An artistic rendering of the proposed hotel project at Cher-Ae Heights Casino off Scenic Drive south of Trinidad.
The Trinidad Rancheria recently presented its revised concept of a 100-room hotel on the bluffs of Scenic Drive but it aroused little enthusiasm from the residents of Trinidad.
David Tyson, CEO of the Trinidad Rancheria Economic Development Corporation (TREDC), gave the presentation during the March 13 meeting of the Trinidad City Council to an audience of about 40 people. Tyson said the Rancheria had reviewed the hundreds of comments received last October about the planned five-story Hyatt hotel and tried to address the concerns expressed. TREDC has hired a new developer, architect and hotel operator. Nonetheless, the plans still depict a five-story building, which is considerably larger than any other structure on the Trinidad coast.
The height of the building was reduced by about 20 feet, and the exterior now displays exposed timber and rock, which Tyson said is typical of northwestern architecture.
The audience was generally polite, with many people expressing appreciation for the Rancheria's continued work to improve the project, but was clearly skeptical of the proposal, with 18 of the 19 people who addressed the council speaking critically of it.
Proposed water usage, which had been one of the most contentious issues, will be reduced to 3,500 gallons per day or less, Tyson said, because laundry will not be done onsite. This should also reduce the amount of wastewater entering the leachfield. The Rancheria also plans to use recycled graywater in the toilets, to help reduce water use.
In October, people expressed skepticism about the capacity of the Rancheria's leachfield to absorb a large amount of additional wastewater. If the leach field were to fail, excess wastewater could add to the instability of the bluffs over Scenic Drive. Tyson said that both issues — wastewater and slope stability — are still being studied by professionals.
The Rancheria hopes to obtain water for the hotel from the city of Trinidad but that could be problematic. The city, which contains only 367 residents, obtains all its water from Luffenholz Creek and is currently studying the creek and its treatment plant to determine the maximum amount of water available. Since the city must also be able to provide for all those who own property within the city limits, the amount that can be sold to property owners located outside city limits is limited.
Several members of the audience pointed out that water supply for city residents is already a problem during summer months in drought years and questioned the Rancheria's estimates for its water needs.
Jim Cuthbertson, a former Trinidad water commissioner, said the Rancheria might be better off trying to get water from the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBWMD), which supplies McKinleyville, Arcata, Eureka and several smaller communities with drinking water.
asked HBWMD if any communications had been received from the Rancheria concerning water availability. Two district board members stated that no such communications had been received, but a third later told the paper that a member of the Trinidad Tribal Council had informally inquired about the availability of water. The board member added that if a formal request were to be made, it would have to be agendized and publicized, as is required by law. The HBWMD is occasionally approached by businesses or communities wanting to purchase its water but the cost of providing the infrastructure for such services is usually prohibitive.
Tyson said that a new traffic study, done in February, showed there would be little impact on the town from the 100 daily occupants of the hotel. Trinidad resident Carol Mone asked why the study was done at a time of year when there is little tourist traffic, and heavy rains discourage even local people from driving. Tyson said that the study was a combination of Caltrans data and work done by a private consultant. The Journal asked for a copy of the study but Tyson refused, saying that it was still proprietary information.
Last year, the Humboldt County Association of Governments approved funding for a study of a new off-ramp from U.S. Highway 101 that would go directly to the Rancheria, an issue that has been controversial in Trinidad and the surrounding areas because it might involve eminent domain.
Several residents criticized the hotel's design and its effect upon the viewshed.
"This is not a high-rise community. This is a little town in a rural area," said Bryce Kenny, a Trinidad resident. "We don't allow high-rise development in the city of Trinidad. We would never approve something like this. And yet right outside of our boundaries, where we can see it, where visitors can see it, where it heavily impacts the character of our community, we're being asked to accept it.
"You look at the original drawing for the hotel, which was put out years ago when this was first being talked about; it looks nothing like this. … The purpose of the hotel and the freeway interchange that is being proposed is to increase the competitive advantage and the market share for the casino. We have three other casinos in the county. Things are getting very competitive and everybody's looking for a way to get an edge on the market. We shouldn't be asked to sacrifice the character of our community and our values just to help our neighbors increase the revenue from the casino.
"They've been good neighbors, very good neighbors, but they're asking way too much of us to say, 'please support this,'" Kenny continued.
WEsthaven resident Don Allan thanked the Rancheria for making improvements to the hotel’s design but said more work is needed.
"This pig's going to need a lot more lipstick," he said.
Dave Hankin, former director of the Marine Lab, urged members of the public to visit the HSU campus and look at the Behavioral and Social Sciences Building to see what a five-story building actually looks like. He noted that if the Rancheria had designed a three story building, there would have been little opposition from the community.
Hankin also explained the convoluted regulatory process that governs the approval of the hotel. Two agencies are involved: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is federal, and the California Coastal Commission, which is state. The BIA is the lead agency, meaning it makes the final decisions about the project.
As a sovereign nation, the Trinidad Rancheria is not required to follow California's environmental planning laws but must follow the federal environmental review process, which is roughly similar. The Rancheria wrote an environmental assessment two years ago that left many questions unanswered. Nonetheless, the BIA decided in February that the hotel will have no discernible effect upon the coastal environment.
The Coastal Commission does have the right to respond to the BIA (called a "concurrence"), provided it does so within 90 days. The Coastal Commission's own policies require its public hearing to be held in a city close to where the project will occur. The Coastal Commission, however, schedules its public hearings months in advance, and they occur in cities all over the state. The next meeting is scheduled for April in Salinas. The next North Coast meeting will not happen until August, well beyond the 90-day limit imposed by the BIA.
The commission requested an extension from the BIA so that local people can attend the hearing. Hankin urged the Trinidad City Council and the public to write to both the BIA and the Rancheria, asking them to support the Coastal Commission's request.
Hankin also asked how the BIA could possibly say there was no environmental effect when the environmental documentation has not yet been completed.
"I'm a scientist by training, and there's something logically wrong here," he said. "The cart's coming before the horse."
Trinidad Planning Commissioner Richard Johnson also thanked the Rancheria for its efforts to work with the public and said it is important to recognize that the hotel is part of a larger plan that the Rancheria had previously laid out for the public to view.
"When you consider the cumulative impact of all this development, this is going to change the Trinidad living experience forever. This is the largest project that we have seen in this area since the 1960s," he said. "We still lack the fundamental information required to determine if your water system and water supply is stretched beyond capacity. … This is a matter of great importance to the future."
The city council agreed that any proposed action items needed to go on a future agenda to avoid violating the Brown Act.
"What is a realistic timeline that some of these questions might be answered?" Mayor Steve Ladwig asked Tyson, referring to questions about the wastewater capacity and the slope stability.
"The primary item that we're waiting for is the wastewater treatment," replied Tyson. "The engineering firm that we have is working on that. I expect it to be done any day now because it's important. It's kind of the last step in answering all the comments that we did receive."
"At what point do you need some kind of statement from the city about the water?" asked Ladwig. "Because I believe that's a requirement, that you have to show that there is water."
"Obviously we need to have that discussion" replied Tyson. "The hotel project's going to need the water. … The Coastal Commission, it's a suggestion, they don't have jurisdiction. ... We need (water), you have it. ... We have been waiting to have that discussion with you when you have the studies that you need so that you can have an informed discussion with us on that."
City Manager Dan Berman expressed surprise that the Coastal Commission could even consider making a determination before the environmental review is completed. He asked the council to request both the BIA and the Rancheria to wait until August to hold the consistency determination hearing, so that it could happen on the North Coast.
He also asked the Rancheria to write a letter to the city, formally asking to connect to the city's water system, describing in detail how much water they expected to use and how they came up with those figures.
Berman described the inherent uncertainties in studying the city's water supply. He described it as a puzzle consisting of three pieces. The first is how much water would be needed when all the land within the city limits is built out. The second is the capacity of the water treatment plant.
"Even if the creek was infinite, how much water can we really pump and clean and produce on an ongoing basis out of our treatment plant? ... If we try to turn everything up 20 percent at our plant, does it still work right?"
The third and most difficult piece of the puzzle is asking how much the entire watershed could support, especially considering climate change and drought.
A government-to-government meeting between the Trinidad City Council and the Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Council was planned for the next day. It was not open to the public.