Shedding light on surf resort project: Some La Quinta residents say developer's demonstration didn't sway their opposition

Sherry Barkas
Palm Springs Desert Sun

The developer behind a proposed luxury resort with wave pool in La Quinta sought to answer community concern about the possible light impacts the project might have on the surrounding area, and the Coral Mountain that serves as its backdrop, with a live demonstration on Wednesday night attended by dozens of residents, city staff and officials.

The residents who spoke with The Desert Sun at the site said it did little to sway their opposition to the project. 

Coral Mountain Resort is a proposed $200 million masterplan resort community to be built on 386 acres of mostly vacant land on the southwest corner of Avenue 58 and Madison Street.

Several people parked or stood along Avenue 58 at Madison Street, the northern edge of the site for the proposed Coral Mountain Resort. Others viewed the lights from Avenue 60.

From the corner of Avenue 58 and Madison, the lights were off in the distance and did not appear invasive to Joe LaRusso. He was skeptical about whether the demonstration was an accurate depiction of the lights that would be installed around the wave pool.

A light demonstration shows how light would impact the area of the proposed Coral Mountain Resort, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif. Two boom lifts were raised at opposite ends of the proposed site with the four light fixtures each to demonstrate the maximum light output that would be used for the resort.

“I don’t think this is accurate,” said LaRusso, who lives with his wife across Madison Street in Andalusia.

He and his wife have lived in the desert for more than 30 years, and say they have seen a lot of development but “this one does concern us,” LaRusso said.

It isn't just the lighting, but the potential for increased noise and traffic. 

“This is all high-end residential,” LaRusso said, and the project may be better suited by the polo fields in Indio or out in Thousand Palms where the new ice hockey arena, home of the Firebirds, is being built," he said. “I don’t think this is the place it is destined to be.” 

Graham Culp, managing partner with Meriwether Companies LLC, answered questions from some of the residents taking in the demonstration along Avenue 58.

He said he and his partners were trying to bring something new and different to La Quinta, and the Coachella Valley – a development with spa, health and wellness amenities that includes a wave pool rather than a golf course.

Plans also call for trails, ropes courses, and passive and protected open space.

“We believe there is a market for something different out here,” Culp said.

About the Coral Mountain project

People gather to see a light demonstration at the proposed Coral Mountain Resort site, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif.

Meriwether Cos. LLC and Big Sky Wave Development have partnered to form CM Wave Development LLC to build Coral Mountain Resort. The plan is for a 150-room hotel, 16.6-acre private-use wave pool and up to 600 residential units including custom homes with a starting price of about $2.5 million.

The land is currently zoned for general commercial, low-density residential and open-space recreation use and was initially approved for a 750-home, low-density residential community with an 18-hole golf course and small commercial/retail center.

The developer is seeking general plan and zoning amendments to include tourist commercial to allow for the hotel and other resort amenities, including short-term vacation rentals. The wave pool would replace the golf course.

The resort and wave pool would be accessible to members only and not a public amenity, he said.

When asked about membership fees, Culp said that had yet to be decided but the fees would be in line with other high-end golf clubs in the valley.

The project is still in the environmental review stage. The city received nearly 100 written responses to the draft environmental impact study and is in the process of responding to all questions and concerns raised in those comments.

“In both cases, this will represent a height of 80 feet above the final grade at that location,” she said, as called for in the development plans.

Do two lights tell the story?

A view from Madison Street shows a demonstration light pole on the left with four light fixtures to demonstrate the light impact of the proposed Coral Mountain Resort site with The Quarry at La Quinta seen on the right in the distance, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif.

Many residents of neighboring communities, including Andalusia and Trilogy, have voiced opposition to the project, citing concerns about water use by the 18 million-gallon wave pool during a drought, increased traffic and noise, as well as lighting.

Wednesday’s event focused on concerns about the lights.

The proposal calls for 17 80-foot light poles around the wave basin, using technology that developers say keeps the glare contained to the site.

Opponents, many of whom are members of a group called La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development, have said they weren’t convinced that is true.

During a Sept. 28 joint study session to review the findings of the draft environmental impact report for Coral Mountain Resort, city council members and planning commissioners suggested the developers do a light demonstration.

When the demonstration was announced last week, several opponents questioned whether two lights would accurately show any possible impact of 17 lights.

Two lights were used for the demonstration because it would not have been practical to install or stage a test of 17 light fixtures, said John Gamlin, president of Coral Mountain Wave Development.

Each light requires a temporary power solution for the test, as there is no permanent power currently on the site, Gamlin said. 

“So, the decision was made to model what, in discussion with the city, would have the most meaningful impact: the light pole location closest to the Coral Mountain and the light pole location closest to offsite residential areas to the southeast,” Gamlin said.

The lights were on for one hour, from 7 to 8 p.m.

The light fixtures that will be part of the development are state-of-the-art, “dark skies” compliant lights, he said.

They “bear no resemblance to the stereotypical image people have of the stadium lighting of the past, which is of the 1977-1997 era, and is present at many of the public-school ballfields in the valley,” Gamlin said. 

The lights were placed on booms at what would be opposite ends of the proposed 20-acre wave basin, near the base of Coral Mountain.

Because of the grading proposed for the surf pool, one of the lights was placed 74 feet and 2 inches above the current ground surface and the other light at 71 feet and 2 inches above the current ground surface, consulting planner to the city Nicole Sauviat Criste said.

There were four light heads on each of the two boom lifts, Gamlin said.

“The lights were operated at 100% of their output with no dimming, but just as they would be in actual operations,” Gamlin said.

Opponents not swayed

Trilogy resident and member of La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development Alena Callimanis took in the demonstration from the southeast end, off Avenue 60.

“Until I saw the demonstration, I forgot how wide the light has to be to overlap with the light directly opposite it to cover the 400-foot width of the wave basin,” Callimanis said.

She noticed diffusion/reflection of the light with sand particles in the air and believes that “with the water droplets and water vapor from the wave action, it will be even worse.”

“We saw the two lights a half-mile apart. With 15 (more) of them around the wave basin, it will obliterate all views of Coral Mountain,” Callimanis said.

At about 7:45 p.m., she said she noticed two of the light heads on the boom extension closest to Coral Mountain and Avenue 58 were not on.

The light locations modeled have two light heads. Other locations on the Wave Basin have four heads, Gamlin said in response. 

“To provide an accurate representation of what a four-head fixture would look like, we ran all four, even though that is not what would happen at the subject pole locations,” he said. “Then, we ran them at two, which is what the actual operating conditions would be at those locations.”

The lights were not dimmed and were 100% in both locations whether it was two or four heads, he added. 

Callimanis said she saw some light spillage onto Coral Mountain, directly behind the pole, “but the moon did play havoc with being able to tell how much spillage there was.”

Gamlin said there was none on Coral Mountain or the residence closest to the south location.

“The light vendor collected a lot of data with light meters, evidencing no light overspill beyond a very short distance from the fixture,” Gamlin said.

Not all who came out oppose the project.

One man taking in the view from Avenue 60 said he didn’t see any problems with the lighting or the project before getting back in his car and leaving.

Planning Commission has not announced a date for project consideration.

Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas covers the cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherryBarkas