Thermal Beach Club approved with 'unprecedented' promises. Some residents say deal 'neglects' community
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to allow developers to move forward with Thermal Beach Club, a luxury resort development with a 20-acre surf lagoon and up to 326 homes in the eastern Coachella Valley.
The approval came with promises from the developer to contribute to affordable housing and infrastructure needs in the unincorporated community of Thermal, just north of the Salton Sea. But those promises rang empty for some residents who continued to criticize the project for catering to wealthy tourists and not current residents' needs.
Board of Supervisors Chairman V. Manuel Perez, who represents the Fourth District that includes the area, said before voting in favor that the project has "come a long way" since it was first presented to the board last fall amid a swarm of opposition.
Thermal Beach Club will be built by Whitestar Development at Avenue 66 on Kohl Ranch, a 2,000-acre plot of land west of Polk Street.
In exchange for approval of the resort, Kohl Ranch agreed to donate some of its undeveloped land for affordable housing, or pay for its development elsewhere. And the club's developers committed to a $750,000 fund to pay for water hook-ups for future affordable housing developments, though Perez said that money could be directed elsewhere based on community needs.
Perez called these benefits "unprecedented" and credited the community's vocal advocacy and pushback with getting such considerations on the table.
"This has never been done before," Perez said. "I appreciate the advocacy that occurred over the course of the year, because it got us all to this point."
The project has drawn controversy for being a high-priced, members-only club that will be built in a low-income area that's home to many farmworkers and is predominately Latino, according to U.S. Census data. Critics point to the fact that nearby residences lack access to utilities like water and sewage lines. The median household income in the census tract where the club will be located is about $29,500, according to the latest American Community Survey, compared to $53,539 for the Coachella Valley.
Memberships for Thermal Beach Club begin at $175,000 for a residence club member, according to an interest form, or begin at $1 million for full-time members who will also purchase homes.
Tuesday's vote marked the approval of a change of zoning and other planning requirements that will allow the project to move forward. The developer will still have to obtain building permits before beginning any construction.
Scott Hildebrandt, senior vice president of Albert A. Webb Associates that handles development for Kohl Ranch, presented the project on behalf of Thermal Beach Club and has been the main point of contact on the project for the county and at the public meetings. Within six months, he said, Kohl Ranch will work with the county to figure out where affordable housing could be sited on its land.
In his approximately 40 years of development work, Hildebrandt said this is the first time that there has been this level of community contributions.
"We do recognize we're setting a precedent here," Hildebrandt said.
New support: Project 'needs to be a priority'
The Riverside County Planning Commission signed off on Thermal Beach Club last fall, but plans stalled when the county's board of supervisors deferred a vote on approval to allow for more community meetings amid resident concerns. Two community meetings had been held before the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, Hildebrandt said the project netted 55 letters of support from community members and property owners.
The developers also began working with Juan de Lara, former mayor of Coachella and head of the Salton Sea Action Committee, on outreach and to generate more buy-in. De Lara spoke Tuesday in favor of how the club will raise property values and generate more tax dollars.
“This project needs to be a priority, not an option,” he said.
About two dozen other people spoke up in support, mostly calling in by phone. Dion Lewis, who said he’s in the property management business and has lived in the Coachella Valley for about 20 years, noted it will bring jobs to the region.
Developers cited at least 1,000 to 2,000 construction jobs and 200 to 400 permanent jobs as a result of the project.
Ashley Cintas called in to say her family has lived in the valley for more than 50 years and sees private sector development as helping the local economy, plus schools and infrastructure.
"I do feel this will continue to help the valley prosper, and help the communities and our economy," she said.
Steadfast opposition: 'Not for the community'
About a dozen others voiced their repeated opposition, including several eastern Coachella Valley residents who attended the meeting in-person in Riverside.
Karina Andalon said the project is not being built for residents. She pointed to an existing development, the nearby Thermal Club racetrack, that is just a few minutes from a trailer park. For neighbors who live across the street in trailers, the luxury club is an "ironic" sight, Andalon said. She expressed concern that more plans like this will be approved, and added that those who want them are outsiders.
“People who support the project have only been here once or been here a short amount of time,” she said.
Several people said they were concerned about gentrification, including resident Joseph Avila. He said the valley has seen similar pushes before, citing the razing and redeveloping of Section 14 that displaced people of color in Palm Springs in the 1960s.
“It's not for the community," he said of the project. "If it was, they wouldn't have such a high paywall to get into it."
The nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability continued to oppose the project, with co-director and attorney Phoebe Seaton saying that the lack of a new environmental impact report could violate state law. While documents used as the basis for Tuesday's approval included an addendum to that report, Seaton said the proposed use of the land has changed so drastically with the addition of the surf park that another one is necessary, though county planning staff disagreed.
She further criticized the proposed development for creating "an exclusive enclave of affluent, disproportionately white vacationers."
Rebecca Zaragoza, who grew up in Thermal and now works for the Leadership Counsel, said 337 residents have signed on in opposition to the club amid concerns about how the project exacerbates gentrification, a growing wealth gap and racism.
Zaragoza said the community has advocated for investments that will directly address existing needs like clean water, better transportation and affordable housing.
Approving the project, Zaragoza said, is "completely oblivious" to the current and historic needs of residents. She grew up near the site of the project and said, hypothetically, that seeing the site on the way to school would have been a reminder that her family couldn't attain that level of wealth no matter how hard they worked.
"It would have been a constant reminder that because of who we are in the eastern Coachella Valley, we just aren't deserving," Zaragoza said. "This type of discrimination and neglect of low-income communities and communities of color needs to stop."
Perez: Deal is a 'good faith approach'
Before casting Tuesday's vote, First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said he would welcome Thermal Beach Club in his district, which also has low-income unincorporated communities, if not approved for Thermal.
He also praised the developers for the "unprecedented" deal.
Perez said everyone involved in discussions about the club over the past year sees the need for affordable housing and infrastructure improvements. But with its own resources limited, the county has to make partnerships to get those advancements, he said.
"I believe that we are bringing a good faith approach to ensure that our communities in the east end also have the same amenities that others have on the west end, or other parts of the county of Riverside," Perez said. "And I'm just talking about the basic stuff. Paved roads. Sidewalks. Arsenic-free water that's clean and hasn't been contaminated."
The Thermal Beach Club developers' commitment of $750,000 in community funds is based on a $2,300 contribution per each of the 326 homes at the club. Funds could go toward water line connections, but Hildebrandt said they’re open to other possibilities if the county determines it would be better elsewhere. Some have suggested a community park.
While the club is not open to the public, the project's developer Brian Grantham of White Star put in writing to the county earlier this month that it will offer programs for local surf clubs, as is the case with other surf clubs being proposed for the area, and other opportunities for young people. Thermal Beach Club includes a 22-acre lagoon with wave‑making technology for surfing and water recreation, and 34,400 square feet of clubhouse buildings.
"Thermal Beach Club is committed (based on the school’s willingness) to participate alongside other local businesses within the Thermal community to offer vocational arts programs to the students at Desert Mirage High School," Grantham wrote.
Kohl Ranch previously conveyed the land for the Desert Mirage school complex to the Coachella Valley Unified School District at a below-market rate, according to county filings, and the surf club will be down the road.
He also said the project will commit to hiring and buying local "whenever feasible."
Hildebrandt pointed to the $40 million of improvements that Kohl Ranch has made in the area, including investments for the Desert Mirage school complex and an arsenic treatment plant use to clean up water in the area. He also brought up water and sewer extensions that allowed the county to construct its sheriff’s station and fire station just north of Kohl Ranch.
If completed, Thermal Beach Club could add about $4 million more worth of public infrastructure upgrades, Hildebrandt said.
"This is community benefit that goes beyond just the limits of Kohl Ranch," he said.
Melissa Daniels covers economic development, hospitality and local business in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at (760)-567-8458, email@example.com, or on Twitter @melissamdaniels.