Approval of 16,000-acre Northern California luxury resort project challenged in court

A planned 16,000-acre ultraluxury resort project between Clear Lake and Napa Valley is being challenged in court under claims shortly after Lake County officials approved it.

The Guenoc Valley project by Lotusland Investment Holdings was approved by the Board of Supervisors on July 21, four years after the San Francisco- and Hong Kong-based group purchased the property, located off Highway 29 just outside Middletown and north of Calistoga. The approvals allow for 400 hotel units in five “boutique” complexes plus 450 resort units, 1,400 estate villas, 500 workforce housing bedrooms, according to the environmental impact report. The goal is to build it over a decade.

“This is the largest land use decision this board will ever make,” Supervisor Rob Brown reportedly said during that meeting.

On Aug. 19, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the county and Lotusland, asking the Lake County Superior Court to throw out the board’s certification of the environmental impact report and project approvals. In the 31-page complaint, the Tucson, Arizona-based organization claims the environmental document inadequately considered impacts to wildlife, traffic, greenhouse gas emissions, water resources and aesthetics, didn’t properly consider project alternatives or address the group’s earlier comments on the draft document. Species of concern to the organization include golden eagles, foothill yellow legged frogs and western pond turtles.

But the group highlighted the “very high” and high” wildfire danger zones on portions of the site as being major problems. Staff attorney Peter Broderick pointed to the Hennessey Fire’s encroachment onto the property on its move toward Middletown as a concern.

“If this luxury resort were already built, residents would be frantically evacuating right now,” he said. “By approving this project, Lake County put the prospect of development dollars ahead of the safety of the region’s residents and the fragile environment of this beautiful place.”

No so, said Katherine Philippakis, partner at Farella Braun + Martel and an attorney involved since the entitlement phase of the project.

“We believe this litigation is meritless and simply an attempt by (the Center for Biological Diversity) to further objectives unrelated to this particular project,” she wrote in an email to the Business Journal. “The County’s environmental review of the project was very thorough, and we are confident that the court will recognize this in the litigation. I want to stress that the project is unparalleled in the high level of environmental consideration that went into its design, incorporating the natural landscape in ways that are particularly protective of the environment.”

Lake County officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

The project includes building adding fire-safety elements and increasing staffing for the local fire protection district, according to Kirsty Shelton of Maha Resort and Developments, which has been handling entitlements for Lotusland.

“The project includes components such as exterior fire sprinklers, property-wide fire breaks on the road network, onsite high-resolution fire camera, undergrounding utilities, construction of an onsite fire station and emergency helipad, defensible space maintained by the HOA, and defensible space easements within the organization of the planned development,” Shelton wrote to the Journal.

The first phase would cover 1,415 acres and include 127 hotel units, 141 resort cottages, 50 temporary workforce hotel units, 20 campsites, 100 workforce cohousing units and 401 residential villas. Also part of that would be a 55-acre outdoor entertainment area, spa, sports fields, polo grounds, a new golf course and practice facility, and commercial space.

Of the total property acreage, about 12,000 acres wouldn’t be developed, including 2,700 acres of open space and nearly 2,000 acres of agricultural preserve. That includes preservation of 1,600 acres of oak woodland.

As the property included land formally owned by the Langtry family that established the Guenoc Valley appellation, it wraps around the Langtry Estate winery property, now owned by Foley Family Wines, but doesn’t include it. The project calls for two wineries with tasting facilities to be built.

Also planned is a housing development and community center at 21000 Santa Clara Road near Middletown. That part follows the site plan for a 50-lot subdivision that had been approved there in 2006, but those permits expired.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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