Hampton Inn & Suites approved by county board of supervisors for Three Rivers despite residents’, Regional Water Quality Control Board’s concerns over water contamination
THREE RIVERS – The unincorporated community at the gateway to the Sequoia’s could be getting new lodging, but potentially at the cost of potable drinking water to some of its residents.
The proposed Hampton Inn & Suites at 40758 Sierra Drive is a three-story, 105-guestroom hotel on 2.8 acres. The site will come equipped with an outdoor swimming pool and cabana, 108 parking spaces and other typical hotel facilities like in-house food preparation, a breakfast area, in-house and guest laundry, a fitness center and a meeting room.
The project, applied for by Ineffable Hospitality, Inc., is by-right, meaning a zoning change or conditional use permit is not required to complete the project—and technically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act—just grading and building permits. The hotel will have it’s own wastewater treatment system built, as well as a new domestic well.
County staff said Three Rivers Community Services District (CSD) and neighboring property owners had concerns over water supply and quality impacts. The project will use 15 acre-feet a year of the 50,000 acre-feet available in the watershed. Staff said this would not substantially decrease the water supply, and that the new well would be permitted by the state Division of Drinking Water.
Supervisor Larry Micari said he had received a lot of constituent concerns regarding the hotel, but that most of them were addressed in staff’s presentation. A representative from Ineffable Hospitality, Inc. said among the benefits to the county would be the transient occupancy tax in the neighborhood of $400,000 annually.
During the public hearing—which is technically not required on a by-right development—residents’ concerns were not of water supply quantity, but of water quality, contamination, and leaving out pertinent information in the reports.
Three Rivers resident Lauri Schwaller urged the board to deny todays requests, and ask the Tulare County Resources Management Agency (RMA) staff to revise and recirculate the draft EIR documents, as she believes they currently do not meet CEQA requirements of a complete project description and full disclosure and analysis of potentially significant environmental impacts of the project.
“The project description fails to mention the future development phase described starting on page 1,019 of the draft EIR, and was also described in an article on 3R news online,” Schwaller said. “The proposed project actually comprises two adjoining paracels. The future development on the 1.5-acre frontage paracel envisions a three-pump island service station, a 4,000 square-foot market retail space and a 1,000 square-foot fast food restaurant.”
Schwaller argued that these future developments could have potentially significant environmental impacts, but that the comments received at the meeting about the EIR only pertained to the Hampton Inn & Suites.
James Sickman, Three Rivers resident and professor of Hydrology at UC Riverside—who’s primary subject of research is the Kaweah River watershed—took to the podium to express his concerns with potential nitrogen groundwater contamination at the proposed hotel site. He said he’d received a copy of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s review after recommending that monitoring devices be installed at the new well and wastewater treatment system.
“A copy of the [Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s] review was not included in the draft or final EIR for the Hampton Inn,” Sickman said. “This is an important oversight given the detailed analysis provided in the review and the concerns of the regional board’s staff regarding the effectiveness of the wastewater system.”
Sickman went on to read a segment from the regional water board’s review: “Based on the information in the November report of waste discharge provided by the developer and the site conditions, Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board staff is concerned that the wastewater treatment facility nitrogen concentrations could impact the underlying groundwater and the Kaweah River.”
The report reads on that further clarification is needed on total nitrogen levels and the impact discharge has on the receiving waters is needed due to the very high percolation rates of the soils that lie under the proposed wastewater system, and the systems proximity to the Kaweah River. Sickman refers to the soils as “almost pure sand” with very high infiltration rates, allowing septic fluids to reach the groundwater in less than an hour.
Sickman requested the board of supervisors to delay their vote for the EIR to be updated by the RMA to include the wastewater discharge reports and be reviewed by the stakeholders.
“We must all ensure that commercial development in Three Rivers does not lead to contamination of drinking water supplies or degradation of the Kaweah River,” Sickman said.
David Mills, president of Three Rivers CSD said not everyone in Three Rivers is of a “no growth” mindset, but echoed the concerns of Sickman and Schwaller.
“My biggest concern is moving forward with more development in that area, and contamination of the groundwater,” Mills said.
Mills cited the Comfort Inn & Suites adjacent to the Three Rivers CSD offices, where wastewater systems had all been approved by the county.
“It smelled…it didn’t work,” Mills said. “Moving forward, we need to be looking at a plan for a wastewater treatment plant that can be used by multiple businesses, because that sandy soil, it’s going right down into the groundwater.”
Resident Steve Rothenberg—a retired adjunct professor of soil science at Reedley College—said a 2003 review for a development on his property showed groundwater at just six feet below the surface. He said his drinking water already runs up against the Maximum Contaminant Level for nitrates at 11 parts per million—due to the Comfort Inn’s septic system, which he can currently treat to acceptable standards. He said his water can’t take any more contamination.
“I don’t know that the [revenue] you’re going to get from the hotel tax will ever pay the environmental damage running up against people who’ve lost their water supply,” Rothenberg said about testing.
When asked by the board of supervisors, RMA assistant director planning and economic development Aaron Bock said percolation tests were conducted, and no significant impact was found. With regards to slipping in more development than just the hotel, as Schwaller’s concerns alluded to, Bock said that the county could take the further development through the EIR process again if sensitivity deemed it necessary—as he said it did for the hotel—but did not state that it was mandatory.
According to RMA the project technically did not even need an EIR, but one was conducted due to the sensitivity of the project. The director approved the EIR and supporting documents 5-0. The project will now move to the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board for further review.
A hotel has not been built in Three Rivers in over 20 years, and residents are no stranger to putting up a fight against prospecting developers. In 2019, developer Guatam Patel dropped his multi-year effort to build a $30 million luxury lodge in Three Rivers, saying the opposition to the 225-room hotel was too strong. The project’s size and the wastewater treatment system’s effects on the local water supply were the primary concerns.