In the days since a controversial Trinidad hotel project received a conditional state agreement to move forward, critics of the massive development plan have reached for words to describe the outcome: “strange,” “odd,” “confusing,” “disillusioning,” “ridiculous.”
The state Coastal Commission’s decision last Thursday to offer “conditional concurrence” with the project — in other words, signal that the hotel is legally sound so long as the project’s officials meet certain criteria — initially left many in attendance speechless.
“We were all pretty deflated,” said Jason Self, one of the plan’s most vocal opponents. “Most of us felt like it’s fairly pointless to try at this point.”
But the collection of Trinidad residents has found resolve. Self and others plan to sue the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs — which oversees the Rancheria — in a district court in San Francisco. The goal, he said, is to challenge the official processes guiding the five-story, 100-room hotel to construction.
Self said he has heard from a “gazillionaire” attorney offering to lead a legal skirmish over the project. The attorney’s pro bono proposal is important, Self added, because the opposition currently doesn’t have much to finance the litigation and travel costs that would go into a formal pushback.
A group of citizens comprising the Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning (commonly known as HARP), meanwhile, has backed off from the suggestion of a lawsuit.
“We’re certainly not at the point where we’re considering any legal action,” said Richard Johnson, a HARP member. “We’re still trying to understand exactly where we are in this process.”
Rancheria officials breathed a sigh of relief after Thursday’s meeting, where the commission narrowly decided not to object to the hotel over its structural and aesthetic effects on Trinidad Bay’s viewshed.
In subsequent votes, the commission decided by more comfortable margins to conditionally concur with the hotel’s plans to secure a water source and with the project in general.
Rancheria CEO Jacque Hostler-Carmesin said she hasn’t paid much mind to negativity on social media in the aftermath, adding that the tribe has consistently been maligned and treated unfairly.
Instead, the Rancheria is focusing on steps forward, having just received a letter from the commission outlining its necessary next steps. Over the next 60 days, tribal officials will attempt to verify that a well in the ocean — which tribal officials discovered just in time for last week’s meeting — will provide enough water to keep the completed hotel fully and consistently hydrated.
If the water supply isn’t enough, or is too costly to treat, then the tribe will wait until the start of next year, when the city of Trinidad finalizes its own understanding of how much water it could potentially provide to the hotel.
As far as the commission’s decision itself goes, Hostler-Carmesin said the “confusion” stemmed from the staff’s lack of preparation.
“We believe the commission had a difficult time because of how commission staff worded the motion,” she said. “The recommendation from staff didn’t include conditional concurrence, but in the previous staff report (in June), there was conditional concurrence language that had been used.”
Thursday’s decision hinged on a vote by Commission Chair Dayna Bochco, who paused for a moment before voting in favor of the project’s visual impacts. Just minutes before, Bochco had been vocally skeptical of the hotel’s visual details and their compliance with the Coastal Act, a set of laws governing California’s coastline.
Johnson, speaking for HARP, called to attention the “confusing” nature of the vote and its reliance on a double negative: A “no” vote, for instance, rejected commission staff’s slated decision to object to the hotel.
And just minutes later, the commission again approved the hotel on the grounds of water supply, adding conditions that the Rancheria must keep the commission posted on both its routes to securing water access.
Currently, neither of the routes is a sure thing. While commissioners during the meeting chafed at the tribe’s verbal promise to find water, the final 8-3 decision didn’t reflect their qualms, nor did their votes line up with an earlier tiebreaker vote on visual impacts.
“It seems a little incongruous that for one of the votes, (the hotel) did not meet the Coastal Commission standards,” Johnson said, “but the commission turned right around to give it a contingency approval based on water.”
Hostler-Carmesin said the Rancheria is more concerned with meeting the commission’s conditions and less worried about a lawsuit. If the tribe is sued, it will respond, she added.
The commission signing off on the project’s consistency with the Coastal Act had legal implications in a different way: Had the commission sided against the project, the Rancheria wouldn’t immediately be forced to listen. As a federally recognized tribe, it answers to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not state policies.
Rancheria officials had committed to working with commission staff, even after the commission first objected to the hotel at its June meeting in San Diego. But in the face of a “no” vote, the tribe would have pushed on — leaving the commission with a decision on whether to pursue litigation.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but if it had been ‘no,’ we would’ve kept on,” Garth Sundberg, the tribe’s chairman, said after last week’s meeting. “It wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Self said he was “disgusted” by Sundberg’s comment and what he called the Rancheria’s “disregard” for California and coastal laws.
“They don’t care,” he said. “They know that because they have the sovereignty argument, they’re not going to even try.”
Self has sued the Rancheria over its efforts to enter a federal land trust over Trinidad’s harbor area, hoping to put the Rancheria’s repeated verbal guarantee of public beach access into writing.
A judge is expected to make a ruling on the lawsuit within the next two months, Self said.
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.