Trinidad Rancheria Hotel Voted Down; Project will be Resubmitted

the proposed five-story hotel would stand in front of the existing two-story Cher-Ai Heights Casino at left, three floors taller than the large Baker Ranch home at right. Photo: Ted Pease.

For a third time since last Spring, the Coastal Commission staff report recommends a “No” vote on the Trinidad Rancheria’s proposed Hyatt hotel when the Commission meets to review the project in Eureka on August 8.

The Commission voted 6-3 in June against the five-story, 100-room high-rise at its meeting in San Diego, but commissioners urged the Rancheria “in the strongest possible terms” to make changes to the plan and resubmit, so the development is far from dead.

As the new staff report says, the goal of a new hearing would be progress on the question of where the hotel will get water, and to permit Humboldt residents a chance to express their opinions regarding the hotel project.

So this is your chance, Humboldters. Unfortunately, email comments to the Coastal Commission were due as this issue of EcoNews went to print, but make plans to attend the public hearing on the issue Thursday, August 8, at 9 a.m. at the Wharfinger Building
in Eureka.

The new staff report is almost identical to June’s report, which recommended against approval on the basis of the hotel’s adverse visual impact on the Trinidad coast, and because there is no water source.

The staff report concludes that a) the hotel’s five-story height and design are “not visually compatible with the character of surrounding areas”; and b) the project still has no water supply.

But does it?

In an ex parte communication report posted on the Coastal Commission website, former Commissioner and ex-Humboldt Supervisor Ryan Sundberg is reported as telling Commission chair Dayna Bochco in a text message, “Hi, Dayna, we have had [d]rilling rig looking for well water so we don’t have to depend on the City of Trinidad. Today was very exciting, we hit water today and will be able to have well water treated and used for the hotel. Can’t wait to see you all when you come up next Month! Best Ryan”

If true, and if there is sufficient documented flow from the well to supply a projected 14,000 gallons of water per day to the hotel, the central stumbling block standing in the way of the controversial five-story, 100-room Hyatt project may have been eliminated.

Observers wonder if Sundberg’s communication is an ethics/legal violation of Coastal Commission regulations prohibiting former commissioners from lobbying the Commission within a year of leaving office. Sundberg stepped down from the Commission in February after losing his Humboldt District 5 supervisor seat to Steve Madrone last June.

In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Humboldt District 3 Supervisor Mike Wilson, an environmental engineer, to fill the North Coast seat on the Commission.

Coastal Commission members must file reports of unofficial, or ex parte, contacts with interested parties about pending Coastal Commission matters.

Although Trinidad has not received an application for a water hookup to serve the hotel project, the prospect of a new (estimated) 14,000 gallon-per-day customer has prompted the city to undertake a comprehensive assessment of its water plant capacity, future needs, and policies. The city has various water studies underway in the context of current demand and anticipated buildout from town in its
surrounding service area.

Mayor Steve Ladwig has said the city will not rush the decision. “It is the City’s position that we can act on issues only when we have sufficient information,” Ladwig said. “The [hotel’s] water permit certainly fits in this definition.”

At least three Trinidad water studies are in the works, the latest a $60,000, five-part analysis of data on the Luffenholtz Creek watershed by GHD, a Eureka environmental engineering company. Parts of the study are expected to run through the end of August, with a section addressing water storage and distribution due in October.

An earlier study of Trinidad water plant’s maximum capacity found a “theoretical excess” of water above current demand, but only by pumping 22 hours a day. City planner Trever Parker’s comprehensive assessment of Trinidad’s future water needs is still in its early stages, and Parker sees a full evaluation of Trinidad water needs and policies as a three- to four-year process.

In any case, as Ladwig has pointed out, it is still unknown exactly how much water the hotel would need. The project’s initial Environmental Assessment last fall set the daily demand at 19,000 gallons per day (gpd)—the equivalent of 45 single-family homes. In June, the Coastal Commission staff estimated hotel demand at 14,000 gpd.

In addition to the wells or springs on Rancheria property, other water sources are also being considered including a combination of recycled grey water for toilets and landscaping, well water, rainwater catchment, and extracting moisture from the air. Sundberg’s revelation to Commission Chair Bochco of a new well would change that equation.

While the focus is on Trinidad’s water capacity, critics of the project are also concerned that the Coastal Commission essentially gave the hotel developers a “bye” on other difficult issues such as traffic impacts, wastewater treatment, and light and noise pollution.

At the San Diego hearing in June, commissioners paid little attention to staff and Trinidad residents’ concerns over the visual impact of a “five-plus”-story high-rise towering on the edge of the bluff 100 feet above Trinidad Bay.

Some 1,349 people signed an online petition that called the proposed hotel design “wrong for the Trinidad coast,” and many offered comments that seem to have been ignored by the CCC, which scarcely addressed the height and visual impact concerns at the June hearing.

At approximately 64 feet, the building would be at least two stories—24 feet—taller than any other structure on the coast, and one of the tallest buildings in the county. Previously, the Coastal Commission has restricted the height of buildings in the local Coastal Zone to 30-40 feet to minimize visual impact, and CCC regulations call for designs compatible with existing character of the community.

Beyond the visual impacts and the ongoing water supply issue, Trinidad residents and visitors scoff at the developer’s traffic study, which concluded that a 100-room hotel would have negligible impact on Trinidad traffic. That conclusion seems based on proposed construction of a major interchange on Highway 101 to serve the Trinidad Rancheria property, its hotel, casino and other possible developments, including a 50-unit RV park, gas station, and minimart.

In late June, the California Transportation Commission approved $775,000 in funding for environmental impact and other work in preparation for the special Rancheria exit 1 mile south of the existing Trinidad exit and 1 mile north of the Westhaven exit. If that project goes forward, it will cost tens of millions of dollars and would not be completed until 2026 at the earliest.

Take Action: Attend the Hearing

The California Coastal Commission’s only North Coast hearing of 2019 is scheduled for August 7 and 8 at the Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way, Eureka.

The Trinidad Rancheria is on the schedule for 9 a.m. on Thursday, August 8, and public comment is permitted. The full agenda and staff report are available at
https://www.coastal.ca.gov under the “Meetings” tab. Select “Monthly Agenda,” click on the Thursday tab, and scroll down to number 12b (CD-0004-19 Bureau of Indian Affairs, Trinidad).