While businesses in Highland are facing many limitations during state and county closures, the city of Highland has remained open to assist in the operation of existing businesses and continued development of new projects during daily changing regulations.
On Friday, March 13, the state began issuing closure orders to limit the spread of coronavirus. First large public gatherings and public events were canceled, then many other sectors were affected to varying degrees. With each state action, San Bernardino County followed with complying resolutions.
While some sectors were ordered to close completely, others were permitted to continue to offer reduced services and still others were largely unaffected, and the city of Highland staff prepared itself to help provide clarification, continued communication and service for each case.
On Tuesday, March 16, Highland City Hall closed its lobby to the public to comply with a county order, with the staff continuing to run essential city business by working from home and city hall.
According to Assistant Community Development Director Kim Stater, the earliest challenges put upon city staff by the coronavirus closures focused on providing clarification of the closure orders to local businesses and adjusting city staff operations in order to safely continue services for those businesses not closed down.
“That was the main focus early on,” added Community Development Director Lawrence Mainez. “It was a little bit crazy. People were hearing that we were all going to have to shut down. That had never happened before, and there were a lot of misunderstandings.”
“It was an expectation of the businesses that if you were going to be shutdown someone would come and tell you,” Stater said. “While the county was responsible for administering the closing of restaurants, the public health department could not visit every single restaurant in the county so it also falls on us to try and spread the word. Businesses were confused, asking, ‘Does this apply to me? Does this not apply to me?’”
In order to be able to answer these questions, city staff coordinated with the San Bernardino County Public Health Department and its hotline to field calls from businesses and residents.
According to Stater, city staff took to social media to get the word out.
“We were continuously posting on social media, which was the way to go, especially when our doors were closed,” Stater added.
“We were giving out that number,” Mainez said of the county hotline. “They were getting hundreds of calls a day, and it’s a thankless job.”
This hotline not only helped residents and businesses but also assisted city staffs in understanding the laws, which were changing on a daily basis. This cycle occurred again when the state began reopening the economy and again when it began reclosing.
The construction sector ⎯ designated by the state as essential ⎯ also benefitted from the city’s continuance of permitting and other services, which allowed many development projects to continue with little disruption.
Some projects, scheduled for public hearings immediately following the closure order, did suffer temporary delays when the city canceled a number of city council and planning commission meetings as it strategized how to conduct the meetings during the state’s prohibition of public gatherings.
“We were waiting to hear from the state what we could and couldn’t do with public hearings,” Stater said.
The city began by holding city council meetings via teleconference and then moved to Zoom online videoconferencing.
“That was a huge course change for us,” said Mainez, who staffs the city’s Planning Commission meetings. “There are huge advantages to keeping the government open and keeping our meetings open to the public. At Planning Commission we historically like a lot of interactions when hearing applications. There’s a lot of visual emotion and interaction between Planning Commission and staff.”
“Going online takes away the human connection and distances ourselves from the applicant. It also limits the interaction from the public. It was a learning curve, but we got through it.”
Making the adjustments and continuing the city’s permitting and development approval process (with public interaction through email and telephone comment) was an important step for the city to maintain its “Come home to Highland” commitment, a promise to developers that once an application is complete the city will process it to public hearing within 90 days.
“That’s a commitment that started back in the 1990s as part of an effort to address developers who were complaining that it took too long to process entitlements for new housing,” Mainez said.
According to Mainez, since the 1990s the city has been able to reduce that time to about 45 days, an improved standard that was not significantly affected by not having public hearings open to live audiences.
Thanks to the coronavirus adjustments, electronic document submittals now play an increasingly important role in the process ⎯ aided by the city’s revamped website, which went live on Thursday, July 9.
Development continues throughout the city with freeway and road projects on State Route 210, Base Line and Third Street.
Several housing projects, which were in various stages of the permitting process, continue including the 307-single-family-unit Mediterra Residential Community, the 46-home Highland Park project and the Kiel residental project near Santa Ana Canyon Road.
“There’s confidence from developers to continue. Confidence seems to be high that things are going to improve,” Mainez said. “We just came off one of the best economic booms in our nation’s history and people are treating this like a brief pause.”
New retail units are nearing completion in the east side of the Lowe’s shopping center.
In addition to residential and commercial development, the city has also seen a spike in submissions for business and residential remodeling projects.
Several businesses, including JJ’s Sports Bar, have remodeled in order to continue business with social distancing and outdoor service. JJ’s, like several other restaurants, completed an outdoor patio in order to comply with the county’s prohibition of indoor eateries and bars.
Other businesses took advantage of mandated closures as an opportune time to conduct previously planned remodels.
City Hall itself remodeled its lobby with the installation of plastic counter fronts to create a transparent barrier between city staff working the counter and the public.
According to Mainez, during the month of May the city processed about double the home improvement-related permits as the same month last year.
Many people at home during quarantine kept busy with home projects. Patios, back decks, retaining walls and pools have all been popular during the quarantine, Mainez said.