The surf is about to be up in the Coachella Valley.
The Thermal Beach Club is a private residential/vacation community being developed on the privately held Kohl Ranch land, just north of the Salton Sea. The developers hope its beaches and waves are open by 2023 to members—people who can either pay $1 million or more for one of the 326 homes, or $175,000 annually for a non-resident club membership.
Not surprisingly, some current residents of the Thermal and Oasis communities are dismayed by that prospect—and the marketing push being employed by their new neighbor has exacerbated their misgivings. That marketing promises an opulent lifestyle characterized as: “Adventure living. Wrapped in luxury.” Artist renderings and a promotional video reveal a 20-acre wave pool that will feature a continuous stream of waves in excess of six feet each.
“Our communities have remained undefended for generations,” said a representative of the grassroots east valley activist organization No Se Vende who requested anonymity. “It wasn’t just during my parents’ or my grandparents’ time. This is a longstanding issue of not prioritizing our needs, and not engaging with the (challenges) we go through on day-to-day basis. Obviously, this Thermal Beach Club project viewed our community as an afterthought. And, obviously, with such a high membership fee, the people of Thermal, especially (many) who are undocumented and part of the farmworker community, will never be able to access this.”
But proponents of the project—including six of the seven members of the Thermal-Oasis Community Council, as well as all five members of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors—view the buildout, in a disadvantaged region of Coachella Valley, as an opportunity that could jumpstart improvement in the area.
“Honestly, it’s a gut-wrenching scenario that takes place time and time again when we’re talking about land use,” said Riverside County District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez during a recent phone interview. “Mind you, when we talk about the disadvantaged communities of the east end (of Coachella Valley), this particular issue had folks in support as well as against. On the ‘against’ side were the younger activists, while the support came more from individuals who are a bit older and want to see development. And it’s interesting, because if you look at the Thermal-Oasis Community Council, there was a … vote in support of the project, and we’re talking about individuals who grew up on the east end and, quite frankly, individuals who also own polanco (mobile home) parks, who see the importance of bringing in infrastructure. The challenge is how to do that with limited resources.
“So, I do look at this through the lens of social justice, like those individuals who are against this project, but I see how we get there from a different standpoint. I understand that we need clean drinking water. I understand that we need housing opportunities, and we need infrastructure as well as more community centers and parks. We’ve had a few listening sessions to have those discussions, and obviously, we’re going to have more of them. COVID-19 put a stop to that process. But, at the same time, when I think about all of this, the county is in a very limited position to make those type of (infrastructure) investments, especially now because of COVID. So, unfortunately, we have to rely on development from the private sector to ensure that we are able to provide the amenities, and frankly, the basic necessities, that our people deserve. … My colleagues on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors were amazed by what the developer was willing to do (for surrounding communities), aside from the usual costs of paying for permits and development impact fees. They’re demonstrating that the Kohl family members want to be good neighbors.”
Those benefits include a commitment to install water and sewer pipelines and hookups to connect with existing Coachella Valley Water District infrastructure in the area; a community benefit fund into which the Kohl family, through the developers, will pay $2,300 per unit, for a maximum of $750,000; a written “good faith” commitment to engage in a dialogue with the Board of Supervisors to identify land that can be utilized for affordable housing, with access to the new water and sewer infrastructure; a promise to hire local workers for 200 to 400 permanent jobs created by the project; a promise to procure materials and equipment locally; a promise to work with Desert Mirage High School to enable student access to the TBC facilities to learn how to surf; and county property-tax revenue that could eventually total $8.7 million annually.
Other opponents to the TBC development questioned whether there is enough water available to support the development. But according to Katie Evans, communications and conservation director at the Coachella Valley Water District, that is not an issue.
“The Coachella Valley Water District is not a land-use agency, and doesn’t have the authority to approve or deny any type of development,” Evans said. “Instead, our role is to evaluate the water-supply assessment and then provide the information to the land agency about our findings. Whenever a development comes in, they are required to evaluate the amount of water they are going to be using through formulas, and (by studying) past demand, building practices and plumbing codes, and provide that information to CVWD. … We analyzed (the information from Thermal Beach Club), and we do have the water supply to meet that demand.”
Thermal-Oasis Community Council member Matthew Melkesian voted in favor of the project. He said he has a background in low-income housing development—he is currently installing 40 manufactured homes in the eastern valley for the Riverside County Housing Authority—and Melkesian was impressed by the flexibility and generosity of the Kohl Ranch representatives.
“Any time you are able to have a wealthy developer foot the bill on behalf of the community, we are going to welcome that with open arms,” Melkesian said. “The amount of offsite improvements that they have committed to doing is really such an asset and incredible for the community. It’s one of those things that, unfortunately, people and residents take for granted, or they do not know the difficulty involved in the process of developing anything. That’s why I was one of the more-vocal advocates, because I have been a part of infrastructure and low-income housing projects.”
Did Melkesian believe that the young advocates who spoke out against the development were heard by the community council?
“We appreciate the community’s involvement,” Melkesian said. “I’d like to see more members of the community continue their political advocacy and take it a step further: Don’t just get involved in one development or one case that became emblematic of many of our society’s problems. We need to have our community speaking out about what the community needs consistently. It can’t just stop at this project. That’s the only way that lawmakers are going to make changes. … We need people to really speak up and say that we need low-income housing.”
Perez said a broader perspective is required to evaluate the community-changing potential of a development such as the Thermal Beach Club.
“We need mixed land use,” Perez said. “We need mixed income levels. We need mixed housing. We need diversity. Even the economists who are part of the UC Riverside economic forecasts have mentioned that: Moving forward, we can deal with society’s ills by being inclusionary of all these concepts. Quite honestly, I can say, having grown up on the east end of our valley, there’s a reason why it’s impoverished. There’s a reason why all of the development has been on the west end. … I’ve got to think about the fact that there were decisions made back in the day in which the east end was not included.”
Perez said he would ensure that the highly touted public benefits—some of which are described in rather vague terms in the current agreement—are fully realized.
“We made sure we got an agreement that within six months, we’ll start working on the specific plan, and that is going to provide us the opportunity to think about the acreage for affordable housing. Ultimately, what that means is re-writing the specific plan that was written 20 years ago. The developers agreed to that. Six months from now, if that doesn’t happen, that project, potentially, will not move forward. The same thing with the $750,000 community benefit fund. There will be checks and balances at the Board of Supervisors.
“Believe me, this was not easy. I’ve pondered it for over a year, and obviously, we want to make sure that we improve the conditions back home. I want to make sure I follow through on that. I think the east end deserves everything that the west end has. Why not?”