Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

As decision on Tioga Inn project nears, public input is still key

This spring, Mono County will decide whether to approve an unprecedented, large-scale development project that threatens to permanently alter the visual resources of the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area and the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve and erase the small-town, rural character of Lee Vining (see Fall 2019 Mono Lake Newsletter article here). A Final Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (FSEIR) for the Tioga Inn Specific Plan Amendment is scheduled for release in late February or early March 2020. The Mono County Planning Department will lead a public workshop on March 3.

The Mono County Planning Commission meeting on the Tioga Inn project has been tentatively scheduled for March 23, 2020. The Mono County Board of Supervisors will ultimately decide the fate of the project in the coming months. The Mono Lake Committee is encouraging those interested to show up and speak up.

The Tioga Inn project proposes to add a new 100-unit/150-bedroom housing development comprised of roughly 16 two-story buildings on top of a bluff overlooking the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. Increased parking, new roads, additional gas pumps, and a wastewater treatment system are proposed to be added to the formerly-approved restaurant and two-story hotel planned at the junction of Highway 120 West and Highway 395, adjacent to the existing Tioga Gas Mart (often called the Mobil Mart).

Over 1,000 comment letters of concern were written in response to the Draft Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (DSEIR) last year. While the final report has not yet been released, it appears likely that the significant and unavoidable adverse impacts to the visual character of the Mono Basin and its dark night-sky resources, as outlined in the DSEIR, will remain. These extraordinary scenic impacts, in addition to the adverse, unmitigatable impacts on deer, traffic safety, development connectivity, and the broad concern in the community about a 300% increase in the population of Lee Vining, compelled the Mono Lake Committee to submit a lengthy comment letter.

The original Specific Plan for the hotel and restaurant was approved in 1993. In the 27 years since, because so much has changed with the project and the community of Lee Vining, Mono County would be better served by a new environmental impact report that adequately analyzes project alternatives that cover the full scope of the entire project. The Committee and others raised this concern in 2016, and our legal counsel submitted pointed comments regarding this shortcoming last summer.

The Committee is advocating for a balanced project alternative that would achieve Mono County’s high development standards for protecting natural landscapes while also providing decision makers with realistic options from which to choose. In December, the Committee urged for such an alternative during public comment at Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings. Such an alternative was not available in the DSEIR, and only the “No Project” alternative avoided serious damage to the scenic assets of Mono Lake. While the FSEIR may yet reveal an alternative with no significant adverse impacts to the Scenic Area and the Natural Reserve, this possibility seems unlikely.

A Mono County Planning Commission meeting took place last fall at the site of the controversial proposed Tioga Inn project. Photo by Elin Ljung.

The project is up for consideration and public discussion this spring. The Mono County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors must decide whether a large-scale housing development perched prominently in the Mono Basin, tripling the size of Lee Vining, is appropriate and worth the many irreversible adverse impacts that it would bring. For all who care about Mono Lake, Lee Vining, the Mono Basin, and the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park, this is an important time to let decision makers hear your comments about the Tioga Inn.

There will be lots of movement on this issue in the coming months, so stay tuned for the latest updates and how to get involved. Learn more about the Tioga Inn project, see visual mock-ups of the project area, and read the Committee’s comment letter here.

This post was also published as an article in the Winter & Spring 2020 Mono Lake Newsletter (page 5).