'Our Sovereign Right'

With water woes continuing to hamper hotel project, Trinidad Rancheria accuses critics of prejudice, systemic racism



Already escalated tensions spiked sharply south of Trinidad on June 24, when the Trinidad Rancheria accused the city, area residents and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone of racism in their opposition or perceived lack of support for proposed Rancheria developments.

The Rancheria is pushing forward with controversial plans to build a five-story, 100-bed hotel adjacent to Cher-Ae Heights Casino, just south of Trinidad and frustrations have mounted over the city's unwillingness or inability (depending on whom you ask) to enter into a contract to provide water for the development. Earlier this month, the Rancheria approached the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District about the possibility of piping its water to tribal lands, though Rancheria officials maintained the request wasn't for the hotel but for other economic development projects, including a proposed RV park, mini-mart, gas station, cultural center and housing.

But the agenda item drew a slew of pushback from area residents, who submitted dozens of letters opposing the idea, arguing it was inefficient and could lead to sprawling development in the scenic rural, coastal area. In a June 24 letter to the community, Trinidad Rancheria Chair Garth Sundberg said this latest opposition to the tribe's economic development efforts falls into a centuries-long pattern.

"We find this to be an unsettling déjà-vu," he wrote. "Indian people have experienced this over and over again. It is an overwhelming sense of something that should not be familiar at all — discrimination, prejudice, systemic racism and a lack of social justice. ... We have found that history repeats itself. Indian people have experienced genocide, colonization, loss of home lands and so much more. The white invaders did not want the Indian people to be in their way, they wanted everything for themselves and would kill to take what they wanted."

For his part, Madrone issued a public statement the following day saying he supports "responsible development," adding that he still supports the Rancheria's initial proposal for a "smaller rustic hotel" on the property. But Madrone has also long been critical of the Rancheria's plans to build a four-way freeway interchange off U.S. Highway 101 to access its tribal lands and of its current plans for the hotel development. Madrone has charged the hotel is too big for the surrounding area and shouldn't be built without an adequate, sustainable water supply.

Tensions between the supervisor and the Rancheria date back at least to Madrone's 2018 run for the Fifth District seat in which he upset two-term incumbent Ryan Sundberg, who is Garth Sundberg's nephew, a Trinidad Rancheria member and general manager of Cher-Ae Heights Casino.

During that supervisorial race, after Madrone won the endorsements of the Yurok and Karuk tribes as well as a split endorsement from the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Garth Sundberg issued a scathing letter to local news outlets accusing Madrone of lying about his work on a variety of projects and mischaracterizing the Rancheria's proposed interchange project. In that same campaign, Ryan Sundberg told the Lost Coast Outpost he wished Madrone "was not so racist when comes to a Tribe that did not endorse him." Pressed to explain the statement, Ryan Sundberg told the Outpost that he sees the freeway interchange project — proposed in part to make up for impacts to Rancheria land when the current incarnation of that stretch of U.S. 101 was built in the 1960s, leaving 12 acres of the Rancheria's property separated from the rest — as a social justice issue and that "it's a racist comment to say the tribe cannot get to their property."

In Garth Sundberg's most recent letter to the community, he also stresses that the Rancheria, as a sovereign nation, also views its plans to develop its lands through a social justice lens. Economic development is "very important" to the Rancheria, its members and its right to self-determination.

"The Trinidad Rancheria is a disadvantaged community that is surrounded by a very affluent community," Garth Sundberg writes. "The surrounding ocean bluffs are highlighted by extravagant homes inside the city of Trinidad, developments outside the city, including homes that range from $1 million and upwards, as well as the Westhaven community east of the city of Trinidad on Westhaven Drive. Many of these residents have relocated from Southern California and are only here seasonally. Others have been here for 20 to 30 years or more, which is not a long time in an historical context."

While Garth Sundberg alleges racism lies at the heart of much of the opposition to Rancheria projects, area residents have pointed to a host of other issues. Citizens group Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning (HARP) has been vocally opposed to the project, saying it will cause traffic problems in Trinidad and along Scenic Drive, and that the five-story structure will look out of place and harm the scenic nature of the coastal stretch.

But because the tribe is a sovereign government and therefore generally not bound by county and state land use restrictions, those arguments have held little weight. The California Coastal Commission said as much when conditionally approving a federal designation that the project would have limited environmental impacts. The sticking point, however, has been water, which is what the Coastal Commission's approval was conditioned on. (While the tribe's sovereign rights hold that neighboring residents or municipalities can't block its project because of ancillary impacts, they also don't require that said municipalities provide water service to the development.)

The Rancheria had long planned on getting water serviced to the project — somewhere between 9,000 and 18,000 gallons per day, depending on which assessment or figure one uses — from the city of Trinidad. But the city, which draws its water from Luffenholtz Creek, has been noncommittal and is in the midst of a nearly two-year effort to study the capacity of its water supply and develop an official policy for dealing with such requests in the future. The studies seem to indicate that while the creek has a limited surplus of water in good years, it's already at risk of failing to meet demand in drought years.

At the proverbial 11th hour, Rancheria officials told the Coastal Commission a newly drilled well on its property could produce more than 8,000 gallons per day, giving hope that it could provide for the bulk of the project's water needs with the potential to supplement from other sources. But the Rancheria has continued looking to the city for a commitment on supplying additional water. That commitment has not come and tensions continue to rise between the two neighboring governments.

Last month, the Rancheria said it would no longer allow the city access to its properties — including the Trinidad Harbor, which the city needs to access for a wastewater project — until the city entered into a memorandum of understanding that would allow confidential government-to-government discussions about a potential water deal. In the midst of a public uproar and fears of backroom deals, a divided Trinidad City Council voted 3-2 to deny the MOU, at least until the city's planning commission finishes a draft water policy, which pushed the Rancheria to reach out to the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District about the possibility of extending a pipeline from existing infrastructure in McKinleyville to Rancheria lands, an expensive proposition. And then came those dozens of oppositional letters from concerned community members, some orchestrated by HARP.

The water district board directed staff to begin gathering information about the proposal and report back at a future meeting, potentially launching what promises to be a lengthy process of fact-finding, environmental and engineering studies, public input and negotiations between the district and the Rancheria. Less than two weeks after the meeting came Garth Sundberg's letter, which indicated the Rancheria has no intention of further altering its vision to appease community concerns.

"Today our message to the city of Trinidad, HARP, Steve Madrone and others who have made it your mission to stop the Tribe's development is — educate yourselves, understand that your biases, your prejudice and your discrimination is just as bad as what happened over 200 years ago and what is happening in our nation today," he wrote. "We are committed to our vision and our pathway forward for future generations. It is our sovereign right."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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