Computer generated simulation from the Tioga Inn project plans of the buildings as blocks on the digital-looking raised-relief landscape with the mountains of Tioga Pass in the distance.

Tioga Inn

Tioga Inn proposed development

The proposed Tioga Inn is a 100-unit workforce housing development project associated with a hotel and restaurant that were approved in 1993 (but never built) at the site of the Mobil Gas Mart at the intersection of Highways 395 and 120 West just south of Lee Vining. The project Environmental Impact Report outlines five significant, unavoidable adverse impacts that will come with the project if it’s approved. These include impacts to pedestrian safety and scenic impacts to Mono Lake.

The Mono Lake Committee supports thoughtfully planned projects that respect the scenic resources at Mono Lake, is presenting workable solutions to help mitigate the safety and visual impacts, and is urging the Mono County Board of Supervisors to demand better planning for this important area.

Latest update

On October 14, 2020 the Mono County Board of Supervisors certified the Tioga Inn Final Subsequent Environmental Impact Report with some new changes as discussed at the meeting, but deferred approval of the project itself. Here’s the most recent update on this issue:

Tioga Inn hearing outcome: FSEIR certified, project approval deferred

What is the Tioga Inn proposal?

The Tioga Inn Project is a 100 unit/150 bedroom workforce housing development project along with gas station expansion, 30,000-gallon propane tank, and wastewater treatment plant for the Mobil Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nellie Deli at the junction of Highways 395 and 120 West, approximately half a mile south of Lee Vining. The project is a Specific Plan Amendment, the third for the site, that expands on the previously-approved gas station, gas mart, deli/restaurant, ten units of workforce housing, and a hotel and hill-top restaurant. The proposed housing is not affordable and will be a market-rate rental opportunity for future employees of the new hotel-restaurant Tioga Inn complex.

The original Specific Plan was approved in 1993, but the hotel and restaurant have yet to be constructed. The Mono County Board of Supervisors have met and deliberated the Final Subsequent Environmental Impact Report with the latest Alternative #7—Hybrid (“Preferred Alternative”). Final approval, modification, or denial of the project is pending. A future hearing date has not been scheduled.

What are the impacts?

The Tioga Inn project proposes five significant, unavoidable adverse environmental impacts according to the Tioga Inn Specific Plan Amendment #3 (Project) and Final Environmental Impact Report (SEIR). These impacts include (1) aesthetic impacts to the scenic resources of Mono Lake, light and glare; (2) unsafe exposure of pedestrians and cyclists to highway traffic; (3) traffic safety impacts at the junction of Highways 395 and 120 West; (4) cumulative project impacts to the deer herd; (5) exposure of people and structures to catastrophic mudflows resulting from a nearby volcanic eruption.

Reflection from a mirror up on the hill at the site of the Tioga Inn development project with the reflection casting a bright white line across Mono Lake.
In an effort to assess the effects of reflective surfaces at the proposed Tioga Inn project site, Mono Lake Committee staff brought a 2×3-foot mirror to the site and photographed the reflection from South Tufa. This photograph was presented to the Board. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Why would Mono County consider approving the project?

The developer argues that the project would provide needed housing for Mono County, and has threatened the County to the extent “that if the hotel gets built without approval of this project, instead of the housing situation maintaining somewhat of the status quo, it’s going to get infinitely worse.”

From a practical, legal perspective, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the entire project proposal needs to be recirculated. Neither the hotel nor the restaurant have been built since the original Specific Plan was approved in 1993 and much has changed on the ground and in the surrounding environment since the original Specific Plan was approved. Multiple amendments and review changes have modified the original project, and the current project amendment does not require a potentially feasible mitigation to be completed that could eliminate one of the significant impacts—the threat to pedestrian safety. The SEIR consultant and Mono County staff have asserted that there is no merit to the recirculation argument.

Fifty or so people sit in a community center looking up at a person giving a presentation into a microphone at a lecturn in front of a screen that reads "Tioga Community Housing Project Final Subsequent EIR, Lee Vining Community Worksshop".
Community concern about this project has been demonstrated and well-documented since the scoping process for it began in 2016. This community meeting took place on March 3, 2020, right before COVID-19 prohibited gatherings like this. Photo by Geoff McQuilkin.

In the face of overwhelming opposition and a project history of over 1,000 comments urging for significant project changes or denial, the Supervisors must now consider whether the unavoidable adverse impacts are worth overriding for the minimal project benefits. The supervisors declined to immediately approve the Preferred Alternative as it was proposed in June 2020 and instead requested changes and additional mitigation measures to reduce impacts. Since the most recent August 6, 2020 hearing date, the latest proposed Alternative #7—Hybrid plan remains under review and consideration.

Why the impacts are not worth it

Mono Lake is among the natural wonders of the world, loved by millions. The California Supreme Court affirmed Mono Lake’s scenic value in its landmark 1983 Public Trust decision. Just as Los Angeles’ excessive water diversions imperiled the lake’s recreational and scenic uses, so too does a major commercial development that brings significant, adverse visual impacts to future visitors. Approving a project that impairs Mono Lake’s scenic value and diminishes the visitor experience is, by default, granting permission to erode the Public Trust.

Stunning sunrise view at Mono Lake looking across the water, west to the Sierra Nevada which has golden light and dramatic stormclouds above a colorful reflection and tufa towers in the foreground.
Looking west towards Tioga Pass and the Tioga Inn project area from South Tufa. Photo by Jeff Sullivan.

The Tioga Inn project also carries a significant public safety impact. Without a safe pedestrian access route linking the future Tioga Inn residential and hotel complex with Lee Vining, kids, residents, and visitors moving back and forth between the two sites are exposed to busy highway traffic along Highways 395 and 120 West. The potential for upwards of 300 new residents, including kids, with no safe way to move between school, residences, the local market, Post Office, and friends—except by motor vehicle—is not just a nostalgic nod to 1980s-era leapfrog development, it’s poor planning.

A highway with orange cones and a semi truck and a pickup truck with a guardrail and sign to Tioga Pass, Yosemite 12 miles, with an arrow, and three people walking along a narrow strip of the highway next to a rumble strip up a hill with snow poles and street lights in the distance.
Residents and visitors would have to walk along Highway 395 to get back and forth from Lee Vining if a safe pedestrian connection is not built. Photo by Geoff McQuilkin.

The lack of connectivity is a significant impact that genuinely upsets many in the community and Mono County. Mitigating this impact is possible. Unfortunately, the current Tioga Inn proposal asks the Supervisors to approve the project first, and six months later formally study the feasibility of pedestrian access.

The Committee supports thoughtfully planned projects that respect the scenic resources at Mono Lake, but the Tioga Inn, which still proposes five significant adverse impacts—not least among them, safety impacts to people—remains a challenge for both supporters of Mono Lake and residents of Lee Vining and the Mono Basin.

Map entitled "Lee Vining Connectivity Feasible Trail Map" with two trail options marked between the town of Lee Vining and the Tioga Inn Project, with color blocks for different land ownership.
The Mono Lake Committee’s feasibility study map of potential pedestrian trails to connect the Tioga Inn project with the town of Lee Vining for students walking to school, community members, and visitors. Map by Robbie Di Paolo.