Outside investors with deep pockets are eyeing the Highway 120 corridor in southern Tuolumne County for several high-end commercial development projects that have the potential to attract thousands of new tourists and pump an additional $1 million or more into local government coffers each year.
However, not all those who live, run businesses, and own property from Big Oak Flat to the entrance of Yosemite National Park are in favor of the plans, which they fear could hurt the way of life they’ve long enjoyed and have unforeseen consequences on local emergency services that are funded by their tax dollars.
About 50 people reportedly attended a public meeting on Monday in Groveland hosted by county planners to gather comments and concerns about the largest of the proposed projects — a sprawling, multi-million-dollar resort on 64 acres at the northeast corner of Highway 120 and Sawmill Mountain Road, about 17 miles east of the historic Gold Rush town.
The so-called Terra Vi Lodge would be built and owned by the Hansji Corp., an Anaheim-based developer known for its multimillion-dollar high-rise hotels in downtown Phoenix, while the land would remain under the ownership of the family of the late Tim Manly.
There’s another proposed project just down the road on land that’s also owned by the Manly family to develop a seasonal campground with 99 luxury tents that would be operated by the company Under Canvas, which bills itself as the nation’s premier provider of the experience referred to as “glamping.”
Manly’s son, Bob Manly, of Moccasin, said his father purchased the land in the late 1980s and got the zoning changed from timberland to commercial in the 1990s because he always dreamed of one day developing something on it similar to what’s being proposed.
“That’s what he wanted for this property and saw the future in it,” Bob Manly said. “We’re just trying to make it happen.”
The Tuolumne County Planning Commission was scheduled to hold a public hearing in Sonora on Wednesday night to consider a use permit for the “glamping” project, but the developers postponed it at the last minute to address community concerns.
Quincy Yaley, assistant director of the county Community Resources Agency, said about 20 people gave verbal comments and others provided written statements during the meeting on Monday about the Terra Vi Lodge project.
According to others who attended, all but one of the people who spoke expressed opposition to the project moving forward.
The purpose was to gather concerns from the public that will be studied in the process of preparing an environmental impact report, which is required by California law to be completed for any project that’s expected to have unavoidable impacts on the environment.
“We want to study what the real impacts will be compared to the perceived impacts,” Yaley said of what comes next. “From my perspective, the scoping meeting worked exactly as it should. We got a lot of great information that we’ll be looking at through the process.”
Yaley said the studies and final report will likely take several months to complete, if not longer.
The chief issues expressed by those at the meeting on Monday focused on traffic, noise, water supply, on-site treatment of sewage, and impacts to wildlife, according to Yaley.
People also voiced concerns about the proposed resort’s potential need for emergency services, such as police, fire protection, and ambulance, that are funded by taxpayers who live and own property along the corridor.
“That’s a big concern for neighbors, as recreational or commercial development continues up toward Yosemite National Park, it draws away those services from Groveland,” Yaley said. “We will be looking at that through the environmental impact report and mitigate those impacts.”
Dan Courtney, of La Jolla, is one of the opponents of the project who attended the meeting on Monday because his family owns a one-bedroom cabin that’s adjacent to where the resort would be constructed.
Courtney said his top concern is about the risk of fire and being unable to access his only escape route via Highway 120 due to traffic from the resort, which is proposed to have a three-story lodge with 140 guestrooms, 25 detached cabins with 100 total guestrooms, a public market, two-story event center, and helicopter landing pad.
“If they’ve got 700 people there, how the heck are we going to pass them to get to 120? That’s the only way out,” he said.
Another concern Courtney has about both the proposed resort and nearby luxury-tent campground using wells and septic systems for providing water and sewer services, due to being too far away from the Groveland Community Services District’s infrastructure.
Courtney believes that the county should be required to look at the impacts from both of the projects cumulatively as opposed to separate from each other. He also feels the county should consider that many of the cabins near the proposed sites have been in people’s families for generations.
“The expectation is that it would be low-density recreation in the character of the long-term established surrounding community which consists of one or two bedroom cabins, not high-rise resorts more typical for Orange County or Lake Tahoe.”
Two other projects planned between Groveland and Yosemite National Park are a $60 million reconstruction of the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp on Hardin Flat Road that was mostly destroyed by the 2013 Rim Fire, as well as another resort with a two-story lodge containing 40 guest rooms and eight detached guest cottages just east of Smith Station Road and Highway 120.
The resort at Smith Station Road and Highway 120, which cover about 15 acres on a 150-acre property owned by the Holcomb Family Trust, was approved by the county in 2010.
Yaley said the family of the former owner, who has since passed away, are now interested in bringing the project forward and talking with county officials about the next step to obtain building and grading permits.
Liza McNulty, project manager for the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, anticipates construction to begin on the project in spring of next year. They hope to have the camp opened for business by the summer of 2020.
McNulty said the camp’s maximum occupancy will remain the same — 300 campers and 60 staffers — though there will be slightly less buildings spread across a larger swath of U.S. Forest Service land due to changes in requirements.
The camp was constructed in 1922 by the City of Berkeley, which gives priority registration to its residents, and has remained closed since the Rim Fire while the city worked on renewing its special use permit with the Forest Service for the rebuild. Disaster recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is funding the project.
County Supervisor John Gray, who represents the south county area, said the flurry of interest from outside investors in the Highway 120 corridor is not surprising to him given the amount of vehicles that pass through on the way to the world-famous park and lack of vacancies in area hotels during busy times of the year.
“There have been a number of studies done that show there are room shortages in the area,” he said.
Gray and others also pointed to the success of Rush Creek Lodge, located a mile from the entrance to Yosemite, since opening in June 2016 as the first new resort to open near the park in 25-plus years.
The proposed projects would provide additional tax dollars for the county that could help support municipal services, Gray said, at a time when he and other supervisors have discussed the possibility of asking voters to increase tax rates due to the increasing cost of doing business.
Gray also said none of the projects are a “slam dunk,” and pointed to the property known by locals as “The Scar” between Big Oak Flat and Groveland as an example. The property is called that because it was left denuded of vegetation by failed development proposals over the past 40 years, which most recently included a hotel, restaurants, and an IMAX Theater.
Steve Anker, who runs Priest Station Café at the top of Priest Grade in Big Oak Flat, said he’s in favor of more places for people to stay along the Highway 120 corridor because his business benefits from the additional visitors, but he wants it to be done right and not become another eyesore like “The Scar” property.
“If development is done well, it can be a good thing,” he said. “If it’s done bad, it could be harmful.”
Anker said he foresees one problem for any of these projects should they become a reality will be finding enough employees to work at them due to a shortage of housing rentals in the area, primarily driven by the rise of people renting out their homes through Airbnb.
There are at least 383 active Airbnb rentals, mostly in the gated Pine Mountain Lake subdivision, with 354 being an entire house and 29 a single private room, according to data provided by Lisa Mayo, of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.
“There used to be 20 rentals listed at any given time,” Anker said. “Now, I know a friend who was looking and there’s one.”
Others who live and have businesses in or around Groveland have said they would prefer such commercial developments be closer to town.
Joanie Gisler, owner of the specialty retail shop Ranch Revived in Groveland, said she grew up in the area and sees more people simply passing through the town as opposed to stopping and spending money at local businesses.
Gisler said she believes if the proposed developments were located closer to the town, it would be a greater boost to the local economy.
“We are the gateway to Yosemite and part of this county,” she said. “It’s great people are visiting the national park, we love that, but it would be great if they would promote our little town.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.