An artistic rendering of the proposed hotel project at Cher-Ae Heights Casino off Scenic Drive south of Trinidad.
California Coastal Commission staff issued a highly critical report on the Trinidad Rancheria's plans for a new hotel on the bluffs of Scenic Drive near Cher-Ae Heights Casino and is recommending the commission object to the project's tentative approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
The 28-page document
criticized the Rancheria for failing to provide sufficient data on many issues, including the hotel's water supply. Although the Trinidad Rancheria Economic Development Corporation (TREDC) hopes to purchase water from the city of Trinidad for the hotel, the city has not agreed to supply this water because it does not not know if its own limited water supply will be adequate for future needs. The Coastal Act requires that adequate public services be available for planned development.
"The draft EA (Environmental Assessment) for the proposed project estimates that approximately 18,860 gallons of water per day (gpd) would be required for the hotel," the report states. "A letter from the BIA received on March 20, 2019. indicates that '…the Tribe has incorporated water saving design features, including off-site contracted laundry service, that would reduce the water demand to approximately 3,000-3,500 gpd…', although no further information is provided regarding the potential change in estimated water use." The commission would like to know more specifically how the hotel plans to reduce its water use to one-sixth of its former estimate.
Another unanswered question is the wastewater the hotel would generate. Trinidad has no sewage treatment plant and all wastewater is treated onsite through individual septic systems. Septic systems require leach fields, open areas where treated wastewater can be absorbed back into the ground. The report says that there may already be problems with the existing leach fields, and it is uncertain whether additional sewage could be accommodated.
The report also criticizes TREDC for providing insufficient information about a shallow but active on-site landslide.
"It appears that the options for addressing the risks posed by the landslide, and also thus assuring the stability and structural integrity of the proposed hotel, have not been completely determined," the report states. “The selected option may involve extensive slope stabilization measures. However, the details of a selected option have not been provided in the BIA consistency determination and are not described in the draft EA for the proposed project."
Traffic is another issue listed in the report. TREDC wants the state to build a new interchange linking US. Highway 101 directly to the Rancheria but the justification for the interchange apparently includes additional traffic generated by a "tripling of the size of the existing casino ... It is not clear that the hotel alone would result in traffic-related impacts that would require such mitigation, or if other mitigation measures could sufficiently address hotel-related traffic generation," the report states. This lack of precision conflicts with the Coastal Act.
"Additionally, if a new interchange was required to mitigate traffic caused solely by the hotel, then the commission would also need information regarding the effects that such an interchange would have on coastal resources."
The commission was also highly critical of the hotel's effect upon the local viewshed:
"Trinidad and surrounding environs are considered one of the more spectacular sections of the North Coast of California, known for its beauty and relatively wild, undeveloped setting of ocean, sea stacks, coastline, and forested hills and bluffs. Trinidad Head is a popular destination and provides unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean and the adjacent coast. Public views in the area, from Trinidad Head, Trinidad Harbor and its pier, and the beaches on either side of Trinidad Head reflect the rural nature of this part of the California coast, which is characterized by little if any commercial development outside of the existing single- and two-story buildings adjacent to Trinidad Harbor and in the town center area of Trinidad.
"The proposed hotel would be five stories tall, and it would rise approximately 64 feet in height above the floor of the existing Casino. It would be the tallest building by at least 30 feet in Trinidad and the surrounding area, where single- and two-story buildings for residential and commercial uses predominate. The hotel would be visible from Trinidad Head and the Trinidad Harbor area, very popular visitor destinations that provide views of mostly undeveloped, forested coastline and the ocean. For these reasons, the staff recommends the Commission find that the proposed hotel as described in the BIA consistency determination is inconsistent with Section 30251 and 30253(e) of the Coastal Act, since it does not protect views to and along the ocean and scenic coastal areas and is not visually compatible with the character of surrounding areas, "
The report asked TREDC for a great many additional details on these topics, raising the possibility that the commission would eventually accept the project if enough information was provided. A public hearing on the project had initially been scheduled for April 10 in Salinas, where the commission is slated to decide to either accept or object to the BIA's approval, known as a "Coastal Consistency Determination." It was later re-scheduled to May 10.
California Coastal Commission Senior Environmental Analyst John Weber explained to the Journal the complex relationship between the BIA and the Coastal Commission. The BIA, which is a federal agency, uses the information available in the Environmental Assessment prepared by TREDC to decide whether or not it believes the proposed project conforms to California law. The Coastal Commission then gets an opportunity to decide whether or not it agrees with the BIA.
According to Weber, when disagreements occur, as in the case of the hotel, both agencies usually work together to find acceptable compromises. Although the BIA has the legal authority to override the Coastal Commission's concerns, this seldom happens, because the federal agency could then be sued.
The BIA made a Coastal Consistency Determination on Feb. 11, seemingly in favor of the hotel, although what it actually approved was a loan guarantee and a management contract that would enable the hotel to be built. The Coastal Commission responded with its own report, raising the above-mentioned concerns.
TREDC contacted the Coastal Commission, asking for additional time, presumably to provide this information. The Coastal Commission, however, could not change the hearing date without permission from the BIA. The commission asked if it could postpone the hearing until its August meeting, which was scheduled to be held on the North Coast. The BIA responded with a one-month extension, allowing the Coastal Commission to make its decision on May 10, at a meeting scheduled to be held in Oxnard (Ventura County).
The Rancheria now has only six weeks to provide a vast array of engineering and planning details, and members of the public will have to travel 10 hours to attend the meeting if they wish to see the proceedings in person.