Development picks up steam; geothermal, improvements win over commission
A lot can happen in a year’s time. Ask Mammoth View’s Hector Caldera, who cleared a major hurdle for the boutique hotel-condo project during Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting. Caldera and his View team showed off to the Commission a new and improved View project, which is planned for the northwest corner of Main Street and Mountain Boulevard/Alpine Circle, adjacent to Norco Goodyear and Z-Bar Ranch.
The 54-room hotel project with understructure parking, which will also have two buildings of condominiums and townhomes, and freestanding cabin units, seeks to make Mammoth history by being the first of its kind to utilize a geothermal system for heating and snowmelt. Exploration and analysis for the geothermal well is already underway.
In recent history, the concept at the Mammoth View site has switched hands and gone through changes since 2003 when it was the Swiss Chalet project, a 48-room hotel and private residence club project (which is still legally a valid concept until December 2013). In 2007, the property changed hands, and current owners Britannia Pacifc brainstormed a hotel and fractional idea with onsite workforce housing. Deemed unsuitable for the market and the area’s economics, it was abandoned at the concept phase.
A year ago, Planning Commission found the current plan intriguing, but sent Caldera and company back for some suggested changes and revisions. A new architect was brought on board, and notes and public input on everything from landscaping to roofing details were incorporated into the most recent version.
The developers said they opted for “quality versus density.” Caldera told commissioners the lower-density scale fits better with the community, as well as present and anticipated market conditions. Mammoth View’s hotel will be under Britannia’s Handmade flag, which is more intimate and boutique in nature. Consequently, the project has been able to design within area’s current zoning requirement (the new area zoning code hasn’t been adopted yet) and has yet to ask for any amendments or variances. That point alone has met with favor both with commissioners on the dais and even the harshest public critics of new development.
Britannia, it turns out, has considerable experience developing a variety of hotel models, including high-end Ritz Carlton and the popular Doubletree and Providence brands. With more than $1 billion in assets alone, Britannia has hotels and spas in Israel, Spain, Barbados, Thailand and the U.S.
The Mammoth Handmade Hotel is conceived as being specific to the town. “It’s not competitive, more complementary,” Mammoth View’s Tom Cody commented. “It’s apparent from the surgical approach to the site that it’s a very different ethic.” Cody suggested the theme, with its use of cabins and so on, is one of “mountaineering,” which he called “indigenous … something uniquely Mammoth, yet new.”
“All the board members have visited Mammoth,” Caldera pointed out, adding the complex is part of the company’s long-term strategy for the town.
If anything, the project is challenged only by some snow storage issues on the site. At the behest of Commission Acting Chair Jay Deinken, however, additional language was added to the conditions of approval to allow broader use of geothermal to assist with snow abatement.
Eliminated from the current version: onsite workforce housing, which due to rather tight site constraints was considered impractical. An in-lieu fee calculated by staff will be paid instead. Also taken off the table are tax breaks that had been previously discussed.
The public hearing drew no real opposition. Lisa Thompson, whose house sits directly behind the project site, said she’s not opposed to the project, but reiterated her family’s objection to the noise generated by recent geothermal drilling. Those complaints weren’t lost on Caldera. “My uncle hammered in to me you have to have the right tool for the right job. That wasn’t the right tool. We won’t be using the same driller,” he assured her.
Supporters mentioned the development team’s high business practice standards, as well as the View’s “innovative features” and “thoughtful design, landscaping and architecture.” Perhaps one of the most persuasive endorsements came from High Sierra Energy Foundation Director Rick Phelps. He emphasized the courage and risk involved in successfully developing a geothermal heating source, a first in Mammoth after what Phelps said was “years of talk, and millions in federal and state grants.”
Phelps went on to point out that the project could be a candidate for the state’s “Net Zero Energy” policy goal by 2030 put forth by the California Public Utilities Commission. “We’ll be a showcase for the rest of the nation, operating a four-season resort,” he opined. He also championed the View’s “practical and economic use of renewable energy … we’re not buying wind credits in Montana,” he said.
He commended Caldera’s plans to share geothermal experience with others, which Phelps thinks could lead to the start of the town’s first geothermal district, one of HSEF’s original goals.
Andy Ott, a staunch critic of many developers, complimented staff for keeping the project “consistent within current zoning” and Caldera for “making no other requests.”
“Build it to code and everyone’s happy,” Ott said. “I pray to God we can have that with other projects, because it’s been something that’s sorely lacking. Let’s get it built.”
Commissioner Elizabeth Tenney said the project was “so much better than a year ago … the time spent was absolutely worth it.”
Commissioner Sharon Clark liked its scale. “Bigger isn’t always better,” she said, also praising its eco-friendly recycling and geothermal components.
Commissioner Rhonda Duggan said it’s the “right size with great curb appeal,” and liked the project’s “forward thinking” winter-summer flexibility.
All four Commission members voted to approve Mammoth View’s vesting tract map, use permit application, design review and California Environmental Quality Act findings. A time extension request by the applicant is still pending, which Caldera said would chiefly be based on the Town of Mammoth Lakes’ pending airport litigation.
“We intend to start as soon as possible, but we’re proceeding cautiously,” Caldera explained.