Two environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to stop what has been called the largest housing development ever approved in Riverside County, Calif.

On Feb. 7, Riverside’s Board of Supervisors gave its thumbs up to Travertine Point, a 4,900-acre project that, over its five-phase, 35-year build out, would add 16,655 housing units for an estimated 37,000 residents. The project, which has been in the works for five years, would also include more than 5 million square feet of commercial and retail space to create a self-sustaining city that developers insist would have a significantly lower carbon footprint than existing municipalities of similar size in the state.

Travertine Point is expected to receive the other approvals it needs from Imperial County (980 of whose acres fall within this development’s boundaries), and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (the Torrez-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians control about 1,400 acres within this project) before groundbreaking proceeds. The tribe has been working in partnership with Travertine Point’s developer, Black Emerald Properties, a limited liability entity created by Minnesota-based Federated Insurance, which is financing this project.

Now, though, all parties must contend with a lawsuit that the Sierra Club and its Center for Biological Diversity filed on March 6 against Riverside County, its Board of Supervisors, and Black Emerald. The suit alleges that the county “failed to seriously analyze and mitigate the project’s numerous, severe impacts on local residents, wildlife, and parks.”

Location questioned

Environmentalists and other critics oppose the project for several reasons. They predictably allege that certain animal and fish species would be further endangered. But more to the point, they doubt that a new city so remotely located from job centers—about 10 miles from Mecca, Calif., and 35 miles from Palm Springs—could attract enough businesses to be as self-contained as its developers believe it will be. “What we do not need is another ‘leapfrog’ community, miles from anywhere, that will lead to more sprawl,” Jeff Morgan, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Tahquitz Group, tells Builder.

Paul Quill, who is managing this project for Black Emerald, disagrees, claiming that Travertine Point would actually prevent sprawl, and is the kind of sustainable community that's needed in advance of the 150,000 more people who are expected to relocate to the Coachella Valley area, regardless of whether this project gets built or not.

As for the project's environmental impact, Quill tells Builder "we offered over 3,000 pages of documentation that [opponents of the project] choose to ignore. Our EIR [environmental impact report] was circulated three times. And we're the only private project in Southern California that voluntarily included a climate action plan."

Southern California still has lots of unsold and foreclosed inventory to burn through before any new projects get started, and Quill says economic conditions will drive when Black Emerald finally breaks ground. "It could be four or five years from now, it could be 10."

But when it does get started, Travertine Point would border the northwestern corner of the Salton Sea, California’s largest water mass, which was created by a flood of the Colorado River in 1905, but for decades has been “dying” because it lacks an outflow system. The Sea and its basin—whose surfaces are below sea level and sit over the San Andreas Fault, the San Jacinto Fault, and the Imperial Fault Zone—are fed primarily by three rivers and agricultural runoff, which causes its levels to fluctuate and contributes to its extraordinarily high salinity.

Over the past 50 years there have been numerous state and local proposals about how to forestall the Sea’s evaporation. Those plans, though, carry price tags, and the latest plans' costs range from $3 billion to $9 billion, which are outside what this cash-strapped state and its struggling municipalities are willing to pay right now.

“I’m a lot less optimistic than I used to be” about saving this water body, says Michael Cohen, a senior associate with The Pacific Institute, which a few years ago advocated reducing Salton Sea to a 10,000-acre lake—still three times the size of Lake Elsinore, he says—and shallower wildlife habitats by dividing the Sea with a retention structure or causeway and installing an outflow system. That plan, and others like it, continue to gather dust in file drawers. “There is no restoration vision or plan being considered,” Cohen laments.

Will there be enough water?

The doomsday scenario envisions the Salton Sea drying up within a generation and becoming a carcinogenic dustbowl that would be hazardous to people and wildlife living anywhere near it. But not everyone is ready to declare the Salton Sea D.O.A. just yet.

Last year Quill told the California Planning & Development Report that this project could be viable even if the Sea dries up and that Black Emerald might exclude a proposed marina from its plans. However, the developer has also stated previously that Travertine Point works best with a more-vibrant Salton Sea as a recreational amenity. And as part of its approval, Riverside County required the developer to create an Infrastructure Financing District that would contribute to the Sea’s restoration, said Matt Straite, the county’s project planner.

In an interview with Builder on Tuesday, Straite defended the county’s vetting of this project. He noted that the developer’s plan originally called for only 13,000 new homes, which Riverside rejected as too low to encourage enough businesses to locate nearer to or in Travertine Point. He also said that the county relied on assurances from the Coachella Valley Water District that there would be sufficient water supply to meet this project’s needs. (A May 25, 2011 report produced by KCET, the local National Public Radio affiliate, quoted this project’s Environmental Impact Review saying that Travertine Point, at build-out, would consume at least 8,400 acre-feet of water annually. The KCET report said this water would be drawn from “already oversubscribed” aquifers and the Coachella branch of the All-American Canal, which diverts Colorado River water to the valley.)

The Sierra Club’s Morgan dismisses most estimates about water availability in California as little more than creative accounting. He also questions the rationale for Traverine Point when so many other projects along the Salton Sea have been abandoned over the years. He points specifically to Salton City, which in the 1950s was drawn up as a 25,000-household community. According to the 2010 Census, Salton City currently has only 1,204 households and 3,763 people, and is riddled by foreclosures, says Morgan.

However, Straite counters that the problem with Salton City and other previously proposed developments bordering the Sea has been that they were strictly residential and did not include the commercial component that convinced Riverside County that Travertine Point could be the exception to the rule.

Sustainable or delusional?

The developers are convinced their community can bring in business, particularly companies focusing on solar energy that might be attracted by Travertine Point’s proximity to the desert. However, the developers have also estimated that, at build out, the community would create 200,000 new vehicle trips in an area that, right now, is serviced by only a four-lane highway, State Route 86S. The developers believe the federal government will eventually designate this road as an interstate highway because it also serves as a trade corridor with Mexico; and eventually widen it.

Morgan says talk about highway expansion alone is proof that Traverine Point may not be the New Urbanist paragon its developers claim. He’s convinced this community would create considerably more congestion on existing roads, and inevitably lead to more sprawl and more carbon emissions. Quill, though, has stated previously that Traverine Point was explicitly designed to comply with California’s Senate Bill 375, which fast-tracks compact communities that can meet reduced emissions targets.

“This project is, without question, the most sustainable ever approved in Riverside County,” Quill told The Desert Sun. He reiterated that sentiment when he told Builder that developing master plans of this size is the best way for this market to absorb extra people and traffic with the least impact. Straite adds that projections about vehicular traffic are always “worst-case scenarios,” and that the county insisted on more commercial space for Travertine Point “so that fewer people would actually have to leave community” for daily living. That being said, Straite confirms that Riverside County is also hoping that this project will spur more development around the city.

At presstime, county attorneys were evaluating the Sierra Club’s lawsuit. Morgan says the Sierra Club would like to see the county and the developer walk away from this project, and this land—which is adjacent to Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park and the Santa Rosa/San Jacinto Mountains National Monument—to be used for conservation purposes.

But unless a judge orders the project to be delayed or halted, Travertine Point will move forward, says Straite. And environmentalists shouldn’t expect that a prolonged legal fight would lead the developers and financier to back away, either. “The developers aren’t in a hurry to put buildings on the ground before they resolve all of the legal issues,” says Straite.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Paul Quill's comments, except where attributed to other news sources, were added after this story was originally published on March 14.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Riverside, CA, Los Angeles, CA, El Centro, CA, Santa Rosa, CA.