The trials and tribulations associated with the Tioga Inn hotel and restaurant project, now in its 27th year of planning hell, have been well documented: project proponent Dennis Domaille survived a gas tank explosion and weathered the 2008 economic crisis before this year’s Covid-19 pandemic threw another wrench into an oft-jammed machine.
Public meetings held this week on October 12 & 13 show there may be a light at the end of the tunnel yet.
A key facet of the project, and one that hasriled up folks in Lee Vining, is the proposed housing project aimed at providing living spaces for workers at the hotel and restaurant. The plan amendment was introduced five years ago and Domaille has spent much of his 2020 thus far getting the proposed addition through county approvals.
The housing project’s Subsequent Environmental Impact Review (SEIR) was approved by Mono County Supervisors by a vote of 3-1 on Wednesday afternoon. While the overall project itself was not approved, the board gave Domaille time to settle issues raised by the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a tribe
Neverthless, he’s a step closer.
After the Mono County planning commission approved the project, 4-0, in April, the matter went before the Board of Supervisors, where it has remained in limbo ever since.
A two day series of meetings over June 29-30, 2020 failed to reach a resolution after 15 hours of public comment, board deliberation, and questions from the public. At that time, the ultimate decision was kicked down the road to August 6. After another day-long meeting, the can was kicked again.
“We have to lay out the process or we’re going to be right back where we are after 8-10 hours with unanswered questions,” said Supervisor Peters presciently at the August 6 meeting.
In both instances, Supervisor Bob Gardner, who represents the district that includes Lee Vining on the board, was uncomfortable with voting on the project.
In June, Gardner opted not to vote as new conceptual designs lacked a visual aid for clarity.
In August, Gardner felt that the drawings he’d asked for were insufficient in scope and asked for a more detailed design plan, saying “Given the extreme level of opposition [to this project] it would be good to provide as much information on what it’s going to look like as possible.”
He also took issue with the housing development’s layout, comparing it to army barracks.
Also up for contention: a pedestrian trail that would link the development with Lee Vining, a prospect that is considered infeasible by the county due to logistical concerns. That issue, as county staff noted on August 6, is a non-starter: there are limits to what the county can require of permit applicants as in this case, the access issue wasn’t created by Domaille.
The board took the matter up again for a third time on October 12-13, this time in hopes of closing this chapter of the Tioga Inn for good.
Domaille, consultant Sandra Bauer, and an assorted team of scientists, county staff, and contractors, walked the board through changes to the plans that they had previously seen and added the level of detail requested by Supervisor Gardner.
Housing will be divided into three types: 220 sq. ft studios, 288 sq. ft one-bedroom apartments and 388 sq. ft two-bedroom apartments. The maximum number of units remained at 100, with the potential for 150 beds.
In addition, Bauer outlined new screening plans for the buildings, which have a maximum roof height of sixteen feet. The design incorporates 7 tree species, one shrub type, and one ground cover that all feature in current Eastern Sierra landscaping designs.
Gardner kicked off the board questions portion of the agenda item, working through a laundry list of questions that took more than an hour.
Gardner questioned the size of the apartments, referencing minimum size standards in other jurisdictions that exceeded those Domaille had planned for. County Planning Director Wendy Sugimura noted that there are no such minimums imposed by county law, adding that while not extremely common, units similar in size to those proposed by Domaille exist throughout Mono County.
He also referenced issues raised by the Kutzadika’a tribe, asking “Would you be willing to sit with tribe to work out some compensation/agreement as a response to some concerns that cannot be addressed in this?”
Domaille responded that he was under the impression that an agreement had already been reached, although he ultimately expressed an interest in meeting with tribal leadership to resolve any disputes.
The second day of the hearing began at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, with questions from the remaining three supervisors.
Supervisor Fred Stump focused on the issues related to the Lee Vining Fire Department, inquiring about a will serve letter that would assure service from LVFD.
The ensuing conversation led Domaille to reiterate a point he had been making since the day before, that he will not build the housing without the accompanying hotel and restaurant being built. This raised the question of entitlements, to which Domaille noted that a for a future owner of the site, “I can’t imagine that he would wanna get involved in it and not [proceed immediately].”
He noted that two parties have already expressed interest in buying/leasing the site and completing the project.
Public comment proceeded much as it had at prior Tioga Inn meetings: many passionately against.
Nora Livingston, a frequent commenter on the project, told the board, “We are tired y’all … If this project was good it would’ve been approved months ago.”
“Sometimes we just need to let things go … the housing is not right for our community,” she said. “we deserve better, houses that are the correct size for small families.”
“This is not a housing project for the community of Lee Vining; this is a housing project for a company town,” Ilene Mandelbaum noted, with Barry McPherson going to far as to label the project a “labor camp” that is“totally out of character with what people of Lee Vining want and should have.”
The similes didn’t stop there: “I’m deeply disappointed that the proponent keeps bringing us back to this endless procession of meetings to see how well he is polishing this chameleon of a project,” Duncan King noted.
Some locals did speak in favor, with Chris Lizza, a county planning commissioner, expressing his full support while noting that many speakers failed to disclose their connections to the Mono Lake Committee, an organization actively opposing the project.
Hilary Hansen Jones agreed. “I’m disappointed that this has dragged on this long … because the Mono Lake Committee keeps bringing this to the table. Why did the Mono Lake Committee feel they have any interest in this?”
Ultimately, Supervisors John Peters and Jennifer Kreitz voiced their approval for the project while Gardner voted against it, leaving the kicker vote to Stump (Corless is conflicted out and cannot participate). Stump weighed both sides in his comments, ultimately hanging his decision on two concerns: the access path to Lee Vining and the dispute with the Kutzadika’a tribe.
As Domaille could not resolve either issue at the time, Stump encouraged him to reach out to the tribe and come to an agreement about consultation and observation hours. Domaille also proposed potentially adding an exhibit or small museum on the tribe to the hotel project, something that both Stump and Gardner were in favor of.
As the sun began to set on the second day of the hearing, a vote was called and Domaille emerged with an approved SEIR and an agreement to follow up on the board’s recommendations.