Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – In a locally-held meeting, the state’s Coastal Commission has given conditional approvals to two controversial projects – a 100-room, five-story hotel next to the Cher-ae Heights Casino and the U.S. Highway 101 interchange.
The commission began three days of meetings on Aug. 7 at Eureka’s Wharfinger Building. A finding that the hotel is consistent with the state’s Coastal Act was conditioned on confirming a source of water. A coastal development permit for the highway project was approved with added conditions related to sea level rise.
A question of consistency
The commission’s Aug. 8 meeting included the Trinidad Rancheria’s controversial proposal to construct a five-story Hyatt hotel next to the Cher-ae Heights Casino.
The leasing and a loan guarantee for the hotel are being administrated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has declared the project to be consistent with the California Coastal Act.
But the BIA’s request for concurrence on that was rejected by the commission last June, mainly due to lack of a definitive water source.
Commission staffer Mark Delaplaine told commissioners that the Rancheria is working with the City of Trinidad on supplying water but an agreement hasn’t been forged.
“The city is presently assessing their existing water system and states that they need to complete these studies before committing to additional water service,” he said.
The week before the meeting, the Rancheria submitted information related to a 60-foot deep well tap that would provide about half of the water the hotel needs, Delaplaine said.
Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, the Rancheria’s CEO, updated the water situation – she said the drill-down is at 100 feet and that with conservation measures, the hotel’s water consumption estimate has dropped.
The new well is expected to provide “an adequate supply of water for peak usage,” she continued. She described the tribe as “a very strong partner with the city” and one that has contributed over $900,000 to the city’s infrastructure.
Noting that state Governor Gavin Newsom has issued a formal apology to tribes for “how they’ve been treated in the past,” Hostler-Carmesin appealed to the concept of social justice.
“Let’s change the past, let’s go forward in the future – support this tribe,” she said.
But Trinidad residents are deeply concerned about the hotel’s bluffside visual impact and they questioned whether water supply is there.
Ted Pease of the Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning community group said he was speaking for Trinidad residents and visitors who have expressed “consternation over allowing this kind of coastal development.”
He summed up the reaction by quoting someone he’d encountered at Murphy’s Market earlier in the week. “’How can they do that?’” said a woman right behind me in the checkout line and that’s still the question – how indeed,” he said.
The controversy’s effects are intense. Opposition to the project was described as including “prejudice, both blatant and subversive, and accusations that are misguided, self-serving and sometimes outright lies,” said Shirley Laos, the Rancheria’s government affairs coordinator.
Commissioners were uncomfortable with having to make decisions affecting tribal development. Commissioner Mike Wilson, Humboldt County’s third district supervisor, acknowledged Laos’ comments, saying, “Tribal members have endured some pretty patronizing bullshit in what they’ve been dealing with – I want to recognize that’s a real thing.”
But he would come under similar criticism himself, after he proposed adding a requirement to demonstrate that the hotel wouldn’t be beyond the capacity of local firefighting services.
Asked to the podium by one of the commissioners, Hostler-Carmesin said, “You’re really questioning the tribe’s integrity at providing fire (services) and I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Wilson agreed to withdraw his request and a majority of commissioners, including Wilson, approved confirming the project’s consistency provided that the new water source is proven to be adequate or an agreement is worked out for city water.
Earlier, a motion to limit the hotel’s height to 40 feet failed in a close vote, with Wilson in the minority who supported doing that.
The hotel’s height will be 65.5 feet at its south end and 78.5 feet at its north end.
When he spoke during public comment, Fifth District Supervisor Steven Madrone supported a lower height for the hotel and warned that wells are “not reliable and not sustainable” due to seismic activity.
If it holds, the consistency determination avoids potential for litigation and secures the tribe’s federal loan guarantee.
On August 7, the commission balanced the threat of sea level rise against the need to invest in Highway 101 safety improvements.
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has been planning the work on the Highway 101 stretch between Arcata and Eureka since 1999. At issue is the danger posed by six uncontrolled median crossings. The worst of them is at the Indianola Cut Off.
Caltrans plans to construct an underpass interchange there, to address a collision rate that’s 200 percent above average. Other safety elements include the complete closure of four median crossings and a northbound lane traffic light at Airport Road.
The project’s most pressing dilemma is its potentially limited lifespan. The 101 is already vulnerable to flooding – a 2005 storm caused flooding that triggered an emergency declaration – and sea level rise is expected to make it worse and more frequent.
During a lengthy public comment period, business owners near the Indianola Cut Off and other areas of the highway used terms like “death trap” to describe the Indianola crossing. The need to improve safety wasn’t in doubt but the timing of the project’s sea level rise planning was.
The conditions of the permit called for a collaborative analysis of options to deal with sea level rise to be done by 2030. If floods occur anywhere in 101 travel areas four times in a year, the plan will have to be done within a year.
Jennifer Savage of the Surfrider Foundation noted that Caltrans expects monthly flooding of the highway’s southern stretch by 2030. “We shouldn’t need to wait for dangerous flooding to respond to an emergency that we know is already underway,” she said.
She added, “When the highway is flooded, it’s clearly unsafe” and risks will “exponentially” increase when traffic is re-routed to roads like Old Arcata Road.
Ralph Faust, a Bayside resident who worked as the commission’s general counsel for 20 years and was a county planning commissioner, warned against reinforcing and raising dikes to deal with seal level rise, saying that “marine habitat is at risk here.”
Wilson called for expedited planning. “The timeframe that’s set forth here will put us behind the ball, not ahead of the ball,” he said.
Most commissioners voted to approve the permit, changing the sea level rise plan’s deadline to 2025 and requiring annual monitoring reports instead of the bi-annual reporting recommended by staff.
The permit’s conditions include a directive to “avoid reliance on hard shoreline armoring.”
The project will result in the fill of 10.25 acres of wetlands, mitigated by removing invasive Spartina plants from 179 acres of wetlands.
To mitigate visual impacts, Caltrans has taken action to remove 17 billboards. Four remain but Caltrans Project Manager Jeff Pimentel said the agency has “exhausted” its options for getting them removed.
The project’s infrastructure work includes replacement of Jacoby Creek Bridge. Construction is set to begin next year and continue through 2026.