An artistic rendering of the proposed hotel project at Cher-Ae Heights Casino off Scenic Drive south of Trinidad.
If all goes as it hopes, the Trinidad Rancheria could have its hotel overlooking Trinidad Bay open in the summer of 2021, says Executive Director Jacque Hostler-Carmesin.
The Rancheria’s controversial proposal to build a five-story hotel on its property off Scenic Drive south of Trinidad took a major step forward recently when the Bureau of Indian Affairs found the 100-room hotel would have no significant impact on the surrounding environment — a crucial finding that seems to clear the way for the agency to move forward with the lease and loan guarantees needed for the project. Hostler-Carmesin says the Rancheria’s reasonable best hope is that the project breaks ground in a couple of months, with construction expected to span approximately a year.
Despite the BIA’s finding, some questions continue to surround the project, most notably among them exactly how it will source the approximately 14,000 gallons of potable water it needs per day. There also seems to be a lot of confusion.
Back in August, the California Coastal Commission went against the recommendation of its staff and voted to give the project a “conditional concurrence,” saying that if it met certain conditions — namely securing a water source — the commission found it to be in line with the California Coastal Act. Some in the public mistook that vote to mean the Rancheria would need to return to the commission at some future date to seek its approval. But that’s not how the process works.
Because it is a federally recognized tribe, the Trinidad Rancheria has the legal status of a sovereign nation and is not subject to state or local authority, including that of the Coastal Commission. Instead, the project is under the jurisdiction of the BIA, which, as a part of its process, must affirm that it will not conflict with any state laws, which triggered the need for the Coastal Commission’s concurrence. And the BIA’s final assessment found that the Rancheria has “identified additional sources of water to meet” the conditions of the Coastal Commission’s “conditional approval.”
According to Coastal Commission spokesperson Noaki Schwartz, BIA made the determination without consulting further with the commission or its staff.
The BIA’s Finding of No Significant Impact is open to public review and comments can be submitted on it up until March 20, after which it will be signed off as complete, triggering a 30-day appeal period. The BIA did not respond to multiple Journal
inquiries to multiple people seeking to clarify the process moving forward.
While the BIA indicates it is assured the Rancheria will find enough potable water to service the 100-room hotel, it remains to be seen where that water will come from. Hostler-Carmesin says the hope is still that it will be purchased from the city of Trinidad, though the city has yet to commit.
Trinidad City Manager Eli Naffah says the city has completed five studies collectively aimed at determining its current capacity and needs, as well as how those may change in the future. But the city is taking a holistic approach to the issue and is working on formulating a comprehensive water policy that will not only decide whether the city can service the Rancheria’s hotel but also how such requests will be vetted and decided in the future.
Naffah says the city’s planning commission is currently working on the policy and he hopes it will sign off on a recommendation to the city council later this month or in April.
One of the studies commissioned by the city seems to indicate the city won’t have the capacity in its supply — which is pulled from Luffenholtz Creek — to accommodate the Rancheria’s request, saying it is sufficient to meet current demands but with minimal reserves for droughts or emergencies, while also pointing toward the unknown impacts of climate change as a looming concern.
Hostler-Carmesin says wells found near the project site, which abuts Cher-Ae Heights Casino, can produce enough water to meet the hotel’s minimum needs and she’s hopeful the Rancheria can come to an agreement with the city to provide the balance. If not, she says the hotel will truck in water. She says the Rancheria recently received a report indicating its wells “won't be affecting the wells to the north and south of us, which is really good news,” but she says the Rancheria won’t release the report to the public until the BIA signs off on the Finding of No Significant Impact for the project. Asked to explain the delay in releasing the report, she says it’s because the BIA believes it has enough information and is recommending that the environmental document is complete.
“The BIA has the right to make that decision,” she says.
While the Rancheria maintains the hotel project is vital to bring economic opportunity to its members, critics have expressed a host of concerns. In addition to impacts on local water supplies — whether municipal or neighboring wells — they also say the hotel is incongruous with the rural aesthetic of the area and will be an eyesore, in addition to bringing added traffic on Scenic Drive. In a recent interview with the Times-Standard
, J. Bryce Kenny, an attorney representing the Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning, which has vocally opposed the project, said the group remains “committed to doing whatever we can” to stop the project from moving forward.
Hostler-Carmesin, for her part, says the Rancheria has spent lots of money and a year trying to address community concerns and modified project plans to that end. But she believes it's time to break ground.
“The tribe has been more than patient,” she says. “We’ve done our due diligence and worked very hard to overcome all the community’s concerns and objections. We’ve gone above and beyond with the coastal commission and we really feel we’ve done our job in being respectful of our community.”