‘Conditional’ Approval for Trinidad Hotel Depends on Water

An artistic rendering of the proposed hotel project at Cher-Ae Heights Casino off Scenic Drive south of Trinidad, as submitted to the North Coast Journal.
An artistic rendering of the proposed hotel project at Cher-Ae Heights Casino off Scenic Drive south of Trinidad, as submitted to the North Coast Journal.

On August 8, at its only North Coast hearing of 2019, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) reversed the recommendations of its staff and issued a conditional concurrence for a proposed 100-room, five-story Hyatt hotel on the edge of Trinidad Bay. The project could go forward if certain conditions are met regarding the project’s water needs.

Prior to breaking ground, the Trinidad Rancheria must show that either the City of Trinidad will provide water, or that a newly discovered well on the property will be adequate for the hotel demand, or both. The well was discovered just days before the August CCC hearing—no engineering analysis has yet confirmed the well’s capacity or water quality. The proposed new well also cannot adversely affect other wells in the area, which are considered coastal resources.

The Coastal Act requires that projects demonstrate that they “will not have significant adverse effects, either individually or cumulatively, on coastal resources.” Without evidence of an adequate water source, “the project would be inconsistent with the enforceable policies of the California Coastal Management Program,” wrote CCC ocean resources manager Mark Delaplaine in an August 12 letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which represents the Rancheria in this process.

Developers must provide certification to the CCC of the on-site well’s capacity before construction can begin. The capacity of the City of Trinidad’s municipal water system, and an analysis of future residential water demands, are under review. The results of those studies will be complete in December. Mayor Steve Ladwig told the CCC that the soonest the city could make a decision on providing water to the hotel would be January or February. As the developers have not yet applied for a water hookup, there is no information yet available on how much city water the project might need.

Contrary to the Commission staff’s assesment, the Commission also did not find that the modern, five-story hotel’s impact on the scenic nature of its surroundings would make it incompatible with the state’s Coastal Act. A motion to limit the height of the hotel to four stories failed 6-5, in a vote that confused both the commissioners and the public. The deliberations were somewhat tortured, involving a convoluted series of motions and amended motions that became difficult to follow and discern whether voting one way or another on a motion would lead to approval—or not. Some commissioners’ votes on the final motion seemed to be incompatible with their initial votes, sparking conjecture about whether they understood what they were voting for.

The Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning (HARP) provided comments urging the Commission to follow its staff recommendation and object to the project on the grounds of both visual impacts and lack of water.

Responding to the CCC’s decision, HARP points out that conditional concurrence is not appropriate for something so basic as an adequate water supply to a hotel. The Commission’s own documents say, “Conditional concurrences will be limited to situations where relatively minor project modifications are necessary” for a project to conform to the Coastal Act.

Planning documents also envision a tripling of the size of the Cher-Ae Heights Casino, a 50-unit RV park, a mini-mart and gas station, and new housing and administrative buildings. The California Transportation Commission has already appropriated $775,000 for an initial environmental study of a planned Highway 101 interchange to serve the Rancheria.

While a disappointing result from the CCC meeting, the project is still far from a sure thing. Unless the new well can be shown to have adequate capacity without negatively affecting the aquifer and surrounding existing wells, pressure reverts to the City of Trinidad to provide water for the project—far from a popular proposition. If the water conditions cannot be satisfied, the Commission’s approval automatically becomes an objection, requiring more evaluations and CCC review.

Public meetings on Trinidad’s water—and whether it makes sense to commit to supplying the hotel with water—will take place after engineering analyses are completed in December. HARP will notify the public about when and where these meetings will be. It’s important that the public make their views known to the City Council.