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Late into the long afternoon hearing at yesterday’s meeting of the California Coastal Commission, Chair Dayna Bochco acknowledged two things that had become quite evident.
The first was that she was a bit confused.
The commission had just voted 5-6, narrowly deciding not to agree with a staff recommendation to disagree with a consistency determination from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (See? Confusing.)
The BIA ruled earlier this year that a proposal for a 100-room, five-story hotel project on the Trinidad Rancheria was, in their view, consistent with the California Coastal Act. Some of the commissioners at yesterday’s meeting wanted to demand that the hotel be shorter — no more than 40 feet or four stories tall — but they were outvoted.
The commission, gathered at Eureka’s Wharfinger Building, spent Thursday afternoon discussing two elements of the project: the adequacy of its water supply and the appearance of the proposed hotel — whether it was visually compatible with the character of the surrounding area.
If they had decided that either of those two elements were insufficient to comply with the California Coastal Act, then the Trinidad Rancheria would have a much harder time getting the hotel built. A federal loan guarantee for the project’s financing depends on this consistency determination, and a disagreement between the BIA and the Coastal Commission would likely have led to mediation or lawsuits.
But that’s not what happened. The commission wound up voting on the question of the hotel’s appearance first, though the discussion leading up to the vote had grown increasingly convoluted. Indeed, several commissioners besides Bochco had confessed confusion.
Regardless, Bochco, as chair, wound up casting the tie-breaking vote, and she seemed to realize her pivotal position immediately beforehand.
After appearing to tally the “yes”es and “no”s on a piece of paper, she gave her head a little wag back and forth, the classic physical representation of being on the fence.
Finally, she voted no, signifying that no, she didn’t agree with staff about disagreeing with the BIA on the hotel’s consistency with the Coastal Act — at least not on the basis of its design.
“We’re trying to figure this out,” Bochco said after that first vote, glancing over at the commission staff for help.
Then she made her second acknowledgement, seemingly to no one in particular: “Probably not the best meeting you’ve seen run.” She then shrugged and added sarcastically, “Fire me.”
Bochco’s flippancy was at odds with tenor of public comment, which touched on such weighty topics as Native sovereignty, genocide and the distinct visual character of the North Coast.
As for the confusion, it started early.
Garth Sundberg, the chairman of the Trinidad Rancheria, was among the first to speak, and he told the commission he thought the issue of the hotel’s appearance had been settled at the commission’s June meeting in San Diego. There they’d voted 6-3 to object to the BIA’s consistency determination but asked the Rancheria to reapply.
“We’re back to address the water issue,” Sundberg said. “We understood this was the key issue after the San Diego hearing.”
Turns out some of the commissioners agreed with him. Later in the afternoon Commissioner Erik Howell said it was his recollection that the commission had “put the view issue to bed” back in June. Fellow Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders said that was her recollection as well.
Staff acknowledged that the matter of whether this seemingly straightforward question had been answered was both confusing and complicated. They’d gone back and rewatched the June meeting, they said, and in their opinion, the majority of the commission had agreed with staff that the design of the hotel, which would be 78 feet tall at its north end, was incompatible with its surroundings.
Public commenters were split on the issue. A number of Trinidad-area residents, including members of the grassroots group Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning, or HARP, urged the commission to reject the design.
“We believe it’s totally out of character for this rural area of California coastline, which has some of the most scenic offshore rock formations anywhere in the world,” said HARP member Richard Johnson.
Ted Pease, another HARP member, agreed. “Everyone recognizes the tribe’s absolute right in pursuing economic development opportunities … ,” he said. “But such development must not come at the cost of what makes Trinidad special.”
Humboldt County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone, who unseated Rancheria member Ryan Sundberg last year, thus forcing him to give up his seat on the Coastal Commission, said he too doesn’t find the hotel design appropriate for its surroundings. He preferred an earlier version that was only two stories and more “rustic.”
“I want to get back to a project everybody can support,” Madrone said. He concluded by saying he agreed with staff recommendations, to deny the project’s consistency on the grounds of both its water supply and visual impacts.
However, many speakers defended the hotel design’s appearance and, more pointedly, the tribe’s sovereign right to build it.
Rancheria member Lisa Sundberg said that adding a hotel next to the existing Cher-Ae Heights Casino would increase revenue streams that the tribe desperately needs to address housing issues, drug addiction and other ills affecting the community.
Joy Sundberg, a Native grandmother born in the village of Trinidad, spoke from her wheelchair in the crowd. She took umbrage with some of the comments about the pristine beauty of the area, noting, “The State of California was given away to all the white people” while its native residents were forcibly ushered onto reservations.
Jacque Hostler-Carmesin, the Rancheria’s chief executive officer, seconded that notion. “The tribe’s been looking at this beauty since time immemorial,” she said. “We value it more than anyone.” (She also noted that the Rancheria plans to come back before the commission sometime in the next five years with plans for a highway interchange to provide an exit to and from the casino-hotel via Hwy. 101.)
The other major issue under consideration was a water source for the proposed hotel, and this proved to be another source of both debate and confusion.
Trinidad Mayor Steve Ladwig said the city has yet to determine whether its supply, which comes from nearby Luffenholtz Creek, is adequate to meet the hotel’s water needs.
The Rancheria, meanwhile, very recently discovered a possible alternative water source after drilling a 60-foot test boring on their property. The result was a well that produces water at a rate of five-to-six gallons per minute, which, if it proves reliable and sustainable, would be about half what the hotel requires, according to documents submitted to the commission.
Some of the commissioners were skeptical. Mike Wilson, the commission’s recently appointed local representative and Humboldt County’s Third District supervisor, asked what would happen in the case of a fire at the hotel. Staff said they thought there are collaborative agreements between the City of Trinidad’s volunteer fire department, other local fire departments and maybe CalFire.
Wilson was among several commissioners who said that while they have the utmost respect for tribal sovereignty and environmental justice, they have taken an oath to follow the strictures of the Coastal Act, and they just didn’t see how this project could be considered consistent with that law.
Howell changed the momentum of the discussion, saying not only did he think the issue of visuals had been decided back in June, but he thought the commission should give the project the go-ahead as long as the water source proves out.
Bochco, meanwhile, had been showing signs of impatience all afternoon. While calling up public speakers, she read off the names in groups of three and when they didn’t approach the lectern quickly enough, she got snippy.
“What is happening?” she demanded at one point. An apologetic woman walked up to the mic and said she’d just been giving deference to the person whose name was called ahead of hers.
There was a great deal of discussion among the commissioners before the votes came around. Commissioner Donne Brownsey grilled Mayor Ladwig and Hostler-Carmesin in turn, forcing them to predict exactly when they’ll know whether their respective water sources will be sufficient for the hotel. (February 2020, Ladwig said. Thirty to 60 days from now, Hostler-Carmesin said.)
Bochco again got testy while interrogating Hostler-Carmesin. The Rancheris CEO — like Garth Sundberg before her — had defiantly told the commissioners that they would proceed with the hotel project regardless of the commission’s decision on the consistency determination. That didn’t sit well with Bochco, who wanted to know how they could build a hotel if they weren’t confident of a water source.
“Who decides [that] if there’s no water, they can’t build?” she asked.
Amy Dutschke, the regional director for the BIA, approached the public mic and responded, “Common sense.”
“No no no,” Bochco said, clearly annoyed. “There is no common sense in this room right now. Jacque, you said you’re going to — .”
“Let me backtrack on that,” Hostler-Carmesin said. “We believe we’ll go forward. We have $5 million invested.” She said the decision on whether to build the hotel would ultimately fall to the tribal council, and that appeared to placate Bochco. But her impatience resurfaced as the commission moved toward voting.
As noted above, the first vote was about the hotel’s appearance. Commissioner Carol Groom put forward a motion to make consistency dependent on lowering the height of the hotel to four stories. Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh seconded.
Before the vote, Wilson discussed the limits of granting leeway in the name of environmental justice when it comes to compliance with the Coastal Act. He noted that “tribal members have endured some pretty patronizing bullshit” (later apologizing for his language) but said ultimately he worried about the precedent it would set to
approve concur with the consistency vote on the hotel as currently designed.
But Wilson found himself in the minority on this vote. Bochco broke the 5-5 tie, green-lighting the five-story design.
Next up was the matter of the water supply. Howell made a motion to side with the BIA and find the project consistent with the Coastal Act, though he added the following condition: that prior to construction of the hotel, the BIA shall provide evidence that the Rancheria has a legitimate water supply, one the Coastal Commission director finds acceptable.
Wilson seconded the motion, but before the vote could commence he returned to the topic of fire protection. Bochco was visibly irritated by this delay. She sighed deeply. She turned her back toward Wilson as he asked about ladder trucks and public safety. She was agitated.
Wilson asked Howell, the original maker of the motion, if he’d be amenable to making the consistency finding contingent on an analysis of fire safety or an agreement with local emergency services providers.
“I have no issues with that,” Howell said.
This brought Hostler-Carmesin back to the lectern. She said the Rancheria has preliminary agreements with CalFire and added that she found it “a bit arbitrary and late in the game” to be made to address the issue.
The vexation was practically radiating off of Bochco at this point, and Howell agreed to remove the condition for fire safety — whether due to Hostler-Carmesin’s objections or Bochco’s agitation was unclear.
This vote was more lopsided: 8-3 in favor of agreeing with the BIA’s consistency determination, pending reliable water. Commissioner Aminzadeh, Commissioner Linda Escalante and Commissioner Caryl Hart were the three dissenting votes.
But the meeting wasn’t over! Staff explained that there was still one vote left to make: whether or not to agree with staff’s recommendation for the project as a whole, which was to object to the BIA’s consistency determination.
Some of the commissioners looked back and forth at each other. It wasn’t clear that everyone understood what this vote meant, but the roll call came quickly. Like the previous motion, this one saw an 8-3 vote along the same lines.
As people stood up to leave, Bochco told them to keep it down since there was still more business before the commission, but she was confused again. Staff reminded her that they’d taken care of all the other matters on the agenda earlier in the day. The meeting was over.
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Looking back on it today, some were still not quite sure how things wound up the way they did.
“It was a very confusing meeting, and it was clear that some of the coastal commissioners themselves were very confused at some points,” said Jennifer Kalt, executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper. She was among the critics of the hotel project.
On Facebook, some people speculated that Bochco had accidentally voted against her own intentions:
Reached by phone today, Wilson acknowledged that he was confused by the end of the meeting.
“It really wasn’t clear because of the layered nature of the proceedings what the third vote was really about, at least to me,” he said.
This was Wilson’s first meeting on the commission, and he said there was a lot of chatter during the proceedings among the 11 commissioners in attendance, which isn’t something he’s accustomed to.
Regardless, he wasn’t happy with the final vote.
“If there had been some more time taken I would have voted no,” he said, quickly adding, “And that’s on me. … There just seemed to be a lot of pressure to move things along, so I think a lot of clarity got lost. It was certainly a learning process for me.”
Since the vote was 8-3, Wilson’s mistaken vote didn’t swing the decision. “I would have kicked myself pretty hard if it did,” he said.
Looking back on the rushed proceedings, Wilson said he only seconded Howell’s motion so he could add the safety element addressing emergency fire services.
“And I think I made a valiant effort to do that, but it just fell apart because there was some pushback,” he said. “And having lost the first condition related to the [hotel] height, I just was trying my best to make sure the public safety element was addressed. But I was unsuccessful.”
He came away from the meeting disappointed. He doesn’t approve of the commission’s vote on the matter — nor his own.
“I just didn’t feel the decision was protective enough of the Coastal Act,” he said.