Thermal Beach Club has not broken ground 14 months after approval. What's the status of the project?

Tom Coulter
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Vegetation grows around signs located near the proposed Thermal Beach Club in Thermal, Calif., on November 18, 2021. The Thermal Beach Club development, a luxury wave pool resort that the county board of supervisors approved in October 2020, has yet to break ground, as county officials are working on an agreement with the property owner to follow through on some of the housing promises made to nearby, low-income communities.

More than a year after plans were approved for the Thermal Beach Club, a luxury resort that would include a 20-acre surf lagoon and more than 300 high-end homes in the eastern Coachella Valley, the project has yet to break ground — and its development timeline could hinge on what promises are made to surrounding communities.

The luxury resort, which won approval from the Riverside County Board of Supervisors in October 2020, has been slated for development in a corner of Kohl Ranch, a sprawling plot of land south of Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport and north of Avenue 66 in Thermal.

But since that meeting, little has changed at the site. A sign providing notice of the October 2020 public hearing still sits along Avenue 66, now with graffiti covering part of it, and no building permits have been submitted so far for the project in the works by Whitestar Development. 

While still expected to move forward, the project has sat dormant in recent months, partially due to an issue repeatedly raised in public meetings: Whether the project further amplifies economic inequality in the east valley, where the median household income — roughly $30,000 — is less than half of the median countywide, according to American Community Survey data.

More:Thermal Beach Club approved with 'unprecedented' promises. Some residents say deal 'neglects' community

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In the build-up to Thermal Beach Club’s approval last year, the project’s developers, along with the owners of Kohl Ranch, made a handful of community-focused promises, vowing to pay for water hook-ups for future affordable housing or other community needs and agreeing to donate some of the plot’s undeveloped land for affordable housing. 

Some of those commitments tied to the project soon could be put into an agreement with Kohl Ranch officials for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to consider, according to Charissa Leach, assistant director for the county’s Transportation and Land Management Agency.

“The development of the Thermal Beach Club is not required to return for a public hearing unless they were to make a change to their entitlement,” Leach told The Desert Sun in an email. “However, the Kohl Ranch Specific Plan owner is pursuing an amended Specific Plan and a Development Agreement to allow for the verbal agreements that were made at the Board Public Hearing for the Thermal Beach Club, including the provision for affordable housing property.”

“That Amendment and (development agreement) will be required to have public hearings in front of the Planning Commission as well as the Board of Supervisors,” Leach added.

The project’s developers proposed several initiatives — including offering a program for local youth surf clubs — during the public planning process last year, but it remains unclear which of the ideas would be codified in any new agreements. 

Leach did not have a draft version of the development agreement, stating they “have not gotten into all of the details” yet, while the Kohl Ranch specific plan will be amended to include "some Planning Area changes to allow for a variety of housing types."

Officials from Kohl Ranch declined to comment for this story, and Scott Hildebrandt, a project consultant from Albert A. Webb Associates, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Project’s critics want to see more community input

In the buildup to approval of the development, the project’s backers made various promises regarding how the beach club could benefit the Thermal community beyond the walls of the resort, where memberships are pegged to start at $175,000.

The commitments emerged after some community members questioned what broader benefits would come from the east valley development.

After more than a year of public and private discussions, Kohl Ranch officials agreed to donate some of the property's undeveloped land for affordable housing, or pay for affordable housing elsewhere.

In fall 2020, David Kohl, one of the managers of the Kohl Ranch, said in a letter to Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez that he “would be agreeable to documenting these obligations in a Development Agreement to be negotiated with the county.”

A document accompanying Kohl’s letter highlighted other community benefit efforts, including a housing development on the Kohl Ranch property, known as Quintana, “designed for workforce housing aimed at providing an attractive, highly amenitized development for year-round residents including teachers, policemen and fireman.”

The document mentions that Kohl Ranch sought “to collaborate or partner with a housing developer to move forward” with the development, and it appears as though a partnership has formed: A sign along Avenue 66 requesting “bids for all trades” advertises Quintana as a project by PardeeHomes, a Pasadena-based home building company. 

Vegetation grows around signs located near the future site of Quintana in Thermal, Calif., on November 18, 2021. The Thermal Beach Club development, a luxury wave pool resort that the county board of supervisors approved in October 2020, is on pause until the developers follow through on some of the promises they made to nearby, low-income communities.

Any affordable housing included in the county’s development agreement with Kohl Ranch would be zoned outside of the lot approved for the Quintana project, according to documents provided to the county by Kohl Ranch.

The project’s developers also committed to a $750,000 fund that could be used for a variety of uses, including sewer or water hook-ups for future developments, a public park, or affordable housing. That community benefit fund was a condition for the project's initial approval, and a development agreement is not needed to enforce that aspect of the deal, according to Leach. 

Organizers from the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an organization opposed to the project that spread the word about it locally, are hopeful that a development agreement laying out the housing commitments will be reached and include input from local residents.

“From my understanding, it looks like (the project) will be advancing when they get this settled,” Omar Gastelum, a policy advocate with LCJA, said in an interview. “But the important part of this process is making sure that not only the county is involved in these negotiations on the community benefits, but also the community itself is included in this process to determine what the funds will look like and what they can be used for.”

But regardless of whether an agreement is reached, the LCJA organizers also argue that the amount of money already earmarked — $750,000, or about $2,300 per housing unit within the club — isn’t enough to address the issues facing Thermal residents.

“The reality is that $750,000 will not help with the water infrastructure or housing developments,” said Lesly Figueroa, LCJA’s communications manager. “For construction, it is nowhere near enough money that is needed to solve some of the disinvestment (in the area) ... It can help probably propel some of those projects, but we need that commitment."

Figueroa was optimistic there would still be an opportunity for residents to provide input on what the promises should be, noting many residents “have been promised a lot of things in the past” that ultimately never materialized. 

It’s unclear when plans for the Kohl Ranch could be discussed again at a county meeting, though county officials expect it could be by summer. 

“There is no timeline but I would imagine that we could be to Planning Commission mid-year if all goes smoothly,” Leach said. 

Perez, whose district encompasses the Thermal Beach Club development, described the project and its accompanying promises as “a good-faith approach” during the board meeting last year, and he still wants to see those promises come to fruition.

"Supervisor Perez’s goals for the project are to contribute to affordable housing development and community infrastructure," said Darin Schemmer, Perez's communications director. "The project is working with the county to do that to account for affordable housing and to meet the condition of approval for the community benefit fund."

Perez's team anticipates "discussing with the community what the affordable housing development agreement and community benefits will be, but we are not there yet," Schemmer said in an an email, adding: "There was a lot of discussion with the community before the project was approved."

Community members see benefits, downfalls in project

The surf club resort, which would sit next to three schools of the Coachella Valley Unified School District after Kohl Ranch previously conveyed the land to the district at a below-market rate, has divided many residents in Thermal, an unincorporated area with a population of roughly 2,700.

Desert Mirage High Schoolers leave campus at the end of the school day in Thermal, Calif., on November 18, 2021. The Thermal Beach Club development, a luxury wave pool resort adjacent to the school that the county board of supervisors approved in October 2020, has yet to break ground, and county officials are working on an agreement with the property owner to follow through on some of the promises they made to nearby, low-income communities. One of those promises was to let a local surf club from the school use the lagoon, though it's unclear what will be included in the development agreement.

Critics have argued the project will do nothing to uplift the surrounding community, where some residents struggle to access healthy drinking water, and only further underscores the region’s inequity. 

Project supporters counter that it will boost the area’s infrastructure and thus promote further development close by, subsequently boosting local property values.

Proponents have also pointed to the project’s estimated job creation — about 1,000 to 2,000 construction jobs and 200 to 400 permanent jobs — as a plus, though LCJA officials have stated in letters with county officials that Kohl Ranch did not provide detailed documentation supporting those estimates. 

Thermal — one of a handful of unincorporated communities in the eastern Coachella Valley — doesn’t have a mayor to keep in touch with the project’s developers, and members of the Thermal-Oasis Community Council haven’t heard much about the project since its approval over a year ago.

Matthew Melkesian, who chairs the council, said he was unsure of where the development process stood when contacted by The Desert Sun – but added that he backed the project regardless.

“I definitely support the project, and I think it builds a lot of off-site infrastructure, which helps out the community in general,” Melkesian said. “It makes it more affordable for developers to attach to that infrastructure, because they have less off-site work to be done with it. … That’s just kind of the natural process of building houses in underdeveloped areas.”

Melkesian, who also helps operate Desert Empire Homes, a mobile home park in Thermal, said the pushback on the project has been “misguided” and “selfish,” arguing “the little group of people that’s in outrage isn’t going through the right channels to express their frustration.”

But the project has gained many opponents, including some on the same council as Melkesian. Councilmember Mike Wells said he hasn’t heard any updates on the project since a meeting with the developers over a year ago.

“It’s been a while,” Wells said. “I have no idea what they’re doing (with the development).”

Wells has been critical of the project throughout the approval process, arguing “there’s nothing for the local people at all” that will come from it.

“My job with the council is to make sure (a proposal) benefits our community, and I’m not sure I see very much in that project,” said Wells, who also posited any local residents hoping to use new water and sewage outlets would still have to pay to connect to them.

“They did say something about opening it to a surf club at (Desert Mirage High School), and that’s fine," Wells added. "But that’s certainly a limited volume of benevolence to the community.”

Tom Coulter covers politics. He can be reached at thomas.coulter@desertsun.com or 442-241-4999, or on Twitter @tomcoulter_.