The plan to build a six-story, 100-room Hyatt hotel on the notoriously fragile coastal bluff south of Trinidad caught most folks by surprise. The Trinidad Rancheria has talked about a hotel for years, and many locals applaud the concept for a variety of reasons. But an architect’s drawing of a gaudy, six-story Hyatt box on a bluff, with the ocean and Trinidad in the distance, was not what most had envisioned.
Construction could begin as early as January 2019, officials have said, but when word of the project started circulating last summer, few Trinidad-area residents knew anything about it.
The hotel would perch on the west side of Cher-ae Heights Casino, facing Trinidad Bay and the Pacific, towering on the sandy bluff above Scenic Drive—which residents and visitors to Baker, Luffenholtz and Houda beaches (as well as Humboldt County road crews) know slides steadily into the ocean every winter.
By September, a grassroots citizen group had formed and hundreds of people got involved to examine the issue. The Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning (HARP) began as an informal group of neighbors, coalescing into a formal organization. HARP’s mission statement: “to foster and facilitate citizen and community involvement” in land-use developments that could have “a substantial effect on community quality of life” in Humboldt County.
“While we applaud the idea of appropriate development that will improve quality of life and economic prospects in Humboldt County,” said HARP chairman Richard Johnson, “we think citizens should be fully engaged in the concept and planning process so that projects reflect local values, and the public fully understands all the potential impacts.”
Concern focused on an Environmental Assessment (EA) of the project, released in September by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) regional office in Sacramento, the project’s lead federal agency. Residents, officials, land-use and water resource experts, and others say the EA is flawed and inaccurate.
The City of Trinidad, the California Coastal Commission (CCC), and dozens of residents sent letters to the BIA in October, raising objections to the proposal. Many call for either a “no-build” decision, or for a comprehensive Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In fact, HARP attorney Bryce Kenny argues that the Rancheria’s own 1999 Gaming Compact with the state requires an EIS.
Generally, an EA seeks to provide grounds for a “finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) to avoid a full-blown environmental impact review. HARP’s experts—land-use, environment, water, geology, traffic, regulatory, etc.—conclude that the EA is not just “deficient,” but that it cannot support a FONSI.
The issue that has drawn the most heat is the Hyatt hotel design, which many consider inappropriate to the coastal setting and brutally damaging to the viewshed, as shown in HARP’s photo-illustration of what a six-story structure on Trinidad Bay would look like (image above and on the cover).
That boxy image is what got retired Humboldt State fisheries professor David Hankin involved. Hankin is a former director of the HSU Marine Lab, current board president of the Westhaven water district, and a founding HARP member. Hankin says a “freeway hotel” on Trinidad Bay’s pristine shoreline would be an eyesore from the town of Trinidad, from Trinidad Head—which is part of the California Coastal National Monument—and the harbor to far out to sea.
As HARP’s letter says, “The proposed hotel is incompatible with the surrounding area, which is among an increasingly rare class of unspoiled California coastline. It must be protected and valued so it can be enjoyed by all persons in perpetuity.”
The California Coastal Commission agrees. “The Trinidad area’s scenic values are inextricably linked with the reason visitors are attracted to this area,” writes Mark Delaplaine, manager of the CCC’s Federal Consistency Division in San Francisco. “Virtually all the development in the viewshed is limited to one or two stories, with only a very occasional three-story structure. The proposed six-story hotel would tower above and dominate the viewshed over an extremely large area. Thus, our greatest concern over the proposed hotel is its significant visual impact on a portion of the coast particularly prized for its spectacular scenic public views.”
Another critical issue for HARP and Trinidad residents is the estimated 19,000 gallons/day (the equivalent of 45 single-family homes) that the hotel would request from Trinidad’s municipal water district, which is already overburdened in dry months. In late summer and early fall, Trinidad’s primary water source, Luffenholtz Creek, already drops to a trickle.
Before deciding on the hotel’s water request, the city has undertaken an engineering study of the water system’s pumping capacity, which should be completed in January.
A related concern is the effect of all that water on the stability of the bluff, states Don Allan of Westhaven, a watershed restorationist and founding HARP member. Even though the Rancheria recycles an admirable proportion of the 11,000 gallons the casino now uses
(the Rancheria is Trinidad’s largest water customer), huge additional amounts of wastewater would need to be treated and then released into the aquifer, Allan points out. What will the geological and environmental impacts be?
HARP also points out that the EA is vague on many other biological, environmental, and geological impacts, including the stability of the bluff, which engineers acknowledge is subject to annual landslide activity. Other concerns include noise and light pollution, flashy electronic signage, bird strikes, and the financial viability of a new casino-hotel in an area that already has several.
Then there’s the issue of traffic. The California Transportation Commission is conducting a long-range, $775,000 study for a proposed Highway 101 interchange/overpass to serve the Rancheria, less than three-quarters of a mile south of the existing Trinidad exit. Even if the (taxpayer-funded) construction is approved, it could not be completed until 2026 at the earliest. In the meantime, traffic for construction, the hotel and casino, Rancheria and Scenic Drive residents, and tourists would all funnel through the busy six-way intersection at Trinidad’s Main Street and onto Scenic Drive.
HARP member Ken Miller is alarmed by the piecemeal approach that treats the hotel project in isolation from other expansion, and about the cumulative build-out impacts. Besides the hotel, the Rancheria has also envisioned a 50-unit RV park, a minimart and gas station, tripling the size of the casino, and new residential and administrative buildings.
There is no telling when the BIA will make a decision, or whether Trinidad will agree to supply the hotel’s water needs. Whatever those outcomes, HARP is prepared to assist citizens in getting their perspectives heard.
Get involved! A meeting of HARP’s full membership and anyone else interested is planned for January to map ways that HARP can facilitate these conversations, details to be announced. You can keep up with this and other HARP projects on their website (www.HumboldtAlliance.org) and on the HARP Facebook page. If we have learned anything from the Trinidad Rancheria hotel issue, it’s that getting people involved is a good thing.
Ted Pease of Trinidad is a founding member of the Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning (HARP), a retired university professor, and a working journalist, editor, photographer and fisherman. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.