Three Rivers hotel closer to start line
Residents voice concerns with water, climate change, tax rebate surrounding Sequoia Resort and Spa
By Anthony Ferranti
Reporting for The Sun-Gazette
THREE RIVERS – The Three Rivers Memorial Building was packed last Wednesday night for a town hall meeting with an agenda full of local issues. The largest project, in both scope and interest, was the proposal to build a 225-bed luxury lodge known as the Sequoia Resort and Spa.
The property and rooms will be split into three distinct kinds of hotels each with different amenities. The first is a three- or four-story hotel with a mix of wood and concrete exterior and with vines growing along the third and or fourth floors to shade upper level rooms from the sun. The 102,000-square foot, 100-room building features a first-floor lobby, 6,400-square foot meeting space, 4,000 square feet of retail, and a 120-space parking garage. The second hotel is a series of lightly connected townhomes. The 74,000-square foot hotel will include as many as 100 rooms, a 3,000-square foot restaurant, 1,200-square foot fitness club, 1,200-square foot rooftop bar and 120 outdoor parking stalls. The third hotel are 25, separate, single-story cabins of about 500 square feet each. At the center of these cabins will be a 6,000-square foot check-in and communal lounge, and a 2,000-square foot wellness pavilion offering yoga, face and body treatments as well as a health food store and restaurant.
“During the past few months there’s been a lot of great commentary, debate and opinion regarding this proposed Patel Group hotel project,” said Michael Washam, associate director of the Resource Management. “Unfortunately, a lot of this has been based on misinformation and speculation. The project is closer to the starting line than to the finish line.”
Many residents that evening expressed their concerns that this project seemed to be just that, a race to complete construction without careful considerations of important factors like climate change, water availability, increased traffic, and a tax rebate agreement between developers and the County.
Gautam Patel, the hotel developer, acknowledged residents’ skepticism due to experiences with existing hospitality offerings in the area.
“I have tried to make myself available as much as I can. I’ve spoken to a lot of people. We’re trying to make this actual mixed use in a way that the community can actually use.” At the same time, Patel reminded everyone that because the land is zoned for service commercial a hotel is considered a “by-right development” that doesn’t require a public hearing through the Tulare County Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors.
“We could just go submit for a building permit,” Patel said.
A local business owner expressed outrage at Patel’s characterization of the existing hospitality in Three Rivers.
“As a hotel owner, I take great offense when you have derogatory comments about our hospitality industry and about our restaurants and our businesses. That’s not okay! We are a community!” To which, Patel apologized and admitted that his comments were irredeemable.
That same business owner continued asking about a rumor that the Sequoia Resort and Spa would receive a 50% rebate of the transient occupancy tax.
“Nothing has been agreed upon,” Patel said.
Another resident spoke up asking, “Has it been discussed?” At that point Supervisor Kuyler Crocker stepped in to respond, “The answer is yes. We’re still in negotiations regarding that.” The room erupted at Crocker’s direct response.
Regarding water availability, Kathleen Seligman asked, “There was no mention of climate change in the community plan. And it seems to me that without that we are moving towards a disaster.”
Dave Bryant, chief planner for Tulare County RMA, said the county used a conservative approach to ground water recharge in the Three Rivers Community Plan, a 1,300-page document approved in 1980 and reaffirmed in 2017. Bryant said the plan estimates 50,000 acre-feet of water coming into the Three Rivers water shed area on an annual basis and the projected demand for the entire community of Three Rivers is only about 900 acre-feet.
Seligman argued the water numbers were inaccurate. She said there are nine different aquifers in Three Rivers and they are not equal in terms of water availability.
Bryant countered by saying a Department of Water Resources study conservatively indicated that there is enough ground water recharge just in the South Fork alone to accommodate the entire community of the 900 acre-feet demand per year.
A final question was asked by a resident about when Patel thought he might receive final approvals from the County Board. Mr. Patel expressed a desire to attain county approvals in three to four months.
Airbnbs, Bathrooms and Bears
In the hour leading up to the hotel discussion, RMA discussed bear boxes, public restrooms and Airbnbs.
RMA said it will be replacing all 895 residential trash cans with specially designed bear-proof receptacles, the most humane way of dealing with bears scavenging for food by knocking over trash cans. County staff also gave an update on the long-awaited public restrooms, which will be located near the Three Rivers Historical Museum. Three Rivers residents expressed sticker shock at the price tag for the much-needed public restrooms at an estimated $488,000 to construct the 288 square foot bathroom structure.
Residents also debated details of Tulare County’s regulation of short-term rentals, the most common of which being Airbnbs.
Washam walked everyone through the details of the draft short-term rental ordinance. The proposal is available via the Tulare County website. A search for Draft SRT Zone Ordinance will bring up a downloadable document. Any questions or comments can be directed to Chuck Przybylski, Planner IV at 559-624-7131 or CPrzybyl@cotulare.ca.us. These new guidelines would include a one-time administrative fee estimated between $400-$550. The general timeline to bring this ordinance proposal before the board for consideration in October or early November.
With the timeline and estimated costs disclosed, the floor was opened for questions. A representative for the Sequoia Parks Conservancy wanted to know what considerations were given in the county’s studying and planning for the retention of affordable housing. Washam responded saying, “The fact is there have been only eight permits for new houses in the last two and a half years. It’s hard to develop anything in this community.” Washam shared, as he put it, a spaghetti against the wall idea, “Maybe looking at other communities and trying a partnership, maybe in Lemon Cove and developing that community.”
Acting superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Christy Brigham voiced her concern, “Airbnbs are serving the visitors, they’re providing income to residents. It’s a super complicated issue, but it feels like lack of affordable housing in the community is starting to affect our ability to recruit and retain employees,” she said.
Local business owner Lilly Hart believes in the benefits of Airbnbs, “No president, no diplomacy has helped us learn about people from all over the world and they learn about how we live.” She went on to state that Airbnbs will serve the community as ambassadors much better than a hotel strip would, citing nearby Oakhurst, known to have hotels developed by the Patel Group.
-This article was updated on 8:29 a.m. PST on Aug. 2, 2019.