of the traffic and the air quality and aesthetics and quality of life, but we don’t really reap any of the benefits,” she said.

Some researchers agree. Susan Phillips, professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College in the nearby city of Claremont, has been studying the impact of warehouses for over two decades.

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She points to the pollution caused by the estimated 200 million truck trips to and from warehouses each year, or about 600,000 trips a day. She said those trucks are clogging freeways and city streets as they move goods from the ports to these warehouses and “contributing to this legacy of environmental injustice and toxicity that already exists in largely low-income communities of color within the Inland Empire.”

“Everybody we know who lives close to warehouses, they have asthma, their children have asthma. Their kids get bloody noses when they play outside,” she said. “There’s a whole host of cognitive and behavioral health issues that also come out of it because of the way that diesel particulate matter comes into your bloodstream. … It is extremely, extremely scary.”

She also cites environmental concerns that go beyond truck emissions: the cost of covering open space with concrete that makes an already arid region even hotter and more prone to flooding.

Moratoriums and buffer zones

Phillips and Larratt-Smith are among the residents representing a coalition of groups that signed a letter earlier this year asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency in the region and impose a temporary moratorium on warehouse construction. The coalition is also supporting state legislation — AB 1000 —that would create a 1,000-foot buffer zone, just shy of a quarter-mile, between new warehouses and homes and schools.

An aerial view of huge warehouses across a flat landscape.
Huge warehouses dominate the landscape in the Inland Empire city of Rialto. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

That bill, which has failed twice before, is up for a hearing Wednesday in an Assembly committee, along with a competing measure — AB 1748 — that would require only a 300-foot buffer.

Phillips helped draft the letter to Newsom and supports the bigger buffer-zone proposal, arguing that just 300 feet of space wouldn’t be enough to adequately protect residents.

Part of the problem is that the approval process for these developments is happening piecemeal — one city council or county board of supervisors at a time, Phillips explains.

We can’t even keep track of what is happening,” said Phillips, who leads the Robert Redwood Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer, which helped develop an interactive map of the warehouses that shows estimates of related emissions from the warehouses and other negative impacts.

“There’s no effective tracking system to understand how many warehouses are under construction right now, how many are being approved, what are the newest ones coming up,” she said. “It’s happening so rapidly we don’t even have time to think.”

But the coalition in support of more development is large and powerful and is using its muscle to oppose the 1,000-foot buffer bill, which also would allow people to sue the government agency that approves a project in conflict with the bill’s requirements.

Adam Regele, vice president of advocacy and strategic partnerships at the California Chamber of Commerce, says the 1,000-foot buffer proposal is based on old science that fails to take into account that air quality regulators have required truck fleets to become cleaner in recent years.

The benefits and costs of ‘unprecedented’ growth

Regele also notes the economic benefit to the region: 1.6 million union jobs in Southern California alone directly associated with the ports — and millions more connected to the warehouses.

He says AB 1000 would discourage job creation, housing construction and the state’s ability to move goods.

And if the Inland Empire doesn’t host these warehouses, Regele argues, they will simply be built further from coastal ports — and the trucks will still be using the same highways.

“They will drive through those communities, pass those jobs and keep going to where the warehouses are ultimately allowed to be permitted, only to then truck all those goods back in for retail distribution,” he said.

Phillips acknowledges that trucks have gotten cleaner in recent years, but says those improvements have been outweighed by the pace of growth.

A man and woman are seen from afar, their backs to the camera, walking down a long dirt road alongside a fence topped with barbed wire.
Michael McCarthy and Jen Larratt-Smith walk down a path, alongside a fenced-off area, on the open space land they hope to preserve. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

“Individual warehouses are getting bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where they’re being constructed as megawarehouses,” she said. “Even though the fleet is greener than it was 20 years ago, the growth is unprecedented and the proximity to homes and schools is continuing. And so … whereas people should be benefiting from cleaner air because the fleet is cleaner, our communities aren’t.”

And some neighbors, like Larratt-Smith, argue that many of the economic benefits that come from these warehouses are flowing to company executives and workers who live and work elsewhere.

“We are the junk store of the U.S. Basically, we are storing the goods for them so that we can send it out,” she said.

I don’t think we need more warehouse land in this area, given how oversaturated we already are,” Larratt-Smith added, acknowledging that her goal of having a complete moratorium is a long shot. “But at least put some guardrails on it. Like at least if you’re going to be building, consider the community and the impacts before you do it.”

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