Soon, residents and visitors of Mammoth Lakes will be able to step into the Limelight, a new luxury hotel planned for the land on Canyon next to the Westin. If you’re curious what this hotel will look like, you only need to do a quick search for their Aspen location. If you want to stay for just one night, it’ll run you anywhere from $559 to $1,725.
As one Mammoth business owner said, he’s excited about the spending power being brought in by the hotel and believes it will be good for business.
Others are concerned that a town already stretched thin due to lack of workforce housing can’t accommodate the further impact on resources.
According to Mammoth Lakes Resort Realty, the tourism lodging industry accounts for more than two thirds of the revenue in Mammoth, on account of the 2.8 million visitors that come through the town every year. Renters are calculated as only 15.18% of the Mammoth population, yet nearly 70% of apartments and houses are listed as unoccupied.
Jessica Ellison, a bartender at The Liberty Bar, shared her thoughts on Limelight coming to Mammoth:“Having another hotel come into town seems like a waste of space. It just isn’t fair that they’re [Mammoth Lakes] prioritizing places for tourists to stay when there aren’t enough places for people to live. The most recent housing they built -no one actually working in town can afford to live there. Basically, you have to be in a relationship to afford a one bedroom.”
It’s nearly impossible to glance anywhere in town without seeing big sprinter vans, cars with insulation in the windows, or trucks with campers in the flatbed. It’s a game of “iSpy” that requires very little spying.
Jessica is no stranger to this part of the housing crisis in Mammoth. “My first summer I was homeless. I did live in my car. Well, at first I didn’t have a car. I had to buy a car, because I needed a way to get around to the forest and to work. Luckily, I found a place online from a long-time local looking to rent to locals. I paid three months rent upfront just to get the place.
That was nice, but it was a struggle before I found that. I had to leave town for six months, because I just couldn’t find anywhere to live. I just now have my first year lease, and I re-signed, so I’m super lucky, but a lot of people aren’t as lucky. I mean, 33% of Mono County is homeless and the summer is easy, but what about when winter comes?”
High above the trees in an upper floor of the Westin, a lawyer named Bruce Favish is taking note of the Limelight’s progress. “When I found out they marked all these trees for removal, I intervened.” For Bruce Favish, intervening looked like attending a May 25th emergency meeting of the Westin homeowners association regarding an appeal, reaching out to the Mammoth Lakes Public Works directly, formally requesting documents such as permits, and using his background as a lawyer to interpret the laws governing Mammoth Lakes related to this project.
For Bruce, the red flags are in how the Limelight has made its entrance. “There has been a real rush to get this project launched. We understand that it could be very beneficial to Mammoth. It could be a great project. That’s not the issue. The logistics and the mechanics of how it’s being unrolled, that’s where we have concerns.”
It’s more than just the haste of the project that has brought scrutiny. “First off, there’s going to be an enormous flat roof, which is not typical for Mammoth, especially that area. It’s not at all consistent with the municipal code or design guidelines. It’s specifically prohibited and is only to be approved in specific cases. The problem is we didn’t have renderings to see what this would look like. It was all being rushed through. I’ve had very positive communications with Andy Reed, who is running this project with the developer. We’ve had good, honest lines of communication. From that standpoint, that’s good and doesn’t always happen.
Initially, our concern was that they could do much better with a roof than a flat roof that’ll look like an industrial building in the middle of the hillside. The response that came from the meeting was, ‘You owners don’t have any rights to this view, so you don’t get to complain about this.’ In a technical sense, that is true if you are saying, ‘I have a right to see this mountain’ -unless there is a specific legal document that gives you this right. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the town not following their own laws and guidelines and everything about design.”
“Our view is that, as owners in Mammoth and substantial tax payers, we certainly have an interest in what the community looks like and if the town is properly following their own guidelines.”
Favish explained what the public documents regarding the Limelight Hotel mean for the future of the hotel. “The package they submitted for the public to view and comment on had one document with the geothermal component in detail, which requires all kind of permits and approvals. They don’t have those yet. The second document submitted described the grading for the Limelight Hotel Project they’re proposing to do. They didn’t apply for a grading permit for that, because they didn’t comply with what has to be done there and is still in limbo because of the appeals.
They obviously had this plan in their pocket that they’ve been working on for some time, to go forward under these old entitlements to build the Hillside hotel. Totally different hotel. No geothermal component. In this case, they’re saying ‘We want to apply for this permit to rough grade based on these hotel plans from 17 years ago, but what we’re really grading for is to put in geothermal testing wells even though we don’t have any approval to do that.’ We all think there’s a lot of juice going on here somewhere.”
Alterra Mountain Company owns resorts and real estate all over the country. It also manages a little hotel in the pines of Mammoth – the Westin Monache.
“Alterra is the company that manages our hotel [Westin].” said Favish. “There are three members of our board. Two of them represent the residential units and one of them represents the commercial units, which are owned by Alterra. We [the residents] were wondering, why aren’t we getting a more aggressive evaluation about this from our hotel management? I think they’re in a conflict of interest situation. I know they are, because at the last meet, Leisha Baldwin, who is very nice, does a good job, recused herself from voting on whether we should appeal or not because of her conflict. So, that’s one of our three board members. The other two voted to appeal. I don’t know all the details, but clearly there’s an inside relationship going on here.”
Favish is not the only local with concerns. Garrett Higerd, an engineer at the Mammoth Community Water District, is focusing his efforts on the geothermal aspect of Limelight’s plans.
“Our concerns all hinge around the geothermal component and the drinking water in the aquifer. The overall project proposal is to extract water out of a deeper geothermal aquifer, get heat out of it, then reinject it back down. When you do that, you will have pressure changes in the ground, and those pressure changes can cause water to move and potentially be mixing of the geothermal fluids with cooler, shallow water used for drinking water. We know that we already have some mixing that’s occurring naturally, so we know there are connections already. Our concern is that more mixing would create more arsenic-laden water in our drinking water source. If that were to happen, we would potentially be in big trouble.“
The Mammoth Community Water District has also submitted an appeal regarding the Limelight project. “That [permit] process was definitely shortcutted, and it was not followed. That’s the legal basis of our appeal. Our concerns are really about the drinking water quality, the proximity of the project to the town’s drinking water source, especially during drought conditions.”
Amy Callanan, an engineer at the Public Works Department, maintains that the grading happening currently on the Limelight’s lot is unrelated to geothermal projects.
Higerd and Favish both share concerns about what may happen if geothermal drilling begins before proper permits are in place. Higerd shed some light on what legal action could potentially look like: “Unless the court issues a cease and desist order, generally they are able to continue on with their project while it’s being litigated. That could take a long time. It’s at their own risk of their project being overturned. Then what do you do, you literally have a big hole in the ground?”
Despite this, Higerd ended on a positive note. “The way I’m feeling about it is cautiously optimistic that things are starting to move in the right direction. I’m happy to be able to report that I have recently seen some movement that has been really positive. That’s good.” He paused and added, “I feel good about what I do. I can’t imagine a better cause. I believe in this, I wouldn’t be speaking up if I didn’t. You know, for everyone. The groundwater is out of sight, out of mind. No one knows what’s down there except for a few experts. I feel like it’s my responsibility to speak up on behalf of everyone to be sure it’s sustainable. That it’ll be here for the rest of our lives, for my kids, and for the rest of town.”