A photo of a portion of Varner Road, near the arena site, that is in need of repair. The portion of the road between Monterey Avenue and Washington Street will be repaired by Riverside County as part of $2 million improvement plan. Photo courtesy of Riverside County

On May 5, the Riverside County Planning Commission unanimously approved the Oak View Group (OVG) development plan for the Coachella Valley Arena project—and the project appears to be sailing toward final approval by the county Board of Supervisors on May 25.

The 10,000-seat arena is being built on a parcel of land just north of Interstate 10 and the Palm Desert city line, near the intersection of Varner Road and Cook Street. The 5-0 vote in favor of recommending the project to the Board of Supervisors came after days of hurried negotiations between a variety of stakeholders—some involved in the project’s development, and others concerned about the quality of life and environmental impacts that could result from the arena’s arrival.

In a piece published by the Independent on May 3, Palm Desert City Manager Todd Hileman expressed frustration with the Oak View Group’s lack of responsiveness and transparency regarding a variety of issues of concern to the city, including an anticipated increase in public-safety needs and traffic. But after the dust settled following last-minute discussions, Hileman told the Independent that the city was now on the record as backing the arena development.

“We’re satisfied,” Hileman said in a recent phone interview. “There was a lot of work done in the last week or so (prior to May 5) to come to agreements with CalFire and the county fire chief, and we’ve got a good plan on how to integrate equipment, and a contribution to the new station, as we plan at what point (the city of Palm Desert) will build it. So we feel we’re in a really good position moving ahead on the fire side.

“On the police side, (the county planning department) did a good job, and the applicant has agreed to enter into an agreement with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, as well as the California Highway Patrol, (for traffic supervision) of large events planned at the arena. That was really important to us in terms of managing the impact on our police service when it has large events. So we feel comfortable now that they’ve come to the table and presented really good solutions. Also, in terms of Varner Road, we believe there’s a solid plan ahead to at least improve the condition a little bit.”

That plan for Varner Road was outlined by Riverside County District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez in a media release issued just a day after the Planning Commission vote. The May 6 release had the title, “Construction Starts on Varner Road Repairs in Thousand Palms,” and began by saying, “Over four miles of Varner Road in Thousand Palms, from Monterey Avenue to just shy of Washington Street, will get brand new pavement and wider shoulders in a major county transportation project that is now under construction. The Varner Road Resurfacing Project is a $2 million project that will take two months to complete. The roadwork will resurface three segments of Varner Road, totaling approximately 4.3 miles, and add two feet of shoulders on each side. … The project is funded from the county’s SB 1 funds, generated from the gas taxes and vehicle registration fees paid by motorists.”

Later in the release, Perez is quoted as saying, “Varner Road gets a lot of use and is among the roads in highest need of major work. This road repair project will make the road easier, safer and smoother to drive on, improving the commute for people driving to work, taking their children to school, and visiting local businesses.”

While it’s not mentioned in the news release, that stretch of road runs right past the arena development site.

Palm Desert’s Hileman expressed optimism that the commitments made to the city by the Oak View Group will be kept. “The planning commission is certainly confident,” Hileman said, “and they support the stipulations that their staff helped negotiate on our city’s behalf. …  We believe that we’re in good shape at this point.”

Brian Flynn, the attorney at Lozeau Drury LLP who is representing SAFER (Supporters Alliance for Environmental Responsibility), had previously discussed the organization’s environmental concerns with the Independent—including the fact that a full, recent environmental impact report had not been done for the arena site. Instead, the Oak View Group submitted an addendum to a 2007 report done by the Berger Foundation, the owner of the land. Flynn said he’s waiting to see whether accommodations that have been promised by the Oak View Group make it into the final plan.

“So, it’s kind of a holding pattern right now to make sure that those changes that were required (are implemented),” Flynn said. “But also, we still have issues with the (CEQA environmental report) addendum that go beyond the changes that were made, and are similar to comments we’ve made to the planning commission.”

What are some of those lingering areas of concern? “The specific concerns that we, and others, have raised, such as air quality, wildlife impacts and energy use, still remain the prime issues. … It’s still our position that a new (environmental impact report) is required. That’s been our position, and it still is.”

While SAFER is not currently involved in any pending legal action against either the county or the Oak View Group regarding the arena plan, SAFER won a small battle with a lawsuit filed on April 28 that sought a halt to grading activities that were permitted by the county before the project had been approved.

“We had a lawsuit on the grading, and we had filed a temporary restraining order injunction against the grading,” Flynn said. “There was a hearing on Friday, May 7, and the judge denied our request. However, one of the (issues) that we were raising was the fact that (OVG’s contractors) were not using Tier 4 emission-standards equipment, which is the cleanest equipment you can use. During the course of the hearing, (OVG) stated that they would transition to all Tier 4 equipment on that grading. So, that was a little bit of a silver lining since we weren’t able to stop the grading at this time; at least they are using cleaner equipment.”

What strategy will SAFER and Flynn pursue in anticipation of the May 25 Board of Supervisors meeting, where the arena plan’s final approval is slated to be on the agenda?

“SAFER will be submitting further comments to the Board of Supervisors, and we’re working on those now,” Flynn said. “So it’s kind of wait-until-the-next-step here.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...