A Palm Springs-area developer has shelved plans for a sweeping new city on the border of Joshua Tree National Park, and a conservation group said it would seek to purchase the land to ensure it is never developed.
Richard Oliphant, the developer who led the proposal to build Joshua Hills, a 9,000-acre business park, university and housing project north of Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, said he dropped the plan because opposition among local government leaders and environmental groups proved insurmountable.
"We just don't have the political support," he said.
The project, originally slated to include a dozen golf courses and as many as 7,000 homes, would have required an amendment to the county's general plan, which local officials were reluctant to grant. It also could have threatened endangered desert creatures, drained an ancient aquifer and blocked sand sources for the area's dune system, environmentalists said.
Instead, Oliphant said, his firm, California Intelligent Communities, plans a scaled-down version of the information technology park and university at another site nearby.
Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy aims to buy the land for conservation, saying it represents some of the last unspoiled dune habitat in the Coachella Valley and forms a vital link between Joshua Tree National Park and the nearby Coachella Valley Preserve.
Plans for Joshua Hills began in 1996, when Curtis Pickering, then an Oregon-based developer, obtained options on the land. Oliphant, a longtime builder of homes, sporting facilities, and commercial and industrial complexes throughout the Coachella Valley, took the reins in 2000, announcing his intention to build a high-tech city.
Those plans immediately met resistance among local residents who cherished their rural lifestyle, environmentalists who feared the project's effects on sensitive nearby land, and county officials who would have had to sign off on the proposal.
"It basically would have been quite a deviation from our recent county general plan update, which discourages urban sprawl and developments in areas that don't have infrastructure such as roads and water and power," said Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson, who represents the Coachella Valley.
"And this didn't have any of that," Wilson added. "It has a two-lane road that goes for miles through very rural, residential, five-acre parcels. To have a city at the end is, in my opinion, not good planning."
The project also would have jeopardized what remains of the area's fragile dune ecosystem and the rare animals that rely on it, environmentalists said.
The project would have blocked the sand sources that replenish the dunes in the Coachella Valley preserve, and fertilizers and exotic plant seeds drifting off its lawns and golf courses could have stabilized the shifting slopes, said Cameron Barrows, director of Coachella Valley Preserve, a 20,000-acre sanctuary next to the Joshua Hills site. That could have been a death knell for species such as the endangered Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, a unique reptile that glides beneath the sand to avoid predators.
The development site would have covered habitat of the threatened desert tortoise, Barrows said, and its golf courses might have siphoned water that flows into the preserve's palm oases, which shelter endangered desert pupfish and neotropical songbirds. And the streets and structures could have blocked the movement of larger animals between the preserve and the nearby national park.
"It would essentially be an ecological disaster for this preserve," Barrows said.
Oliphant said Joshua Hills would have been a self-contained community where residents worked nearby , limiting the pollution of long commutes.
He said the company was seeking ways to limit the project's environmental effects on the park and was planning an elaborate water swap with Coachella Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to cut its reliance on scarce local water.
Nonetheless, he said, those measures were not enough to overcome resistance.
"Even though it's a green development, environmentally friendly, totally self-supporting, and relies on no outside public services, it still is not going to satisfy the environmental community," he said.
Instead, the company will pursue plans for a technology park, university and a golf course at a site north of Interstate 10 and east of the original location.
The nearly 500-acre complex would include an information technology center affiliated with the World Trade Center Assn., an international organization best known for its headquarters in the former twin towers in New York City.
It would include a campus for World Trade Center University, which offers courses in international trade and business.
Although the program now consists of online courses from colleges ranging from Harvard to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Coachella Valley site would be a brick-and-mortar campus with classrooms and housing for as many as 2,500 students, said David Teuma, executive vice president and chief operating officer of World Trade Center University.
The new site has none of the drawbacks of the original location, said Jeff Morgan, vice chairman of the conservation committee for the Sierra Club's Tahquitz Group.
Environmentalists hope to stave off any further plans for development of the original site by buying it for conservation. The Nature Conservancy is negotiating with the land's Canadian owners for 8,880 acres of the property, and hopes to finalize an agreement soon, said E.J. Remson, senior program manager with the conservancy.
The purchase, if successful, would set aside the habitat as part of the upcoming Coachella Valley Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which seeks to draw a blueprint for development and preservation throughout the area, said John Wohlmuth, executive director of the Coachella Valley Assn. of Governments.
Oliphant said he regrets losing the opportunity to pursue the broader plan, but environmentalists applauded the abandonment of the Joshua Hills project.
"I think Oliphant made the right decision here," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposed the project. "Hopefully, his wise move will encourage developers in the Coachella Valley to look more at infill and developing in already disturbed areas rather than sprawling out into fragile desert habitat."