La Quinta commissioners delay vote on proposed surf resort after 7 hours of input from developer, residents

Sherry Barkas
Palm Springs Desert Sun

La Quinta planning commissioners delayed a decision on a controversial new masterplan resort with wave basin following a marathon meeting Tuesday that ran into Wednesday morning and included public comments from at least 40 people, most opposing the project.

“This is the first time I’m going to close a public hearing on the next day,” after the meeting was initially called to order at 5 p.m., commission Chairperson Stephen Nieto said jokingly.

Commissioners agreed just after midnight that they needed time to digest all that was presented on Coral Mountain Resort on Tuesday night and asked for additional information from staff and the applicant when they come back April 12.

“This is a huge volume of material and significant issues to try to determine both procedurally and content wise at 12 o’clock at night,” Commissioner Michael Proctor said.

John Gamlin, president of Coral Mountain Wave Development LLC, presents to the La Quinta Planning Commission at La Quinta City Hall in La Quinta, Calif., Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

Commissioners asked that staff come back with more information about the short-term vacation rentals component of the project, including if the applicant would agree to limit the number of the planned 600 homes that can be rented out, and the economic impact on the city.

They also requested more information about the lighting around the wave basin, and a development agreement timeline of when each of the project’s phases must be completed.

Coral Mountain Resort is a $200 million development planned for 386 acres of vacant land on the southwest corner of Avenue 58 and Madison Street.

Nearby residents have voiced their opposition to the project since early 2020, when it became known that The Meriwether Cos. and Big Sky Wave Developments were teaming up as CM Wave Development LLC to buy the land, which is currently part of the Andalusia specific plan, and build a resort community with a wave basin.

The vacant land had been part of the Andalusia development until 2019 when it was purchased by Meriwether and Big Sky Wave from Andalusia’s new owner, Sunrise Co. 

A 750-home community with 18-hole golf course was previously approved for the property.

The wave basin would use technology designed by world-champion pro surfer Kelly Slater and currently only used in one other wave resort, Surf Ranch, in Lemoore.

Key elements of the proposed project:

  • Up to 600 residential units – 496 in an area to be zoned low-density residential areas, and 104 in an area proposed to be zoned for tourist commercial.
  • Up to 150 hotel rooms.
  • Up to 60,000 square feet of Neighborhood Commercial uses at the southwest corner of Madison and Avenue 58.
  • Up to 57,000 square feet of resort commercial uses in the tourist commercial area. 
  • A 16.6-acre wave pool and the equipment to create the waves, maintenance and water treatment buildings and a water tank.
  • 26.5 acres of “back of houses” area immediately south of the wave pool, which can include parking, temporary buildings and facilities for operations and special events.
  • 24 acres of open space on the south end of the property, to include trails, ropes courses and passive and protected open space.

A full house

A near-capacity audience listens to a presentation from John Gamlin, president of Coral Mountain Wave Development LLC, during a La Quinta Planning Commission meeting at La Quinta City Hall in La Quinta, Calif., Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

The meeting began with a packed council chamber at City Hall. Commissioners first listened for nearly three hours to a staff report on the project and findings of the environmental impact report, followed by representatives of the development who laid out their plan for Coral Mountain Resort.

Commissioners asked questions of the developer and staff, then listened for more than three hours as citizens spoke – most of them against the development and the additional traffic and noise it would bring, along with concerns for lighting.

Mostly, they expressed concern for water usage and whether an 18-million-gallon wave basin was the right fit for a desert community, especially when California is experiencing another drought year.  

“Our purpose here is to elevate knowledge and to dispel some misperceptions, which I think are all well intended, but some of the misperceptions I believe are fueled by, to a large extent, by a fear of the unknown and something that is different,” said John Gamlin, president of CM Wave Development LLC.

The wave basin is one component of a health and wellness resort that will provide several options for outdoor activities, including a rope line and a hiking trail that will be open to the public through a partnership with Desert Recreation District.

Spas and swimming pools are also part of the resort that will provide all the amenities guests and members will need, Gamlin said.

The primary goal with the project, Gamlin said, is to diversify recreational amenities that draw visitors to La Quinta, and the valley by offering something different.

“If we don’t adapt the primary driver of our economy, which is the hospitality industry, it will suffer and directly or indirectly, this would affect everybody in the valley negatively. It’s (tourism) what puts food on everybody’s table, directly or indirectly,” Gamlin said.

Many who spoke are members of a citizens group, La Quinta Residents for Responsible Development, and live in Andalusia and Trilogy communities. They had prepared slide presentations, with each speaker taking on a topic of concern.

In November, developers held a demonstration of the lighting that would be used around the wave basin, to show they would not produce glare and impact surrounding views.

Resident Laura DuMaurier said Tuesday that she and her neighbors agree the demonstration proved there was no spillage of light onto surrounding properties.

“But the demonstration did prove what we suspected would be a total wipe-out of the view of Coral Mountain,” DuMaurier said.

Donna Williams talked of noise, disputing the environmental impact report’s findings of little to no impact to neighboring homes.

Williams said Trilogy residents hear Ironman speaker announcements from Lake Cahuilla when the annual triathlon event is held, as well as the cars at the Thermal racetrack and the music from the Coachella and Stagecoach festivals.

So, she didn’t believe they wouldn’t hear noise from the resort, especially during any special events that may be held with attendance of up to 2,500 people.

Derek Wong was one of several who spoke of water and the drought, saying “there’s no telling how long this will last. Maybe a decade. Maybe more. We do not know. CVWD does not know. Do we gamble our future with the supply we currently own?”

Not the only planned surf resort in the valley

Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting came just days after a state water report in which the Coachella Valley Water District was one of three local agencies listed among California’s top five residential water users this winter, amid growing concerns about serious drought.

CVWD serves six valley communities, including La Quinta.

Statewide, the average amount of water produced per customer was 66 gallons per day in January, but many areas in the Coachella Valley are at nearly three times that amount.

On Friday, the Department of Water Resources announced it must reduce State Water Project allocations to just 5% of requested supplies for 2022. It previously set the allocation at 15%, but a historically dry January and February, with no significant storms forecast for March, requires a reduction in the allocation to conserve available water supply, officials said.

La Quinta is one of several locations in and around the Coachella Valley where a surf resort or large water feature is planned.

DSRT Surf in Palm Desert would include a 5.5-acre surf lagoon that would be open to the public. The former Wet 'N' Wild water park in Palm Springs is slated to become a surf park that would be open to the public. Thermal Beach Club surf park resort, which would include a 20-acre surf lagoon, was approved last year by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.

The projects differ from each other in various ways, mostly in that they each use a different wave technology.  

Each of the surf projects has been approved by the respective water agencies, though none have been built. Coachella Valley Water District, which would administer water for Coral Mountain Resort, has said the La Quinta project's annual water usage is under the maximum the district allows. 

The water agency estimates the project’s total domestic water demand for indoor and outdoor use will be about 958 acre-feet per year, well under the 1,200 acre-feet per year that CVWD allows.

In contrast, the gated housing community with 18-hole golf course originally planned for that property would have used about 1,058.4 acre-feet per year. A project with no water amenities or golf would use about 906.6 acre-feet per year, according to the findings of the environmental impact report.

While the focus has been on the wave pool and its use of water, Gamlin said it will account for less than 13% of Coral Mountain Resort’s overall water use, while residential use will account for 45% and open space 32%.

John Perry was one of about a dozen residents who support the Coral Mountain Resort project.

“I’ve followed this project since it was announced more than two years ago. And in that time, I’ve read about every report I could get my hands on … including both the draft and final environmental reviews,” Perry said.

He has also attended community forums on the project, walked the property and listened to the objections, Perry said.

He supports the project for various reasons, including the reputation of Meriwether Companies for “building quality developments in Southern California and other regions,” Perry said.

“Their proposed Coral Mountain Resort is a high-end residential and commercial project which, according to the realtors I’ve spoken with, will increase property values in this end of the city,” Perry said.

Previous reporting of California’s ongoing drought was by Desert Sun environmental reporter Janet Wilson.

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