Old Mammoth Place wins approval at 56th meeting
There was a point during Wednesday’s Planning Commission hearing on Old Mammoth Place when project developer Jim Demetriades sat down next to me and expressed surprise at the relative lack of public comment. He asked me what I attributed this to.
At the 56th public meeting held regarding the proposed development since 2005, the Mammoth Lakes Planning Commission approved, with conditions, a use-permit and tentative tract map for Old Mammoth Place.
The formerly named Clearwater project is planned for a six-acre site bordered by Old Mammoth Road on the east and Laurel Mountain Road on the west. It currently houses the Sierra Nevada Lodge, Rafters Restaurant and Frosty’s Mini-Golf.
Demetriades appeared to get virtually everything he wanted at the hearing, which lasted all day Wednesday and much of Thursday. The following is a brief summary of key issues and decisions:
Old Mammoth Place was approved for 488 rooms of density. The site had been previously zoned for 240 rooms (or 40 rooms per acre).
Current Mammoth Community Water District (MCWD) Board member Earl Henderson and past Board member Pat Eckart both expressed concern about how increased density would affect MCWD’s ability to deliver water.
CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) analysis showed that the project would increase projected water usage at the site from 20 to 51-acre feet annually.
Henderson said the District is building infrastructure and capacity to reflect water needs expressed in the Town’s 2007 General Plan Update.
“You have to acknowledge our forewarning,” he said.
The Sheet interpreted the warning as: Don’t be the last developer in the pool.
Commissioners (and be advised, every vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Sharon Clark in opposition) approved the new height definition as conceived by the developer and staff.
Essentially, this is how it works. Try to imagine a gently sloping property with a 14 foot horizontal sandwich stuck inside it.
At the highest (northwest corner) point of the property at Laurel Mountain Rd., the top of the sandwich is 4 feet below ground and the bottom is 18 feet down.
By the time you slide down the slope and burrow through the PB & J, the top of the sandwich is 9 feet above ground and the bottom is 5 feet below ground.
Meaning some of the 55 foot building will actually end up 64 feet above ground.
The architect, John Ashworth, said the garage podium was designed to dovetail with the street level retail on Old Mammoth Road.
Ashworth also said the 35 foot height at street level essentially renders the height in the interior of the project a moot point.
“The height issue is something you can’t see, taste or smell,” he said.
“I thought the commitment was for 35, 45, and 55-feet,” said dissenting Commissioner Sharon Clark. “A talented architect can build to the standard given.”
Here’s one of the tricky details. Reconciliation is required between Community Benefits/Incentive Zoning (CBIZ) policy and existing ordinances in place.
In other words, the developer has offered to mitigate development impacts by creating a whole slew of project-specific goodies that may be attractive and valuable but don’t address community-wide impacts like housing.
So you may have a Rolls-Royce, but where are the eggs and the English muffins?
Mammoth’s Town Council will have to amend ordinances so that CBIZ is not in conflict. As Community Development Director Mark Wardlaw said Thursday, “Ordinance trumps policy.”
The financial analysis I reported on last week that claimed that 244 more rooms of density only added about $2.5 million in land value to the property has bugged me ever since, so I took the opportunity to corral Economist Walter Kieser (who did the peer review of the project’s financial analysis for the Town) in the hallway as he was leaving.
Sheet: 244 rooms for $2.5 million? How is that possible?
Kieser: Higher density presumes value, but the relationship is not linear. Just because you have more units to sell doesn’t mean you’ll be able to sell them at the price you want.
Sheet: Why would someone assume so much risk building all those units for so little apparent return?
Kieser: On a return basis, it’s better to leave the place alone. That was my advice. The notion of rationality in decision-making is an illusion.
Sheet: So my logical/rational assumption that a developer isn’t absolutely fixated on the bottom line is wrong?
Kieser: After I got done with my analysis, I triple-checked the numbers just because I was so surprised … but I’m glad there are people in the world willing to take this kind of risk … If there weren’t people like this, we’d still be living in caves.”
Ultimately, Demetriades has either won over or worn down the opposition. Take your pick. As Sally Gessford, a neighboring property owner at Timberline, said, “What goes along Laurel Mountain Road is important to me. I walk that street every day … I’m convinced that the motive behind the new project embraces the community. I believe you will be true to your word.”
It appears Demetriades and company are poised to shatter Joltin’ Joe’s 56-game hitting streak when Old Mammoth Place comes before Town Council on April 7.