The San Bernardino County Planning Commission on March 9 considered but failed to reach a decision on and therefore passively denied a camping resort project proposed on raw land in Flamingo Heights area near Landers by a Los Angeles-based real estate speculation outfit.
The RoBott Land Company, which is headquartered on Wilshire Boulevard and since 2011 has pursued mostly small-scale development efforts primarily on limited acreage contained on larger expanses of inexpensive desert land as part of a business model intended to escalate the value of the property it has invested in, sought clearance to construct a 75-site campground on 25 of the acres of the 640 acres it has tied on the east side of Old Woman Springs Road, south of the extension of Luna Vista Lane.
The overall reaction of the four planning commissioners who were present for the hearing on the project was hard to read. To some it appeared that at least two and perhaps three and all four of the commissioners present were taken aback by the too-enthusiastic advocacy of the project by the county planning division employee who had been assigned to evaluate it.
After a 2 hour 52 minute and 16 second hearing, none of the commissioners was willing to make a motion to either approve or deny the project, leaving the project in limbo and thus denied by default.
At the hearing the proposed project, which lies not to distant from what had been Count Basie’s desert getaway home, was previewed to the commission and the public by Jim Morrissey, the San Bernardino County Department of Land Use Services employee who served as the planner on the project.
Morrisey said that RoBott was seeking a conditional use permit for 75 camp sites, which he said were to consist of camping lofts, camping tents and chalets. The tents were defined as yurt style and teepee-models. RoBott also intended to construct, all within 25 acres on the land, a store that I to also serve as a reception center, a 10,000 square-foot restaurant, a bar, what was described as an “art barn,” workshops, a pool and patio, a yoga deck, fire pits and a heli-pad intended primarily for emergency use.
Initially, RoBott proposed an amphitheater, which was to serve as a musical performance venue encompassing 90 acres. The company withdrew that proposal. Additionally, the company had apparently initially intended the site and its amenities – the store, restaurant, bar, art barn, workshop and yoga facility – to be open to the general public. It was indicated, however, that only those who have reservations at the campground resort will be able to frequent those commercial elements of the project.
The lion’s share of the 640 acres, Morrissey said, including Pipes Wash and the flat land to the north of the campground will not be used. Access to the site will be made from Old Woman Springs Road, which is also known as State Highway 247.
According to Morrissey, off-road vehicle use, sport utility vehicles, all terrain vehicles, motorcycles, dirt bikes, bicycles and scooters will not be permitted at the campground or the area around it. The campground resort will have no accommodations for equestrian activities, he said. Travel trailers, motor home or campers are not to be allowed on the site. Cars will be kept in a separate parking lot away from he campground, where vehicles will be permitted only long enough for campers to unload camping equipment from them. Harvesting of native plants by resort guests will not be allowed, Morrissey said.
The environmental certification of the project is to be done through a mitigated negative declaration prepared for the planning commission, Morrissey said. The initial study for that mitigated negative declaration, which is an assurance to be signed off on by the planning commission that any adverse impacts from the project will be mitigated by the conditions of approval to be imposed by the commission on the developer, included taking into consideration light pollution, scenic resources and vistas, air quality, biological and cultural resources, noise pollution, public services, traffic and trip generation, wastewater and solid waste generated by resort guests and employees, wildfire hazards. The mitigated negative declaration and a more in-depth environmental impact report is not needed, Morrissey said. The campground is located 900 feet from the highway, he said.
Morrissey said there were 2,734 Joshua Trees located on the 640 acres, 43 of which will be uprooted and replanted in conformance with regulations, which include obtaining a permit to replant each of them.
Past biological resource assessment indicated that desert tortoise did live on the site but more recent studies turned up no evidence that the reptiles are presently on the property, Morrissey said.
In recommending that the planning commission give the project go-ahead, Morrissey said, a campground resort will wreak substantially less ecological havoc on the area than would housing.
The property is currently zoned for rural living, with one unit per acre permitted on the land.
“If you think about it from that item alone,” said Morrisey, “the amount of emissions for air quality, the amount of water used is tremendously less than what you would do in a residential development.”
In many categories, Morrissey said, the intensity of use would be greater if the property were to be developed residentially. He said there would be about 2/7s of the traffic impact if the project were developed as a camping resort rather than as homes. He said that there would be an 11 p.m. curfew on the camps’ fire pits.
Morrissey indicated that the intensity of land use at the camp resort did not merit the most exacting form of environmental certification of a full-blown environmental impact report. Instead, he said, a certified negative declaration would suffice.
“We did not feel it was necessary, based upon really the threshold of the project,” Morrissey said. “It’s a 640 acre site. A minimal amount of the site is being used and its being used for 75 campsites. The threshold for a traffic study was not reached. We did did not believe the think that the effect of the project would be significant enough to rise ta level that an EIR [environmental impact report] would be required. The significant amount of environmental review s covered by a negative declaration or mitigated negative declaration process.”
Morrissey’s recommendation to the planning commission was that it adopt the mitigated negative declaration and mitigation monitoring program, adopt the recommended finding of approval for the project and sign off on a conditional use permit for the camp resort.
RoBott was represented by Nancy Ferguson.
While Ferguson described the project as matching in most respects what Morrissey had laid out, there was a significant difference in the number of Joshua tree located on the property.
According to Ferguson there are “2,700 Joshua trees” on the land to be impacted by the development, which said was “just a partial count” when the 640 acres was considered. She said there were “at least double that number.”
It was not clear from either Ferguson’s statements or Morrissey’s the acreage involved in making the Joshua Tree counts.
Ferguson described the project as consisting of a reception and camp store, restrooms, fire pits, a pool with a patio workshops, an art barn.”
She said the camp resort would “not be open to the public.”
She said a large portion of the 640 acres involved Pipes Canyon but that the resort itself would not be located on Pieps Was or the east side of the wash.
“We understand that desert tortoise are common in the area. We’ll believe it when the residents show us picture of desert tortoise that they’ve seen. [In] the biological resources report that they refer to that from 2006 that was done by Circle Mountain, they found a number desert tortoise on site. However, that was 14 years ago. Tortoise move. Things happen. There was a long drought. Our biologists surveyed the entire site under the protocols established by Fish & Wildlife and they did not find signs of tortoise. That does not mean that tortoise are not there.”
“We think that the noise associated with the project will be minimal,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson the construction workers on the project will be sensitive to the ecology of the site and will not harm it.
“The construction workers before they even start will have a pretty good idea of how to act and what to do and stay away and what to fence off,” she said.
Because of Commission Chairman Jonathan Welty’s inexact pronunciation of the names of those speaking before the commission, the Sentinel’s spellings of those offering comment are the best phonetic approximations that could be made and therefore may be inaccurate.
Justin Merino, the president of the Homestead Valley Community Council said, “The MND [mitigated negative declaration] reads as if its conclusions were reached before the studies were even conducted, almost like it was written by the developer, not the planner. When the initial study was released, the Homestead Valley Community Council commented that it was insufficient, as the project site sits in the middle of a BLM [Bureau of Land Management] area of critical environmental concern. When the MND draft was published, it still did not address that the project was inside an area of critical environmental concern, which we noted again. That prompted a response from the planner via Supervisor Dawn Rowe. Quote, Pipes Canyon was not listed on the BLM’s website under the current list of areas of critical environmental concern, end quote. This is obviously categorically false Therefor the Homestead Valley Community Council doesn’t feel that the documents you have in front of you right now justify approval for the CUP [conditional use permit]. They do not address the potential concerns that a thorough analysis of the ACEC [area of critical environmental concern] might have brought to light. We wonder what else might be missing.”
Merino said, “We have been championing with Land Use Services and Supervisor Rowe a review of rural living zoning allowable uses, including campgrounds. Progress has been made and a consensus seems to exist on all sides that resort camping was never the vision of campgrounds and furthermore should not be included in the rural living allowable uses.”
Carolyn Portamian told the commission that “RoBott Land’s traffic assessment was inaccurate. We want a full EIR [environmental impact report] and traffic study. This project does not belong in a rural living environment.”
Demetrius Drafamatos stated, “This is not an insignificant development. There are a lot of significant impacts to consider Even though the developer has agreed not to develop the portion of the parcel that contains the wash itself, it is not clear that developing the land immediately adjacent to it will not have significant unmitagated impacts to the area.”
Drafamatos reference combustible vegetation that exists on the project site and that it would be cleared to a distance of 100 feet around the structures to be constructed. This he said would leave “dust and erosion” in its wake.
Drafamatos accused RoBott of “overreach. The developer seems to be trying to see what he can get away with. A bar, a restaurant and other amenities that have no business in a residential neighborhood, let alone adjacent to an area designated as an area of critical environmental concern.”
Janice Rivera told the commission, “The developer is greatly misleading you in terms of the scope of this huge and dangerous project. Where they want to develop is basically this narrow plot of land right off this really dangerous freeway. It’s a beautiful area. We moved there for this reason.”
Pio Headstrom said, “The developers have deliberately falsified the amount of added traffic, pulling numbers like 60 morning trips and 200 evening trips.”
Focusing on the claim that “Guests would not be entering and exiting the site daily,”
Headstrom pointed out, however that “On the developer’s website they are selling the project as follows: ‘The subject property is in close proximity within a 15 minute drive to Pappy & Harriet’s, Pioneer Town, Joshua Tree downtown and the Joshua Tree National] park entrance and Giant Rock.’ One of the big selling points is that the guests can go back and forth from these attractions and restaurants. Why would they stay in their so-called tents when there is s big show at legendary Pappy & Harriet’s around the corner?”
Headstrom said the camping resort would generate “500 to 700 trips per day, not 60, 20 or the conservative amount of 200 that they claim.”
Aiden Koch said the project will intrude into the remoteness and natural beauty of the area and “drastically disrupt the sense of rural living” that the district now enjoys.
Amy Keeler noted that the desert tortoise population has declined 50 percent since 2004 and that the species is “on a path for extinction.”
Cordelia Reynolds, noting the bar, restaurant, workshops swimming pool and patio features of the development said, “To call this development a campground is a gross and bold lie. Glamping [camping in glamourous surroundings] is not camping.” She said the project was meant “not as a campground” but as “a destination resort.”
Kelly Herbinson with the Mojave Desert Land Trust, said the project land exists as a “habitat for wildlife” and a “wildlife corridor.”
Erin Shelley said the project would increase the raven population of the area and increase traffic along Highway 247 while damaging the wildlife corridor that runs across the property.
She said “much more thorough environmental impact studies of all of the areas this project will affect is needed” and noted that comments on the project were missing from the exhibits submitted as part of the initial study for the mitigated negative declaration.
Cookie Philsborough told the commission that “citizens have felt dismissed dismissed” by the county’s decisionmakers “in favor of money, privilege and power entities.” She implied the same thing was occurring with the project under consideration.
Alex Valdivia said “It’s very rare for a Joshua tree that is uprooted and replanted to survive.”
Marina Wagner told the commission that the “Calfifornia [Department of] Fish and Wildlife recommended that the entire site be inventoried by a qualified biologist. I feel that it is premature to approve this project without a full inventory, an assessment of the full tree protection plan and that this must be completed now before the project could be approved.”
Alan Songer said, “The permanent structures being built on this site dwarf even the largest commercial structures of their kind in Yucca Valley, a town of 25,000 people. The bar, [at] 5,500 square feet, will be four times the size of the largest bar in Yucca Valley. This is to serve 75 camping sites? I don’t think so. The restaurant, the 10,000 square foot restaurant, is double the size of the largest restaurant in Yucca Valley. If you have a resort with those sort of facilities available, it is really more of an event center than a hotel or a resort. This is not what should be approved on rural living spaces.”
Russ Cohen said, “All I m asking is that you abide by your own county policy plan [and] the Homestead Valley Community Action Guide.”
Carrie Alie said, “What’s missing in the condition of approval for this project is a requirement that the majority of the revenue from this ‘campground’ is from lodging.”
Steve Bardwell, the president of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association, said his organization “rejects the findings of this proposed mitigated negative determination. The initial study describing this project as a campground is false and incorrect. The project must be analyzed as what it is: a resort hotel. The mitigated negative declaration is wholly inadequate in addressing the following as well as other issues: -The potential adverse effects on wildlife and habitat fragmentation in proximity to wildlife corridors. -There is no mention of the Pipes Canyon area of critical environmental concern within the mitigated negative declaration. -The destruction of Joshua tree woodland habitat must be studied and evaluated with the ongoing cumulative loss of habitat contributing to species extinction. -Significant impacts on scenic vistas. -The introduction of artificial light sources within a relatively dark area. The creation of excessive noise sources within an otherwise quiet area. -Air quality issues related to vehicle traffic, use of campfires and the potential for wildfires initiated from the site. -The potential for adverse effects on water wells, drainages and blue line water courses. -The impact of additional traffic on Highway 247.”
Peter Spur said the county needed to do a full environmental impact report rather than accepting a mitigated negative declaration with regard to the project. Doing so, he said, amounted to being “hopelessly irresponsible and poor public policy.”
Claudia Soll said the project “will preclude a more needed use for affordable housing.”
David Lamb said he was probably “one of the only people in favor of this project. His support, he said, was conditional upon the developer putting in a traffic light and high speed ramps for those getting onto and off of Highway 247. He said he was concerned that people would go to the campground to live.”
Claire Wadsworth she said she was concerned about fire hazards and traffic hazards that would result from the completed project.
Jake Ireland said the property on which the project is to be located is “zoned rural living for a reason, not commercial for a reason. Respect that.”
Olivia Stroud said the inclusion of a music venue in the previous version of the plan led her to the conclusion that the stated intent to limit development on the entire 640 acres to 25 acres was not sincere.
David Scott said the heavy wind in the area would ruin the campground’s tents and destroy the viability of the campground as a business.
Welty, as chairman, offered Ferguson and a biolgoical issues consultant working on behalf of RoBott an opportunity to refute the assertions in the statements of opposition to the project.
“Our initial project proposal in our pre-application and throughout the conditional use application and even today described this as a a campground that also had resort amenities,” said Ferguson. “That’s why the project description in your staff report describes this as a resort. But it is also described as a campground. We discussed this with your project planner early on and it does qualify to be called a campground. That is why we moved forward with the project. We have campsites. We understand the wind. We understand how people should act in a campsite. We expect through the operator’s conditions of approval – and people that would be there – people are going out to the desert to come to this place. I honestly believe it would not be their intent to come live off the desert We’re not going to allow all terrain vehicles. These are people that are going to come and they’re going to relax or they’re going to hike or they’re going to go to the park or they’re going to go to downtown shopping. We do believe the management intends to make sure that happens. There’s not going to be wild parties. There’s not going to be excessive noise. That was the major we reason we had originally talked about having the festival and then deleted it from the project site. We deleted the festival and also the 90-acre parking lot, which reduced the effects on Joshua trees significantly.”
Dr. Tom McGill of Element Environmental Consulting, who was retained by RoBott Land Company, said that while there is a wildlife corridor in Pipes Canyon, “Animals may come up on the hillside and go back down, but it’s a fairly small area out of hundreds and hundreds of acres set aside for the corridor. I don’t see it having any kind of really significant impact. Animals will continue to move through, bypass. They’ll go down through the corridor, go through the area. There’s a lot of housing and development actually west of the road through there. That creates more of an impediment than this development here would for movement of wildlife through the area. There’s some desert tortoise and kind of a limited desert tortoise populated in this area as opposed to say the upper Mojave Desert, but there’s an entire system in place with Fish & Game and with Fish & Wildlife for addressing that issue. Those agencies will dictate what should be done.”
Weldy said the commission would not focus on whether the project would be successful commercially but whether it was a compatible land use in the area.
Weldy presented an argument for allowing the project to proceed. After confirming from staff that 82 houses could be built on the property in question, he said, “Eighty-two houses and the number of trips impacting 24/7, 82 houses impact to the environment, 82 houses as far as the footprint of people and what happens on residential lots is considerably more devastating to than the 25 or 40 acres that we’re talking about.”
Weldy said that those opposed to the project had not done anything to end the off-road and all terrain vehicle use in Pipes Canyon, and that the project proponents had committed to doing so, though he expressed doubt they would be able to actually that goal.
Commissioner Matthew Slowik appeared relatively favorably disposed toward the project.
Commissioner Melissa Demirci made no substantive statement.
Michael Stoffel was relatively non-commital as well.
Commissioner Kareem Gongora was not present.
Weldy said, “There is clearly energy on both sides. Regardless of how this turns out, I want to remind everyone that we serve at the pleasure of the board of supervisors. So, if you don’t like the decision we come up with, it’s appealable. You can take it to the board and they will make the final decision.”
Weldy then said, “I’m looking for some action on this to move forward or move against.”
Despite the tone of their comments, by which they came across as being more likely to support the project than oppose it, neither Weldy nor Slowik made any motions with regard to accepting Morrissey’s recommendation of approval. Neither Demici nor Stoffel leapt into the breach.
“In the absence of any action, this will die,” Weldy said. “This will be disapproved. Any action?”
There was silence from the rest of the commission present.
“I don’t know the statute of limitations here, but my sense is we are not of one mind to move forward in this,” Weldy said.
Deputy County Counsel Jason said, “Failure to act would be considered a denial,” and said either those in favor or against the project could make an appeal to the county board of supervisors over the lack of action.
“I feel that we are sort of derelict if we don’t make a decision,” said Weldy. “On the other hand, I don’t want to prejudice it either. So, I’m inclined to let it stand as it is. I am going to ask one more time if there is a motion from the planning commission. If there isn’t a motion from the planning commission, then this will be denied and you will have an opportunity to take another run at it, if you choose to, to rethink this project or to head in another direction if that’s the case. So, do I have any motion from the planning commission?”
There was no response.
“I have no motion from the planning commission,” Weldy said. “This is deemed denied as it stands, without prejudice. Fair enough.”
Word has reached the Sentinel that the RoBott Land Company has asked the board of supervisors to consider its appeal of the planning commission’s passive denial.