Trees and shrubbery colored light and dark green line the hills in the foreground, and rocky dark blue and snowcapped mountains are peaking out behind them.

Tioga Inn’s rough road, final approval vote delayed

On October 14, the Mono County Board of Supervisors certified the Tioga Inn Final Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (FSEIR) by a vote of 3–1. However, the Supervisors did not vote to approve the Tioga Inn project and override its significant adverse impacts. The Supervisors delayed a final project decision to an unknown later date.

This bifurcated decision arose late in the day near the end of the hearing when Supervisor Fred Stump, who seemed ready to approve, raised concerns about inadequate efforts by the developer to resolve pedestrian safety issues and concerns from the local Kutzadika’a Tribe. Mono County staff suggested, and the Supervisors embraced the idea, to vote to certify the FSEIR only.

Certification means that Mono County has independently analyzed and judged the FSEIR to be complete under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Yet, despite this, the public will have another opportunity to comment when the Supervisors consider final project approval.

A change to the project phasing

During the hearing, the developer, Dennis Domaille, answered questions from Supervisor Stump regarding his plans declaring, “I have absolutely no intention of building the housing without the hotel… I don’t think any developer including myself in their right mind would move 65,000 yards of dirt and do all of that grading, which will run in excess of a million dollars, just to build 30 units of rental property that are designed to be rented to the bottom wage earners in the economic system.” Previously, the phasing plan in the FSEIR had identified a first phase of housing that would be built before the hotel, theoretically for construction workers to live on-site while building the hotel. As a consequence of Mr. Domaille’s statements about his plans, Supervisor Bob Gardner proposed to strictly condition the housing construction to a final, approved building permit application for the hotel. With two additional Supervisors in support, the phasing change was added.

The benefit of this change is that a single phase of 30 units, and their associated widespread grading impacts, and a large pile of dirt fill placed at the future hotel site will not sit for an unknown amount of time, potentially years, before a hotel is ever constructed. The hotel was approved in 1993 under the original Specific Plan but Domaille has never applied for a construction permit. Domaille repeated, “I will not be the one building the hotel” This led Supervisor Stump to clarify, “By extension, this means you are not building the housing, (Domaille interjected, “Correct.”) so which supports my view that this is about entitlements, not really about immediate development.”

Harmful visual impacts partially mitigated

Leading up to the mid-October hearing, the Mono Lake Committee submitted written comments on the most recent (Alternative 7) plan and suggested specific mitigation language that would provide measurable standards to screen the housing project from high-value recreation sites in the Mono Basin, including the critical shoreline view from South Tufa.

Mono County staff and the developer’s consultant adopted some of the language initially, while verbal comment from Committee staff and email correspondence refined further changes. Not all of the proposed language from the Committee was accepted, and portions of the Committee’s mitigation language that County staff proposed for inclusion were rejected by three of the Supervisors. However, some meaningful language remained, helping to provide measurable performance standards for visual impacts that will affect the south shore of Mono Lake.

The adoption of improved and measurable mitigation language highlights one bright note despite the project’s continuing five significant adverse impacts and fire safety issues. The project’s visual impacts did improve thanks to overwhelming public comment and the Committee’s commitment to find better solutions to protect Mono Lake’s world-renowned natural scenery.

A fuzzy path toward final approval

Near the end of the day on October 14, it seemed clear that a 3–1 approval vote was looming. However, some ninth inning doubts by Supervisor Stump regarding the lack of pedestrian access and objections from the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a Tribe pushed what seemed like an obvious approval to the precipice of denial.

Roughly at this juncture, after the Supervisors discussed how Mr. Domaille could work with the Tribe to satisfy their concerns and do more to address pedestrian access, County Counsel proposed other options to move forward given Supervisors Stump’s “expression of his position.” The option embraced by the Supervisors was to certify the FSEIR while work continued to satisfy the Tribe’s concerns, despite Kutzadika’a Tribal Chair Charlotte Lange’s clear objection to certifying the FSEIR.

County staff and Supervisor Stump appeared to pivot from putting Mr. Domaille on the hook for dealing with the pedestrian access to putting the onus on Caltrans based on recent intimations that they were already looking at pedestrian safety based on reports from a recent Local Transportation Commission meeting. The obligation of the pedestrian access feasibility analysis and the potential for requiring the applicant to pay for and do more to address pedestrian safety mitigation was left out of the discussion at this stage of the deliberations. While the feasibility analysis remains in the FSEIR, the follow up for project approval appeared to be partially dependent on Caltrans’ input, adding confusion to exactly what is supposed to happen before the Supervisors consider final approval.

At the end of a long day, Supervisor Stump suggested that the supervisors certify the FSEIR and not address project approval in order to provide the space to follow up with Caltrans and the Tribe. After a short recess to rewrite a resolution to certify the FSEIR, the Supervisors voted to certify the FSEIR by a vote of 3–1, with Supervisor Gardner the lone “no” vote.

The Tioga Inn project resides within Supervisor Gardner’s district, and his concern with the project mirrored the concerns of most of his constituents and the public who objected to the project as proposed. Supervisor Gardner stated earlier before the vote, “I’ve looked at the draft proposed statement of overriding considerations and I do not agree with it, I do not agree that the benefits of this project outweigh the significant and unavoidable impacts. I just think that the risk to human life and the problems that have been identified in the analysis are not worth the uncertain impact on housing.”

While the project did not achieve final approval, this decision may be inevitable. Three Supervisors have indicated that the proposed housing, many units only 220 square feet in size, is more valuable than solving the project’s five significant adverse environmental impacts. However, the timeline and path for approval are fuzzy.

Misfortune and success

With approval appearing likely on the horizon, and a very long process approaching conclusion, the outcome for the community of Lee Vining and for the scenic integrity Mono Lake is disappointing. This is the largest development project ever proposed in Mono County outside of Mammoth Lakes. The Tioga Inn project will, at build-out, triple the size of Lee Vining without a safe way for kids, community members, or visitors to transit by foot or bicycle between town and the project—a throwback to the type of planning that California communities have been trying to mitigate for decades.

With the project a half-mile from town, this is a major blow to a gateway community that has long advocated making town more pedestrian-friendly; the community memorialized that effort in a Mono Basin Community Plan which is now officially part of the Mono County General Plan. Traffic safety at the junction of Highways 395 and 120 will be negatively impacted, and fire safety issues and the capacity concerns of the Lee Vining Fire Department will not be addressed. There will be cumulative impacts to the mule deer herd. Night lighting impacts and day and night reflection and glare will increase across the Mono Basin and Mono Lake.

If the project is eventually constructed, it will be a loss for Mono Lake, Mono County, and California. But now, at least, there is a long, thoughtful, and clear public record of opposition to the project that documents the many significant concerns as well as possible solutions. Future Specific Plan Amendments or director reviews may be more difficult for a future project developer to navigate given the obvious trail of controversy and opposition. The project has improved incrementally, and visual impacts from South Tufa, the south shore of Mono Lake, and the adjacent Highway 395 corridor will be better mitigated compared to the project’s original design. If not for the large volume of public and community concern this improvement would never have occurred.

The Mono Lake Committee will continue to monitor the project process, and will be in communication with the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a Tribe to see how and if their concerns are addressed, and what information and intention arises from the County’s communications with Caltrans. We will continue to provide updates as this information comes in, and when the Board of Supervisors schedules their next hearing.

Top photo by Elin Ljung.