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LOCALS GEAR UP TO PUSH BACK AGAINST TOURIST DEVELOPMENTS
Residents pack rooms to learn about proposed projects in Landers and Indian Cove
As far back as 2015, Joshua Tree emerged as a darling of travel writers from New York to L.A. In that year, it was noteworthy that tourist numbers increased from 1.4 million to 1.6 from 2013 to 2014. By 2021, that number had nearly doubled to more than 3 million.
Autocamp, a tourist village offering 47 Airstream trailers, opened in 2022 and stands as the only completed tourist development project to date. Now there are four more major proposed projects throughout the Basin, from Landers to Twentynine Palms. All have met with vehement objections from local activist groups fighting to keep a leash on what they see as unsustainable and damaging projects threatening the unique desert landscape that draws tourists to the area.
While some concerns were raised about Autocamp, the location near Highway 62 and Joshua Tree's business district raised fewer objections than for these current projects planned in neighborhoods in areas zoned rural living or residential.
Eco Domes echoing the Integratron
On Monday, October 30, Justin Merino, creator of the advocacy group Save Our Deserts, spoke to a packed house at the Landers Community Center, eager for information about the Eco Dome project. Merino, joining forces with the Morongo Basin Glamping Taskforce and the Stop The Wonder Inn Project, hoped to get more comments on the project submitted before the San Bernardino County deadline on November 1st. Merino requested an extension after discovering the plan now includes a pool and six hot tubs, but the County denied the request.
The proposed Eco Dome project is right next to Lander's most prominent historic structure, the Integratron, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The plan submitted to the County is for a campsite set in two and a half acres featuring six geodesic domes that are twenty-four feet in diameter, plus a central communal dome with a full kitchen. Each dome accommodates up to six people and two pets and includes a full bathroom, an outdoor deck, and a hot tub. The common area includes a pool, horseshoe pit, bocce ball court, and a separate utility building. The manager would live locally but not on-site.
Although there is no indication in the submitted plan the Eco Domes will be an off-grid campsite, the infrastructure list includes a "backup generator" and an "Invertor/electrical room" along with E.V. charging stations with a solar canopy.
Nancy Karl, one of the three owners of the Integratron, said one of her most significant concerns is the solar panels on top of the parking structure.
"What are they going to do at night? They're going to run generators."
Karl emphasized the nature of their business—the sound baths offered in the domed upper floor of the Integratron—would suffer from the noise of a campsite offering outdoor activities with as many as 36 guests and their pets.
Comment letters submitted to Jim Morrissey of the San Bernardino Land Use Planning Department from the Morongo Basin Historical Society, Karl and Merino, all address an array of concerns summed up in the Homestead Valley Community Council’s submission:
“We oppose the approval of a conditional use permit for this project based on the impacts on adjacent and neighboring properties (through increased traffic, dust, and light and noise pollution), the dangers of being situated in a wash, the disruption of wildlife habitat, and the disintegration of local historical landmarks.”
The Integratron is not the only historic structure in the area. The Charlie Reche Rock House's remains and the original wells supplying water to the Integratron are directly adjacent to the Dome project.
The letters assert the resort site is in a dangerous flash flood wash, with a history of washing out fences and flipping cars, and is "directly in the center of a major wildlife corridor" with locals spotting desert tortoises, foxes, bobcats, and other species.
Increased traffic would mean more accidents in an already accident-prone area where Linn turns into Belfield on a tight curve that can be hard to see, especially for tourists unfamiliar with the roads. Karl said it's not unusual to see as many as six to eight accidents a year.
The Eco Dome project plan claims the “defined watercourse" is west of the project site, and there are no known animal habitats or historical features directly on the site.
Indian Cove residents prefer that Yonder would head over yonder
On Wednesday, November 1, Director of Acquisitions and Asset Management for Yonder Development, Luke Searcy, spoke to a packed room about Yonder's proposed tourist resort in Twentynine Palms’ Indian Cove neighborhood. Yonder attempted to avoid objections by pleading their case directly to locals—a strategy that might spring from watching the recent battles over other tourist developments in the Morongo Basin or the company's current struggles trying to get a similar resort built in Townsend, Tennessee. The objections in Townsend mirror many of the issues locals are concerned about here: traffic, light pollution, noise, environmental damage, and altering the character of surrounding neighborhoods.
Searcy emphasized the low-impact and dark sky design, support for local nonprofits, significant conservation easements, and the boost to the local economy in an attempt to sway attendees.
Plans show the resort will span 152 acres, with a 500 ft buffer on the west, north, and south and an 800 ft buffer to the east. Those buffer areas—totaling about 100 acres—will be part of a conservation easement to "make sure it remains natural in perpetuity," according to Searcy.
Guest housing consists of 130 cabins with solar panels and overhangs to reduce energy usage—each single-story cabin is 320 sq ft. There is a main lodge area where guests will check in featuring retail space, a pool, and an oversized hot tub; an informal “grab and go” type food service area open to guests and the general public; and another smaller lodge with a pool.
Employees will be housed on-site, Searcy said, to alleviate pressure on the already tough rental market and make sure there are people on-site to deal with any emergencies. They expect to employ about 50 people.
Movies will be presented on a sixteen-foot-tall outdoor screen with the soundtrack transmitted only to radios or apps, and two lodges will play background music outdoors from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Searcy said Yonder expects to generate $150,000 a year for local nonprofits through a community fee charged to guests. Property taxes and transient occupancy tax (TOT) will mean more than $850,000 to the city of Twentynine Palms per Searcy. Yonder calculates tourist spending at around $200 a day per cabin, generating four million dollars annually.
After Searcy's presentation, he directed people to tables in the back of the room to speak to several specialists. Many objected to not having questions asked and answered as a group, and echoing Searcy’s own words, called it a divide-and-conquer tactic.
Nicole Sauviat Criste of the planning and research firm Terra Nova said an environmental survey will happen this month. However, the famously elusive desert tortoise, a keystone species currently listed as threatened, is most active in temperatures between 79 and 93 degrees. Criste indicated Yonder would alter the site plan if listed species like the desert tortoise are found.
When asked about wastewater infrastructure, Searcy said the site of the septic system has not yet been decided. A source familiar with local regulations told Desert Trumpet that a project of this scale would require sewer lines and a small package treatment plant.
Many were concerned about Yonder addressing necessary road improvements if the project progresses. The City General Plan requires the extension of Lear to Sullivan, a potential improvement to Shoshone Valley Rd, and an improvement to Sullivan triggered by development in that area.
With so many unanswered questions, locals are wary of a development this large in what is now open land in a residential area. Searcy said the company only settled on the site after two years of looking for a suitable location that would work for the Yonder brand.
Many Indian Cove residents are settling in for a long fight and connecting with activists fighting the Yonder project in Tennessee to see what may lie ahead for their neighborhood.
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