La Quinta council delays vote on proposed surf resort. Here's what staff, residents had to say in 5-hour hearing

Sherry Barkas
Palm Springs Desert Sun

The La Quinta City Council delayed making a decision on the proposed 386-acre Coral Mountain Resort — with 16.6-acre wave basin as its centerpiece — because council members said they still have key questions, mostly related to water usage and the drought outlook, after listening to staff, the developer and residents.

The decision to continue the discussion of the surf resort to a special meeting set for 4 p.m. July 5 came after a five-hour public hearing that started Tuesday night and ended after 1 a.m. Wednesday and brought dozens of residents out to speak, most against the project. 

“We’ve covered a lot of territory tonight and I appreciate all the comments, and I know there are a few folks that left early and may not have had a chance to make public comments, so this will give them another opportunity,” Mayor Linda Evans said.

Gathered residents listen to proceedings during a council meeting at La Quinta City Hall in La Quinta, Calif., Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

In addition to the more than 25 people who spoke either in person or by phone, the city received dozens of written comments by 2 p.m. Tuesday, City Clerk Monika Radeva said. The city was continuing to receive written comments throughout the night, which she said would be posted on the website with the agenda on Wednesday.

What is Coral Mountain Resort?

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.

The developer is also requesting a zoning amendment to allow for tourist commercial use for the resort, which would also allow homes to be used as short-term vacation rentals.

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. 

The project was narrowly approved planning commission on April 26.

If approved, the resort would bring La Quinta additional revenue through transient occupancy taxes from the hotel and short-term vacation rentals, over and above the $1.6 million in annual costs to provide public safety and other government services to the area, said Danny Castro, design and development director for the city.  

The project is to be built in phases, so the actual costs and revenue are dependent on which portions of the project are constructed in any given year, Castro said.

Proposed general plan land use for Coral Mountain Resort, with wave basin, planned for the southwest corner of Avenue 58 and Madison Street, La Quinta.

The Coral Mountain property is situated within an area of south La Quinta known as the Thermal Redevelopment Project Area, which the city annexed several years ago and includes Trilogy, Andalusia and portions of PGA West.

Under state guidelines, 100% of the property tax from that land must be used to retire a long-term debt of the former county redevelopment project. The earliest La Quinta would begin receiving property taxes is 2033, officials say.

Opponents cite various concerns but water tops the list 

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.

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

Opponents have questioned the timing of a project that includes a surf resort amid another drought year, and said CVWD’s two-year-old water supply analysis doesn’t take into account the depleting water supply from the Colorado River.

In addition to water usage by the wave basin in a climate change-induced drought, objections include concerns for lighting, high volume of short-term vacation rentals and increased noise and traffic.

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

The wave basin will use about 13% of the 958-acre-feet of water Coachella Valley Water District estimates Coral Mountain Resort will use annually at build-out, and about 75% less than what a golf course would use, officials say.

Which experts should council follow?

“How can I know that the WSA (water supply analysis) is indeed correct when it is being challenged through public comment that it is invalid, it’s old … and the EIR needs to be redone and recirculated?” Councilmember Robert Radi asked. “How do I know what’s in front of me is indeed accurate from the WSA point of view?”

Mayor Linda Evans listens to public comment during a council meeting at La Quinta City Hall in La Quinta, Calif., Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

From the California Environmental Quality Act – CEQA – point of view, CVWD is the water expert, said Nicole Sauviat Criste, consulting planner for the city.

CVWD reviewed and adopted the water supply analysis, she said.

Had the water agency found the water supply analysis inadequate, they would not have adopted it, Criste said. CVWD approved the water supply analysis for this project which will consume 958.5 acre-feet per year, well below the 1,200 acre-feet allowed for new developments, she said. 

But climate change is bringing unpredictable changes in the weather, such as the Valentine’s Day 2019 storm and the historic drought, La Quinta resident and environmentalist Katie Barrows said.

“We’re losing songbirds at unprecedented rates, mosquitoes have become the new normal, bees and other pollinators on which we depend are struggling,” Barrows said.

With respect to water, the question isn’t whether Coral Mountain Resort would use less water than a golf course, but the timing of the project when California is experiencing an historic drought, Barrows said.

“Given the water shortages and requirements imposed on individuals and businesses to conserve water, does La Quinta want to be known for approving a private water intensive wave park that is only accessible to a privileged few?” Barrows asked.

She believes more could be done do to reduce water usage at Coral Mountain and said she would like to see more focus on native species in the landscaping.

Barrows said she has been talking with the developers on ways to enhance the sustainability using more native plants than currently called for.

“I think Coral Mountain can do more to reduce water and in particular I would like to see them focus more on native species,” she said.

Weather data requested

James Vaughn, CEQA and land use attorney for the CR Wave LLC, said he understands the concerns about water use.

“It’s perfectly understandable that well-meaning folks would raise concerns about a wave basin amenity in a desert environment. But here those concerns simply aren’t backed up by the facts. They’re not supported by the factual information set forth in the EIR or in the city staff reports,” Vaughn said.

CVWD has shown in its analyses that the district can meet current and future water demands, even in an extreme drought, “in a cost-effective and sustainable manner, and that takes into account Coral Mountain’s water use,” Vaughn said.

“This project proposes responsible and wise use of water. It’s less water than the alternative uses and it’s getting more public benefit and more private economic benefits for other residents and businesses of the city, using less water,” Vaughn said.

Gathered residents listen to proceedings from in the lobby during a council meeting at La Quinta City Hall in La Quinta, Calif., Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Radi asked staff to come back on July 5 with information about weather patterns.

“Not only are we in a drought, but as of May 22 … 53.77% of the entire nation is in a drought,” Radi said. “Do we have any testimony on the record from experts that can tell us these conditions are here to stay, there will never be a return to rain or water?” 

From 1973 to 1976 and 1998 to 2001, California saw the same dry La Nina weather pattern currently being experienced, Radi said. La Nina is normally followed by El Nino which brings “tremendous amounts” of water, he said.

A few contentious moments

Other than a joint study session with the planning commission last year to hear staff present the findings of the environmental impact report, Tuesday was the first time the City Council formally heard and discussed the proposed Coral Mountain Resort.

Overall, people were respectful of each other and their differing views, but there were a few points of contention as the night wore on, mostly coming from residents voicing their opposition remotely by phone.

Tom Johnson said he believes council members had made up their minds long ago and the project is a done deal.

“I feel this is a waste of time,” Johnson said. “The decisions were made on day one.”

Evans responded that the project has not been approved.

“It’s under consideration,” Evans said.

“That’s a big joke,” Johnson said in response.

Another resident accused the council of eating pizza purchased by project developers during a break in the meeting.

City attorney Bill Ihrke said while they did have pizza, it was not purchased by anyone for or against the project.

Among the project supporters were Joe and Kim Hammer, who live in Indian Wells but also have property in La Quinta.

Joe Hammer said La Quinta was lucky to be the city where this project is proposed.

“The property would add prestige to La Quinta,” said Kim Hammer, and offer something that would bring younger tourists to the city and Coachella Valley.”

“The valley lacks things that attract young people,” she said.

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