Palm Desert residents cry foul as developer builds ‘a mountain behind us’


The construction of a 332-home development in Palm Desert has sparked an outcry from neighboring residents, many of whom have concerns about the project’s impact on air quality, flood control — and particularly, an 11-foot sand hill that now edges some of their properties.

But the project, known as the Refuge development, has already gained approval at city hall, so it’s unlikely the neighbors will be able to change much at the roughly 94-acre site, located south of Gerald Ford Drive and east of the Marriott’s Shadow Ridge Golf Club.

The development from Refuge Palm Desert LLC initially won approval from the city in fall 2022. Earlier this year, Pulte Homes — the developer behind several Del Webb communities in the valley — bought some of the land to build the project’s first phase for $13.4 million, according to property records.

Yet the new construction has drawn criticism from residents at several recent council meetings. Amid their pushback, the city held an outreach meeting in late June to address some of the questions from residents of the nearby community that runs north of Frank Sinatra Drive and west of Portola Road.

Jana Koroczynsky, who’s lived with her husband at their home off Woodward Drive for more than 20 years, is among the group of residents opposed to a particularly conspicuous part of the project: An 11-foot-high sandhill built behind their properties during an early phase of construction in mid-May.

“Right now, they’re virtually building a mountain behind us,” Koroczynsky told the city council during a recent meeting. “What was once a beautiful view will have houses sitting on an 11-foot-high hill above us.”

Peter and Jana Koroczynsky look out at the development just north of their Palm Desert backyard. Its 11-foot wall of sand has drawn furious opposition.Peter and Jana Koroczynsky look out at the development just north of their Palm Desert backyard. Its 11-foot wall of sand has drawn furious opposition.

Peter and Jana Koroczynsky look out at the development just north of their Palm Desert backyard. Its 11-foot wall of sand has drawn furious opposition.

Beyond its impact on mountain views, Koroczynsky and others have also raised concerns about the potential for flooding into their backyards from the project, as well as blowing sand. Koroczynsky estimates roughly 60 residents are engaged and concerned with the development in her neighborhood.

But according to project and city officials, the layout under scrutiny is designed specifically to divert stormwater away from the homes on its southern edge.

The neighboring residents say they’ve long known that new homes would be built on the vacant lot north of them, but the development’s elevation has renewed their concerns. Liz Bower, who lives a few homes down from Koroczynsky, recently decided to build a pool in her backyard, but the recent construction has disrupted her plans.

“I don’t want to be outside looking straight up to find the sky,” Bower said. “I want horizons. It’s why we live here.”

PulteGroup officials are “continuously working closely with local authorities, complying with all applicable regulations and have the necessary permits in place to execute this project,” according to a statement sent by Ally Boyle, a communication manager with the company.

“Work that has already commenced has been completed in accordance with the approved plan,” the spokesperson said. “We understand the importance of considering the needs and concerns of all involved, and we are committed to being a responsible and engaged member of the community. We aim to work closely with our neighbors to mitigate the impacts on their property to the extent possible.”

Thomas Soule, the city’s public affairs manager, confirmed the overall layout has been approved, “so it is now final and cannot be changed.”

“The City has required an action plan from the developer to address many of the concerns raised by nearby residents, including concerns about dust mitigation and the construction process,” Soule said in an emailed statement. “No further community meetings have been scheduled at this point, but the City and the developer are engaged in ongoing communication with residents as construction begins.”

Residents of existing homes near Woodward Drive have raised concerns over the height and slope of the wall of sand.Residents of existing homes near Woodward Drive have raised concerns over the height and slope of the wall of sand.

Residents of existing homes near Woodward Drive have raised concerns over the height and slope of the wall of sand.

Officials explain need for layout

City and project officials discussed the project’s timeline during a June 25 community meeting at city hall that drew roughly 25 attendees.

Carlos Flores, the city’s principal planner, outlined the project’s timeline at city hall. The initial plan gained approval from the council in November 2022, while the planning commission approved a slight change to the layout and the number of permitted units in 2023.

Both of those hearings followed well-attended community meetings, but nobody from the public spoke at the 2022 council meeting for the overall project. (The planning area also includes a 269-unit affordable apartment complex known as Vitalia, which was separately approved by the council in 2021.)

The city’s planning commission also approved some lot elevation changes during a hearing earlier this year, though most of those height adjustments were slight, decreasing the elevations of some by about a half-foot and increasing some by up to one foot.

Flores said the project’s design — including the height discrepancy between the new homes and the existing ones along the property’s southern edge — were included in the initial plans approved in 2022. He also noted all the homes near the neighboring properties will be one-story, while some two-story homes are planned for other areas of the development.

A company involved with the development said the elevation will help with water drainage.A company involved with the development said the elevation will help with water drainage.

A company involved with the development said the elevation will help with water drainage.

An official with HR Green, which is helping with the development, said the original site being “relatively flat” would’ve led to water flowing to the south and to the east in the direction of the neighboring homes, and that the elevation grading will channel those rain flows northward toward Gerald Ford Drive.

An official with Pulte Homes, Darren Warren, also answered questions and defended the project during the meeting. He said the project, unlike Del Webb communities in Indio and Rancho Mirage, won’t be age-restricted for those 55 and up, though that demographic is still a target audience.

“We purchased this project with entitlements in place, the approvals in place, with the understanding that this thing has been vetted in the community,” Warren said, adding that zoning could’ve allowed for far more homes on the site.

The residents also raised concerns about sand blowing from the project site into their backyards and their pools. Pulte officials provided several answers about the upkeep, which includes daily city inspections and weekly third-party inspections. Warren was understanding of the concerns, with the developers saying they would cover damage to neighboring properties on a case-by-case basis.

Warren said at the meeting that the project team is aiming to complete grading within six weeks, at which point they will work on undergrounding utilities. He later added the full buildout of homes is expected to take approximately two years.

The community meeting at city hall largely remained cordial, though there were a few testy moments. One attendee said the city should hire someone to alter the desert landscape mural behind the council dais “to more effectively represent what you should expect to see as a resident, and remove the mountains and sky and replace it with a dirt wall.”

Another resident offered a different take, saying the neighbors “should be thrilled, because otherwise, we would’ve gotten a gigantic building which would’ve blocked everything.”

But for others, the community meeting left them disheartened. “We felt that nothing was really accomplished,” Koroczynsky said in an interview several days after the meeting.

“They didn’t have to build this 11-foot escarpment in order to drain the property. That’s our contention,” Koroczynsky said, adding that she and other neighbors think the plans were designed to optimize the new homes’ views at their expense.

It’s unclear if the group of residents will take any additional steps to contest the project. Koroczynsky noted the neighborhood lacks a homeowners’ association to potentially pursue legal action against the project, though she indicated the group is still weighing its options.

A large residential development takes shape just north of Woodward Drive in Palm Desert, as seen June 24, 2024..A large residential development takes shape just north of Woodward Drive in Palm Desert, as seen June 24, 2024..

A large residential development takes shape just north of Woodward Drive in Palm Desert, as seen June 24, 2024..

Tom Coulter covers the cities of Palm Desert, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells. Reach him at thomas.coulter@desertsun.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Controversial development in Palm Desert irks neighbors



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