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Near a pristine peak, building plans grow

Times Staff Writer

To those who love its jagged peaks, Mt. San Jacinto is to Palm Springs what Mt. Fuji is to Tokyo.

At 10,804 feet above sea level, the mountain hovers over the Coachella Valley like a massive wave, visible from seemingly every vantage. A rotating aerial tramway, the valley’s main tourist attraction, whisks nearly half a million visitors annually about 8,500 feet up the mountainside.

But the image of the craggy, boulder-strewn mountain could change dramatically with the city’s recent go-ahead for a resort, an 18-hole golf course and up to 3,700 homes to be built on the mountain’s lower third and adjacent areas.

Opponents fear the construction will ruin the mountain’s pristine geography, which includes hot springs and a crossing used by endangered desert bighorn sheep. They also worry that development would wreck the fan-shaped area of water-transported rocks and other materials at the mountain’s base, one of the largest remaining alluvial fans in the region.

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“To allow more than 3,000 housing units there is an offense against nature,” said Jono Hildner, chairman of Save Our Mountains, one of several grass-roots opposition groups that have been battling development plans for years.

Tourists riding the tram on a recent day expressed dismay at the plan -- and fretted that it was misguided.

“How can you have a golf course on the side of a mountain?” asked Nigel Wayward, who was visiting from London. “Trust me, balls run downward.”

But property owners say they also love the land and have made substantial investments to develop it.

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“They have a lot of chutzpah to make plans for other people’s property,” said developer Mark Bragg.

“If conservationists want to maintain its pristine character, they have to pay for it,” said David Baron, an attorney who represents actor Suzanne Somers, who owns about 450 acres with her husband, Alan Hamel.

The nonprofit Riverside Land Conservancy is considering doing just that, floating such ideas as buying out developers with funds raised from private or government bond issues, encouraging land holders to conserve their properties in return for tax benefits, or organizing land swaps with government-owned parcels nearby.

What might come

About a dozen private landowners, including Somers, have about 1,500 developable acres on or immediately adjacent to the mountain. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which once spent summers in its canyons to escape triple-digit summer heat, owns 343 developable acres.

Somers’ land is on the northwest side of the mountain, known as Snow Creek Canyon, the first area motorists headed for downtown Palm Springs see as they exit Interstate 10. Government agencies own the mountain’s upper areas.

The City Council did tighten the number of housing units allowed on some of the parcels. Baron said his clients can now build an average of only one unit per acre instead of six per acre, “an obvious loss of millions in land value,” particularly given that they would have to build a bridge expected to cost millions to access the area.

He said Somers and Hamel wanted to build “something nice and unique” on their site -- perhaps an equestrian center, dude ranch or boutique hotel -- but would be willing to sell the land for a price he wouldn’t disclose.

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The furthest planned and most controversial development is known as Shadowrock, with up to 720 hotel or condo units and houses, plus a golf course, on a site in the area known as Chino Canyon, about one-third of the way up the mountain and about a mile up Tramway Road.

Bragg says he has scaled back his boutique hotel project to include fewer rooms and homes. He has spent years fighting lawsuits and other challenges from the Sierra Club and others who want to protect the area where they say Peninsular desert bighorn sheep roam. Bragg refers to himself as a “victim of the Endangered Species Act.”

He says he’s never seen a sheep in the 22 years he’s owned the property. Nevertheless, he says, he’s secured numerous required permits and “taken 60 more acres that were going to be 120 home sites and made them permanent habitat, and that cost a fortune.”

He says he’s in discussions with several five-star hotels interested in operating the boutique hotel. Without a golf course, he said, he would lose business to other full-scale resorts around the Coachella Valley.

Palm Springs originally approved plans for Shadowrock 13 years ago, allowing a 10-year window for construction. Financial and environmental problems delayed the project, as did two unsuccessful lawsuits filed by the Sierra Club.

A ballot battle is set

The city recently granted Bragg a controversial 10-year extension, which opposition groups are seeking to overturn with a referendum approved for the November 2007 ballot. Two other environmentally related legal challenges are pending, including another from the Sierra Club.

Bragg says he plans to proceed with construction but hasn’t decided when he’ll break ground.

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The city technically has no jurisdiction over tribal lands, though the Indians have indicated they will proceed with their development only if Shadowrock proceeds. “It’s not a priority development for the tribe,” said spokeswoman Nancy Conrad. “Shadowrock is between two tribal trust properties. It only makes sense to develop it if and when Shadowrock develops.”

Indeed, construction on the mountain would be expensive and difficult; some properties would require bridges over streams for access. And boulders above and below ground -- some as big as a single-car garage -- are brutal on excavation equipment.

Opposition groups hope daunting project costs and a sagging economy will deter development. A consortium of groups has rallied behind the Riverside Land Conservancy’s proposal to buy the land. It’s not clear how many millions of dollars such a plan would cost or whether state and federal funds could be secured to assist in the purchase.

Any such plans would be moot, however, if property owners decide to proceed with development.

Some residents think the plans will do no harm to the vistas. Robert Graham, an air conditioning contractor who is building a custom home on a nearby hillside, said the mountain would be just as visible, and just as beautiful, after development.

John Williams, owner of a small inn and president of Small Hotels of Palm Springs, says the city needs to be careful to preserve its mountains or the desert will look more like Orange County and the city’s top industry, tourism, will suffer.

As a first impression on visitors, he says, the mountain is “an incredible vista, an experience they never forget.”

Several tourists agreed. “Oh, my goodness, that would be a tragedy,” said David-Anthony Powell, an ad agency executive visiting from New York, as he rode the tram down the mountain.

Rachel Tomlinson, 30, a Palm Springs native, was hiking up Tramway Road on a recent afternoon as the sun tucked behind the mountain, giving way to the intoxicating hues that bathe the city and mountains at dusk.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful, fantastic, wild habitat,” Tomlinson said, describing how she had heard “nothing but periodic crow calls” as she hiked along the road, which is now the only nonnatural thing on the mountain below the tram station besides a few “No Trespassing” signs.

“There are a lot of places in the valley for housing,” she said. “We need some places to be left alone.”

valerie.reitman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mountain development

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As many as 3,700 homes, a golf course and other development are planned in Chino Canyon and Snow Creek Canyon at the base of Mt. San Jacinto in Palm Springs.

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Maximum number of residences, by project area

*--* Planning area Acres Units 1 454 11 2 360 720 3 343 Unknown* 4 98 196 5 24 144

*--*

*--* Planning area Acres Units 5 12 N/A 6 90 135 7 174 4 8 123 246 9 244 244

*--*

DEVELOPMENT ZONE: Eight planned developments are clustered in Chino

Canyon along Tramway Road and Highway 111. Another development area

is northwest of there, in Snow Creek.

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*The landowner -- an Indian tribe --wants to build six units per acre, or 2,058 residences if planning

area 2 is developed.

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Sources: City of Palm Springs general plan update, Google Earth


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