Mammoth Real Estate Q&A — What Could Go Wrong At The Park?

Q: Now that the new Ice Rink/Community Recreation Center is under construction we have been over the checking it out. We think there are all sorts of things that could go wrong. What do you think?

A: I made plenty of comment during the entire process but I came to the conclusion that there was a faction in town that simply wasn’t going to be stopped from getting this project in the ground. It will be an intrusion for the local residents and property owners but it should be great for rentals (STR) in the proximity. It will also provide great recreation opportunities for those who want them. Following are my comments to the original draft EIR.

 

March 18, 2016

February 9, 2017

Sandra Moberly

Town of Mammoth Lakes

RE: Comments to the Draft EIR, MUF/Mammoth Creek Park

Because my original comments to the scoping of the EIR were not incorporated in the Draft, I am including those original comments in blue. My additional comments to the Draft EIR are in black. 

Town of Mammoth Lakes; Parks and Recreation Commission, Planning Commission, Town Council, Michael Baker International, etc.

RE: Scoping of the EIR, MUF/Mammoth Creek Park West.

“If you don’t know where you are going,

you’ll end up someplace else.” 

Yogi Berra

For the record, I own residential property immediately adjacent to the proposed project and own commercial property in the immediate vicinity. In the past 34 (now 35) years I have lived in close proximity to and commuted through this project area extensively. I am essentially in favor of the project if the project can be designed to mitigate a variety of issues and concerns. And I would emphasize that a limited budget is NOT cause for a statement of overriding considerations.

I find many of the “enthusiasts” of the project including much of the Town staff have a cursory  appreciation for the inherent qualities of the site. And because the site appears to be larger than it really is, many have overestimated what can be reasonably placed there. It is also the closest intrusion of a commercial-type facility to the main (and natural) tributary of Mammoth Creek that the community has ever seen. This should require extra diligence in the future development of this site. 

The site is extremely valuable for its location, the natural resources (namely the creek), the topography, solar aspect and views. No other town-owned site has all of these attributes. This alone makes this EIR process compelling. What is done on this site is of critical importance to the community. It cannot be poorly planned or executed. A comprehensive and thorough EIR is critical. The Town is essentially the proponent and the lead agency. Any stone unturned will create future liability (we learned that with the airport EIR). Building the “trust” that you seek with the local property owners will only be achieved with a thorough EIR process.

I have attended some of the preliminary meetings and am aware of the general “scoping” concerns. But these are my specific concerns;

Traffic / Transportation / Circulation / Public Safety

The Traffic and Circulation Analysis (5.5) and the Traffic Impact Analysis (11.4) are completely inadequate. It is chocked full of technical data gleaned from past Town documents and no doubt from other EIRs produced by an “EIR mill” like Michael Baker International. The presumption is that all of the technical data assures a “no significant impact” determination is a correct one.

But the data has some serious inadequacies. The raw traffic data might be fairly accurate, but what doesn’t show in the data are cyclists of all sort who ride through this area (including me). They include near-professional road bike racers who fly down Old Mammoth Road to little girls on pink tricycles riding on the bike path and sidewalks. This area is also a major ingress and egress point for mountain bikers riding on the dirt roads accessing down Mammoth Creek Road and into the Sherwin Creek/Lakes area. Many of these riders (like the skateboarders too) ride in very unpredictable ways. The immediate area is a hub for this type of behavior.

As I said below 

Further, there is a convolution of other activities and distractions right in this immediate vicinity; children’s play areas, pedestrians of all sorts including many with leashed and unleashed dogs, in warmer months fisherman (including many local kids), cyclists using formal and informal paths, skateboarders, horses, special events, informal picnics and gatherings, photo takers, and on and on. There is a broad variety of seasonal activity already at the MCPW location. There are far greater considerations than basic motorized vehicle counts.

I can even add to this; last summer a small deer herd with numerous bucks were consistently hanging out just to the south of the blind curve and many visitors were abruptly stopping, pulling over, getting out of their cars in the middle of the road, etc. Basically causing unanticipated commotion (maybe we need a deer migration study ??) in a 40 mph zone with poor sight lines even in summer.

The traffic and circulation portion of the Draft EIR doesn’t consider any of this. There is clearly far more to consider than motorized vehicle traffic at this location. This is an intensive “park” area with far more going on than vehicle traffic. None of this has been evaluated. And the majority of the participants don’t have hundreds-of-pounds of metal surrounding them. This is clearly a health and safety issue. 

What is even more disturbing is the Draft EIR’s window of site analysis. The Town Council’s approval for the EIR was on January 6, 2016. The Traffic Impact Analysis is dated July 29, 2016. So the study omitted the two busiest periods in Mammoth’s resort visitation — the Christmas/New Year’s period and the peak of summer visitation; August. 

These omissions make the Draft EIR grossly inadequate.

The Draft EIR’s casual dismissal of the Old Mammoth Road “blind curve” is unacceptable (I’m being nice). To assume that “final landscape plans” approved by the Town’s engineer can mitigate this is an absurd dismissal by the producers of the Draft EIR. Can we assume the Town has the right to clear-cut pine trees, aspens and willows that are on National Forest land and in an environmentally sensitive riparian drainage?? And even if they did, would we want them to?

The Town hasn’t even proven they can maintain a respectable (and safe) site-line at the existing Mammoth Creek Park West operation. The photo below was shot at approx. 50% of Mammoth’s annual snowfall.  The driveway to MCPW is already a problem in both winter and summer. Adding a high traffic facility with year-round coming and going requires mitigation measures. An adequate assessment of the seasonal vehicle and pedestrian traffic and circulation will tell us what mitigations are necessary. It is far more involved than adjusting the landscape plan. 

The incomplete traffic studies also fail to evaluate the impact of increasing traffic on Sherwin Creek Road (did they evaluate the traffic at this intersection during the Motocross event??)  The Town itself recently paved a parking lot in the area to provide more recreational opportunities.

The Draft EIR simply takes a nonchalant position as to the traffic mitigations. A more further assessment and subsequent mitigations are necessary for basic public safety. Being on a contrived timeline does not excuse this.

Site specific traffic / circulation studies from both winter and summer should be compulsory. To rely on a “memorandum” from Michael Baker International based on the Mobility Element is totally inadequate. While the Mobility Element is valuable and amazingly detailed, it failed to address this site and this “intersection” of traffic and the cumulative impacts of this site. 

There are very specific concerns that a simple (and potentially arbitrary) “memorandum” cannot address. The MCPW location is located on one of the major thoroughfares in Mammoth Lakes. The proposed MUF includes 125 parking spaces and year-round usage. All of that proposed traffic is through one driveway. That driveway is located on a significantly “blind curve” or bend in Old Mammoth Road that does not have clear sight-lines. This sight-lines change seasonally based on winter snow pack and the leafing of aspens and willows along the creek. That driveway ingress/egress to MCPW from Old Mammoth Road does not include dedicated left and right turn deceleration lanes.

The blind curve section of Old Mammoth Road and the driveway to MCPW are located in a 40 mph zone where many north-bound autos are exceeding the speed limit. That is undeniable, I have commuted on this stretch of road literally thousands of times.

Further, there is a convolution of other activities and distractions right in this immediate vicinity; children’s play areas, pedestrians of all sorts including many with leashed and unleashed dogs, in warmer months fisherman (including many local kids), cyclists using formal and informal paths, skateboarders, horses, special events, informal picnics and gatherings, photo takers, and on and on. There is a broad variety of seasonal activity already at the MCPW location. There are far greater considerations than basic motorized vehicle counts.

The Sierra Meadows Equestrian Center has experienced increasing business in the past few years so traffic entering and exiting Sherwin Creek Road has increased. Many of these vehicles include large vehicles with horse trailers. Recreational users utilizing Sherwin Creek Road and beyond has increased so much that the Town felt the need to improve the parking lot. And again, all in a road that has poor sight-lines.  And Mammoth Creek Road east of Old Mammoth Road is experiencing increased traffic. And this has been mentioned as “overflow parking” for MCPW. 

The traffic and circulation impacts are clearly significant. They need to be extensively evaluated. Public safety issues abound and are significant. A simple “memorandum” from the producer of the EIR is not adequate. And coming for one week (or one afternoon) to study the traffic and circulation tells a minute fraction of the story. The patterns are constantly changing based on the season and weather. The Mobility Element doesn’t specifically address any of this.

And I emphasize, there is an unfenced children’s playground with significant spillover right in the middle of all this. And even worse, a site specific traffic study will likely show that the preponderance of drivers exiting MCPW will desire to turn left which only exacerbates the compromised sight-lines and speeding traffic. These are all significant cumulative impacts. How will all of this be mitigated with a simple memorandum? How will all of this be mitigated at all? The 1999 EIR made many traffic “assumptions.” This project cannot rely on assumptions. Mitigations need to rely on accurate and comprehensive studies. It is truly an accident waiting to happen.

And why isn’t a transit bus pull-out or transit hub been incorporated into this plan? Have the planners forgot that public transportation is one of our critical General Plan goals? We have bus lines driving right by MCPW. This is a glaring and significant omission. An active public transportation component must be incorporated into this plan. And on a 40 mph two-lane road with poor sight-lines a simple bus stop will be dangerous. Old Mammoth Road has many transit bus pull-outs. This would be at a minimum. And with the proposed winter usage of this proposal, a covered or enclosed transit stop would be preferable.      

Noise

First, the Noise Data study is almost laughable. Taking noise samples while there is significant snowpack and fresh snow on the ground is a sure way NOT to collect accurate data. Anyone who has lived with snow for any length of time knows that snow is like an acoustic sponge. And this data was also collected less than week after the Town Council approved the EIR process. Another example of everybody being in a hurry, but with little care of being accurate.  You do have to love the Site #3 Source of Peak Noise: Water streaming through Mammoth Creek. After four+ years of drought and in near freezing temperatures the trickle of Mammoth Creek is “Peak Noise.”

The Noise Element of the EIR should really be re-titled as “Nuisance Element.” The noise mitigations directly from the facility appear to be adequately mitigated. They had to be, they were the major concern from day one. But the placement of the new parking lot has great potential for uncontrollable noise and nuisance. This is just poor planning motivated by cost cutting and expediency. But what about doing the right thing? 

Whatever happened to the planning theory of marrying like-to-like? This plan has married a parking lot to residences and their adjacent recreation area. The new parking area and all of its noise and nuisance should be more closely aligned with the existing parking area and the road. This only makes sense. This placement could also help mitigate the “blind curve” issue. This plan is simply the least expensive place to “stick” the parking. If this was a private development the planners would never find this acceptable. This is another serious compromise displaying the constraints of the site and the budget.

And since we’re experiencing a non-drought winter; Is there a coherent snow removal plan with this site plan? A different parking lot placement makes sense to allow snow to be pushed (ramped) onto the vacant Forest Service property. 

With the lack of adequate law and code enforcement in Mammoth Lakes, this current parking lot placement will inevitably become a favorite for late night partiers, impromptu tailgate parties and overnight parkers/squatters. This happens where parking is somewhat hidden and there are public bathrooms. This parking needs to be more out in the open rather than hidden away. This would minimize the potential for public nuisances.

So far the concerns over noise have been focused on the proposed ice rink itself and the mechanical equipment associated with it. This is for good reason. This has already been the subject of much input. Clearly the dasher boards needs to be of the noise dampening variety. The ice rink related mechanical equipment needs serious mitigation including adequate enclosures (possibly underground) and potential berming to the residential areas. And hours of operation need to be within reason.

But the added parking lot has the potential to be an even bigger noise nuisance to the surrounding properties. Parking lots create all sorts of ambient and uncontrollable noise. Especially when they are poorly or haphazardly designed. So far I have seen no significant proposed mitigation measures. The planners have placed the new parking lot right on a residential property line. This is where it is being dumped simply because the project appears to be (is) underfunded and this is the least expensive route. This is truly cause for distrust. In the past the Town has respected the development of non-residential uses next to longstanding residential property. A buffer of some sort has always been required. (Example: The Church of Latter Day Saints project next to condo projects.) And does it make sense to design the parking lot to resemble a drag strip? That alone is a public safety concern. More inadequate planning.   

So how should the EIR require the project to mitigate the significant noise created by the new parking area? Berming and trees can help with the visual impacts but really do little for noise, especially for second story residential units. This part of the plan needs significant “alternative” analysis. In reality the parking should be aligned with Old Mammoth Road like the 1999 plan. This is another serious liability of the plan. The Town needs to do this right or not do it at all.

As planned, this new parking lot will also be prime for abuse and mayhem. The transient nature of the community invites this. “No Overnight Parking” signs will be ignored. This will become a perfect place for the classic Mammoth motorhome squatters (and their noisy generators). And in reality, under the current Town budget, the parking lot will not be policed. The EIR truly needs to assess whether new funding sources for additional police department staff should be required based on this project and the proposed location. Or does the facility need a private security component? Without proper policing the parking lot (as planned) and immediate area is bound to become a public nuisance to the surrounding residential areas. 

Is there a draft operational plan for this facility? Or do they just plan to “wing it?”  Doesn’t that need to be incorporated into and considered in the EIR? If the Town can justify that the owners of nightly rentals in Mammoth Lakes need stricter regulation then this facility needs a detailed  operational plan. And that plan and the resulting impacts needs to be evaluated in the EIR. The potential negative impacts to the surrounding residential properties is significant. 

Visual / Environmental 

Many of the potential visual impacts have been previously scoped. The 3-D modeling is very helpful but not very specific. The building and site aesthetics need to meet or exceed what the Town would require of any private developer. Design review is imperative. Again, this is one of the jewel locations within the town limits of Mammoth Lakes. The lack of funding should not be an excuse to allow a substandard project. The design review process must have the upmost scrutiny. 

Because of the proximity to the residential areas, the lighting needs critical attention by designers. And the roof materials are of significant concern. The facility roof will be large. The solar impact and potential glare is significant. That needs to be mitigated. Which brings another issue….

Why isn’t this project considering the use of solar power/panels? Isn’t there grant money or subsidies or low interest loans for this type of solar installation? It would appear that once again the contrived urgency and lack of adequate funding has the Town on a hellbent path to ignore the obvious. The EIR needs to consider and evaluate the use of solar power derived onsite to power this facility. This is a serious environmental concern. The long-term savings to the Town could be significant.

Water Quality

The fact that the major mitigation measures, the oil/water separator and the drywell, are basically located adjacent to a FEMA Flood Hazard Area is a bit concerning. The recent flooding in the area was serious. I am not an engineer but the potential for contaminates to backwash and end up in the Mammoth Creek drainage is apparent. These mitigation measures need to be reconsidered  and bolstered.

Further, the California Department of Fish and Game has extensive comments in the Draft EIR pertaining to the mitigation of significant or potentially significant impacts to biological resources. Mammoth Creek and its fish habitat is certainly “rare and unique to the region.” It precisely why many visitors come here. It is not something we want spoiled. The Department’s comments appear to be completely ignored in the Draft EIR. Why is that? Do the producers of the Draft EIR believe this is just “boilerplate” commentary from a ineffectual State bureaucracy? Comments with no substance? Protecting the Mammoth Creek environment, fishery and natural habitat should be a paramount goal of the community. The producers of the EIR certainly aren’t taking it serious.

Look at the Mammoth Creek corridor. This is the closest intrusion to the sole tributary of Mammoth Creek by a commercial-type facility. The facility is proposed to use a variety of chemicals and potential toxic elements that may find their way into the creek. And they are likely to be marginally managed and maintained. What detailed mitigations will be in place and who will monitor (short term low-wage Town Parks & Rec. employees?). While we are selling recreation in this community, maintaining the pristine beauty of the surrounding natural environment is even more important. Mammoth Creek is one of our top natural resources. More people likely visit the creek than will ever use this proposed facility.

Parking lot runoff is a real concern in proximity to the creek. The new Canyon Blvd. storm drain system has the latest engineering but the storms of the past winter have proven they need regular human attention to prevent overflow and havoc. There are a multitude of downstream resources including prime fish habitat and a fish hatchery that need the upmost protection. The community simply doesn’t need Mammoth Creek to become a polluted mess. A polluted or compromised creek would be the ultimate black-eye. What mitigation measures will be in place to ensure excessive runoff or some other disaster is avoided? Again, where is the draft operational plan? This needs to be part of the EIR evaluations. This is profoundly significant. And again, the urgency and underfunded nature of the project makes this an especially disconcerting “trust” issue.

Archeological and Cultural

The Town is confident that it can maintain this facility at this location in a safe and professional manner. But I question that. There is a substantial piece of art at the entry to MCPW that the Town has poorly managed and maintained over the past 20 years. This piece was originally designed, approved and implemented with beautiful stained glass panels inside the replica Devil’s Postpile pillars. It was envisioned as a showcase entry statement to the Park. It was approved by the Town. The Town has been a poor steward of this art piece. They have let it be vandalized and deteriorate. They have done nothing to preserve it in its original condition. It was designed to be a cultural draw to this location and set the tone for what the park stood for. I doubt if few people even realize it is there. If this is a precursor to how the Town will manage a larger facility, it is a frightening prospect. It makes me think the project should be bonded (like a private developer) so if the Town cannot maintain it there are the resources to restore MCPW to it’s present condition.

Alternative Sites

The alternative sites consideration has changed since the beginning of this process. The new cost estimates for the project continue to grow. The community is questioning whether this is the “highest and best use” of the monies. All things considering, it isn’t. Too bad the EIR can’t consider “alternative expenditures” or opportunity costs. That being said, the existing ice rink location needs serious consideration. Some simple financial analysis could show that this is the best location for the next 10 to 15 years. If an ice rink remains viable then a new and grander project can be envisioned, perhaps with a public/private partnership. That was the Town’s original vision some 27 years ago.

The new potential Shady Rest location is being pushed by the planners at Hart Howerton. This facility is envisioned as the epicenter for the Main St. Revitalization. The central location and less environmentally sensitive location makes sense. It certainly needs to be considered. 

In compliance with CEQA, there are numerous sites that need to assessed as alternate sites. Obviously the existing site of the ice rink adjacent to the library. The Community Center site on Forest Trail. The Bell Parcel. I’m sure there are others. Quite frankly, the best part of the MCPW is that the Town owns it and it has no debt on it. The site is not the best location for this project. The site is undersized for this large venue and ambitions of staff. And MCPW likely has higher and better uses.

The existing ice rink site adjacent to the library is a good one because of the proximity to the schools. The MUF is really just an extension of the schools as it is proposed. Nobody seems to want to express that. The long term lease negotiation with the school district has been poorly executed. A professional mediator should have been (or should be) utilized to bring common sense to the transaction and get past the egos of the respective bodies. The Mammoth property owners are essentially paying for that otherwise vacant land though property tax bonds. Ironically (and sadly) the majority of Mammoth property owners will never utilize a day of the schools district’s resources but fund it substantially. It is time for the school district to “do the right thing” and be cooperative and find some mutually beneficial ground. The school board wants us to support their continued parcel tax in June. They lack public “trust” also. A professionally mediated negotiation should be mandatory under “Alternative Sites” component of the EIR.

The old Community Center site on Forest Trail could be an optimal site to align this development into a public/private partnership. Ironically, this is very close to the proposed ice rink/events center in the 1993-94 North Village Specific Plan. And ironically too, the substructure of that facility was designed to be the primary public parking lot for the Village. The EIR needs to assess that since the Town is pursuing a public parking lot in the Village. It is not too late to make this happen. But the impatience of the crowd stands in the way.

Ultimately, The Town needs to be held to the same development standards they have demanded of private developers in the past 25 years. That includes acceptable aesthetics, mitigations and operational plans.  Anything else would be clear hypocrisy. And liability.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

I have a long history with EIRs in Mammoth Lakes both as a public official and from the private development side. When I first received these voluminous documents, I was told by the Planning Director at the time, “just read the summary.” I found this wasn’t adequate. The devil is in the details. And the omissions.  

The production of EIRs has changed over the years. Today they are more likely to be produced by “mills” like Michael Baker International. They have become impersonal cut-and-paste jobs. They hope nobody gets past the Summary.

Modern EIRs have become reams of near worthless data points collected by hit-and-run specialists mixed with the repeated “no significant impact” (to the people producing the EIR??). There is very little real ground level, common sense look at what is really going on. All to justify dispensing “tickets to development “…they have become just another government driven farce.

Companies like Micael Baker can produce these documents quickly (which is what the Town wants). But do they produce them with any real sensitivity to the project and project site? The process has become all about speed and not the quality or depth of the study.

This draft EIR has serious mitigation measures that place a high burden on the competence and diligence of Town staff. The Town staff was gutted during the recent bankruptcy era and the Town clearly remains understaffed. The Town fails to enforce simple ordinances that are part of the Municipal Code; ordinances like signage, code compliance, and transient occupancies in residential neighborhoods. This lack of performance creates serious concern for their ability to execute and maintain an expensive facility in an environmentally sensitive location. And one that has the potential to negatively impact hundreds of neighboring residences. 

A condition of this project should be strengthening the Town staff by at least one law enforcement officer and one experienced personnel to oversee the projects like this to insure compliance of mitigations. Without this the community of Mammoth Lakes is exposed to the same potential nightmares that the CEQA process was designed to prevent.

Sincerely,

Paul Oster 

 

 

Dan Holler, Grady Dutton, John Wentworth, Bill Sauser, Lynda Salcido, Sandra Moberly, Stuart Brown, Betsy Truax

 

Update, May 18, 2021

Four years ago on May 10, 2017 the Mammoth Lakes Planning Commission certified the EIR for this project. During the public hearing the Commission stumbled through the process but in less than 20 minutes they did in fact certify the EIR. They didn’t ask one substantive question during the process. What an embarrassment. You can use the link below to see the video of the meeting, 37:00 to 57:00.

Commissioners Amy Callanan, Paul Chang, Michael Vanderhurst and Greg Eckert were in attendance. Commissioner Jen Burrows was absent but did not present any questions.

http://mammothlakes.granicus.com/player/clip/660?view_id=4&redirect=true

 

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