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WONDER VALLEY AND MORONGO BASIN PUSH BACK AGAINST BIG GLAMP
Wonder Inn and Flamingo 640 Projects both denied by San Bernardino County Planning Commission –– developer appeals are on the horizon
Given the potential for a resort on the JTNP border in Indian Cove, Desert Trumpet thought it would be useful to revisit the activism that resulted in denials for the Wonder Inn and Flamingo 640 projects.
Ever since Joshua Tree found a place in the national zeitgeist as the most instagramable vacay spot in the land, locals have been pushing back on the rush to capitalize on the artsy desert oasis just a few hours from Los Angeles.
Airbnb, Vrbo, and other vacation rentals made the once inexpensive cost of housing skyrocket, and businesses and local services still struggle to find workers. Alarmed at seeing large swaths of their neighborhoods turned into tourist housing, determined locals fought back and got some significant regulations in place, but the lack of affordable housing and changes to the character of their neighborhoods is still a sore spot for many.
Now it seems developers are shifting from the vacation rental market to large glamping camps and resorts offering an extensive range of amenities and services in-house, making self-contained places where tourists can spend their money at guest-only restaurants, bars, and shops.
Glamping camps and resorts might seem like the answer to the local housing issue, drawing visitors away from STRs, but faced with the takeover of hundreds of acres of land in rural, environmentally sensitive spaces, many residents are furious about projects pitching themselves as "campgrounds" to get around residential zoning restrictions. In reality, these projects are essentially small, self-contained commercial tourist towns in residential neighborhoods.
Noise, light pollution, traffic, and environmental destruction top the list of concerns neighborhood groups organized around to keep their area rural and force the San Bernardino County to define exactly what a "campground" is in County zoning regulations.
Citizen activists and local town councils in Wonder Valley and Homestead Valley threw themselves into developing the savvy and well-informed response they’d need to effectively stymie the developer’s plans. Opponents to the projects connected through in-person meetings, email threads, the Save Our Desert website and various social media groups and email lists forming neighborhood effective neighborhood coalitions.
Organizing against the Wonder Inn
The Wonder Inn project would have rezoned a 21-acre parcel from Rural Living to Service Commercial, allowing developers to build a 106-room resort complete with a restaurant, wellness center, a swimming pool and hot tubs, event space; and parking for 205 cars. The project would also include the structure known to locals as the "pink building" at Gammel and Amboy Roads and the three acres surrounding that which were zoned commercial when it was built over 60 years ago to be part of rural electrification.
After learning in late 2021 of the developers’ application to build and to rezone the property around the “pink building”, a group of Wonder Valley residents began regularly meeting to learn more about the proposal, and in early 2022 started the stopwonderinn.org website, also using social media to inform the community with an objective to give them the tools needed to make their views known to the County. The website functioned as a one-stop shop for news, updates, and activism. Flyers announcing the Stop Wonder Inn Project (SWIP) started appearing throughout the basin.
In May 2022 the developers, Alan Greenberg and Jason Landver, came to a meeting at the Wonder Valley Community Center to pitch the project to the community. They were met with skeptical locals who refused to buy into the idea that the project could "blend into the community" as promised.
In January of 2023, San Bernardino County Land Use Services (SBLUS) issued its Mitigated Negative Declaration Report, essentially stating the project would cause no significant environmental impact. SWIP came back with a 187-page detailed response.
By the time the San Bernardino Planning Commission (SBPC) met in March, concerned locals had submitted more than 400 public comments and letters of concern in opposition to the project, with only nine in support.
More than 50 people showed up to speak directly to the Commission, citing possible violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and previous land use agreements, such as the Wonder Valley Community Action Guide. The land use guidelines clearly state any development should "be consistent with and reinforce Wonder Valley's physical and historical character and identity."
There were also serious concerns about the developer's desert tortoise survey, completed by firm ELMT Consulting in 2021. That survey reported no tortoises were present, but a survey done at the developers’ request just a year earlier by Circle Mountain Biological Consultants did find tortoises living on the land. Residents brought out their own photographs of tortoises to bolster Circle Mountain's findings. The developer's team tried to dismiss this evidence, which could trigger a full CEQA report, by declaring the use of Circle Mountain's results unethical because they had never been paid for the work, which blocked their report's official publication.
The SBPC vote to deny the Wonder Inn developers hung on several major concerns—their handling of the environmental survey, the incompatibility of the project with the surrounding community, and the lack of basic infrastructure and resources in the area.
Not surprisingly, the developer isn't giving up that easy—Greenberg and Landver filed an appeal with the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors in April. Information and updates can be found on the Stop Wonder Inn Project website. The developers’ appeal will be heard in late June or early July 2023.
Wonder Inn is not the only mega-project to get pushback in the Morongo Basin. Indian Cove Neighbors, concerned about a development pre-application for a resort on the Joshua Tree National Park border, held a contentious meeting with the developer in November 2022. They are waiting on further action by the developer, which has yet to materialize.
The Flamingo 640 battle
Community resistance to the Flamingo 640 glamping project, located off Old Woman Springs Road near Flamingo Heights, started in April 2021, eventually resulting in developers Robott Land Company presenting their project at a crowded Homestead Valley Community Council (HVCC) meeting in August 2022.
When the project landed at the San Bernardino Planning Commission (SBPC) meeting on March 9, Homestead Valley locals rallied to make sure that Flamingo 640 did not go forward. The tsunami of citizen activism went on for several hours, leaving no doubt how local residents felt about the project.
The project had a recommendation of approval from San Bernardino County's land use services staff despite local objections, and the Planning Commission was deciding on whether to give their stamp of approval for the conditional use permit (CUP) Robott needed to build “a campground” in an area zoned for rural living.
Robott Land's idea of a campground featured 75 camping sites: a mix of camping "lofts," tents and chalets ranging in size from 220 to 1230 square feet, along with two art barns, a bar, a 10,000 sq. ft. restaurant, fire pits, swimming pool, yoga deck, storage buildings, and a helipad. After the early outcry from locals, the helipad was designated for emergency use only.
While campgrounds are allowed in County rural living zoning, the term is so vaguely defined that Robott opted to attempt a simple conditional use permit. This was a different tactic than the Wonder Inn developers, who attempted to change the zoning designation from rural to commercial. Even with the large structures, platforms, and permanent plumbing, Robott still claimed their accommodations were removable, not permanent, to fit the current code requirements.
Robott also presented a field report that found no tortoises; and again, locals refuted these findings. The land sits in the middle of a Bureau of Land Management's Area of Critical Environmental Concern and might hold numerous prehistoric resources, according to Justin Merino, president of the Homestead Valley Community Council. Merino added a section of the HVCC website to gather evidence and issue updates and information on their efforts to stop the project.
While the developers claimed construction would result in removing 42 Joshua trees, with nine of those being relocated, native plant specialist Marinna Wagner countered that the developer’s study did not properly account for grading during the construction process, which could endanger more Joshua trees, and the poor track record of survival when trying to move them.
Traffic also became a flashpoint and community members are in agreement that the proposed location off of Hwy 247 (Old Women Springs Road), a long stretch of a curving two-lane road, is extremely dangerous. Locals balked at the developer’s traffic memo estimating only 100 trips a day despite rooms for 300 glampers and the employees needed to serve them. Many pointed out that the figure appeared to be conveniently too low to trigger a formal traffic report.
Claire Wadsworth, owner of Flamingo Heights restaurant La Copine, recounted horror stories of patrons trying to turn left to enter her parking lot, only to be rear-ended due to fast-moving traffic on the single-lane road. Claire demanded, with support from the crowd of locals, that a proper traffic report be conducted before granting a CUP was considered.
Caroline Partamian, a close neighbor to the proposed site, called for a full Environmental Impact Report under CEQA. An EIR would include a traffic report; wildlife impact study; air quality study; dark sky impact study; and an analysis of the impact on Joshua trees, desert tortoises, and other desert fauna. Partamian also presented a Change.org against the proposed project, which she reported had more than 6000 signatures of opposition from all over the world.
The community’s hard work and passion played a vital role in persuading the Planning Commission to do more than vote, resulting in an automatic denial without prejudice.
It is expected that Robott Land Company will appeal the decision by presenting scope reductions to the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors at the July 25th meeting. Robott is hoping a change in scale will mitigate the objections, but if their proposal is a redesign with major revisions, they will be referred back to the Planning Commission. Either way, unless they address the significant concerns of the community, Robott faces a hard road getting the green light.
Eric Hamburg, Caroline Partamian and Cordelia Reynolds also contributed to this article.
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