Surfing in the desert? Plan for Thermal Beach Club would put luxury homes around a surf park

Melissa Daniels
Palm Springs Desert Sun

A first-of-its-kind private residential development and surf park with a 21-acre man-made lagoon in the eastern Coachella Valley is on its way toward becoming a reality after receiving approvals from Riverside County officials on Wednesday.

The county planning commission in a unanimous vote recommended several zoning and planning amendments of existing plans to the county’s Board of Supervisors. The vote paves the way for Thermal Beach Club to be developed on Kohl Ranch, a 2,200-acre property in the unincorporated community of Thermal.

Envisioned as a multi-generational vacation destination and a luxury community equipped with world-class, resort-quality amenities, the centerpiece of Thermal Beach Club is an approximately 21-acre surf lagoon outfitted with wave-making technology to simulate ocean waves.

Plans for the surrounding property include: 

  • 326 units on 210 resident lots; 
  • bungalows, villas and estates;
  • a 16,000-square foot recreational center with a spa and exercise room;
  • an 8,000-square foot pool and bar; 
  • a 4,500-square foot clubhouse restaurant with bar, retail shop and kitchen.

While the planning commission's public documents outlining the plan don’t dive into the economic impacts of the project, the concept as presented would represent a major new tourist draw for the area, and the further commodification of a largely rural swath of the valley where the median household income is about $27,000.

The area is also home to the Thermal Club, a motorsport club and resort where wealthy racecar enthusiasts can buy memberships and construct million-dollar homes around a private racing track.

Those behind Thermal Beach Club point to the multi-million-dollar infrastructure investments that have and will be made at Kohl Ranch for the benefit of the area.

Scott Hildebrandt, the senior vice president of Albert A. Webb Associates, which handles engineering for Kohl Ranch, said during the planning commission meeting that Thermal Beach Club is just a piece of the much larger Kohl Ranch development.

“We do think this project will help jumpstart some more development within the Kohl Ranch area, which will allow us to do more with infrastructure, more with housing in the area,” he said.

After Wednesday's vote, the board of supervisors next will have to sign off on the zoning and planning amendments. Once those entitlements are in place, developers can begin to move forward.

The proposed site for The Thermal Beach Club, which includes residential lots, a clubhouse and surf lagoon, is located on 66th Avenue across from Martinez Road in Thermal, Calif., on Tuesday, September 24, 2019.

A plan that doesn't include affordable housing

Thermal Beach Club is proposed vacant land between Avenues 64 and 66 by Polk Street. The space sits east of Desert Mirage High School and south of Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, Lesly Figueroa of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability said she is concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the area. Just a few avenues away from the proposed surf park is a mobile home park that recently had elevated levels of arsenic in the water, and some residents in the area deal with “abusive” landlords, she said.

She noted that the original plan for Kohl Ranch, which does include some high-density housing areas, was approved back in 1999.

“I think we know a little bit more about the realities of what we really need,” Figueroa said.

Hildebrandt said while the project doesn’t sit in a zone that requires affordable housing, the Kohl Ranch property has 800 lots that are awaiting a builder. The original plan approved back in 1999 allowed for development of more than 7,000 homes, according to county records.

“We’re looking for a home builder to come in and build homes so we have homes for the workforce in this valley,” he said. "There's a need for those homes. That has always been the vision for Kohl Ranch and it is still today."

The proposed site for The Thermal Beach Club, which includes residential lots, a clubhouse and surf lagoon, is located on 66th Avenue across from Martinez Road in Thermal, Calif., on Tuesday, September 24, 2019.

But where will the water come from? 

Water needs also were addressed at Wednesday's meeting. Water infrastructure has already been built to fill and maintain a lake at Kohl Ranch, and the proposed lagoon would be filled by treated water from a reservoir fed by a canal, Hildebrandt said.

The lagoon would be outfitted with state-of-the-art technology that can control the height, frequency and breaking angle of the waves. It could also control the area of the lagoon that's affected, allowing for waves in one area and calmer waters in another.

That type of control is the draw for the surfers who would come to surf and train at the club, Hildebrandt said.

"The chances of you actually getting a perfect wave out at the beach, you're gonna be waiting a long time," he said.

Thermal Beach Club isn’t the first development to propose constructing a surf park in the desert. The year-round sun and ample land have made it a prime candidate for such proposals. But a survey of other surf parks in the nation shows that it would be the first to have the option of purchasing high-end homes at the property.

Planning Commissioner Guillermo “Bill” Sanchez, who had asked questions about a new "spine" road that would be built through the project, said he was glad a conversation had been started on affordable housing.

“I also appreciate the fact that this development is extending infrastructure in the area,” he said. “Hopefully future developers can take advantage of that as well.”

Jennifer Jenkins, marketing director of PGA West and The Citrus Club at La Quinta Resort, said there will be partnerships between the properties. Club members could add Thermal Beach Club access onto their plans, while members at the beach club would be able to use the PGA West’s courses.  

She said the surf park will not only help the valley and create jobs, but support the club by adding multi-generational appeal to the area's recreational offerings.

“This project is very exciting to us,” she said. “We have over the years partnered with over 20 different developers and this is probably the most exciting thing that’s happened in the valley in several decades.”

Melissa Daniels covers business and real estate in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at (760)-567-8458 or Follow Melissa on Twitter @melissamdaniels