Matt Straite, Riverside County planner. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

In a room where all the seats were filled, many standing in the rear, county planning staff listened to arguments about the future growth of Idyllwild Arts and concerns about Idyllwild Water District’s ability to serve its future water needs. One party was concerned about the next few years and unsure about the future, while the other was focused on the long term.


Frank Coyle, hearing officer for the county’s Planning Department, listened to representatives from Idyllwild Arts Academy argue for approval of proposed revisions to its Master Plan and to Idyllwild Water District General Manager Terry Lyons and Sue Nash, an Idyllwild resident, comment on the water supply and the planning process.

After listening intently for nearly an hour to various speakers, Coyle relied on Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz’s comments that fire protection was paramount and new sprinkler equipment would reduce future demand.

“All new construction requires fire sprinklers which reduce fire demand by half, whether residential or business,” Reitz said. He later added that he felt the fire department had been used as a pawn in the arguments between the school and water district.

In his Oct. 29 letter to the Planning Department, Lyons reminded the county that “will serve” letters are a local decision, which is dependent upon the local district’s reliable supply.

“The Idyllwild community is totally dependent on productive wells as the source of water and to suggest that IAA should be allowed to receive a Will Serve letter for their entire Master Plan is unrealistic and not in the best interest of the customers of the IWD,” he wrote.

IWD stressed that it did not have sufficient information to ensure water supply to the school for expansion over the next three to five decades.

Idyllwild Arts’ Project Manager Laura Sherman stated that the school had not requested nor expected a “will serve” letter for the entire project. “It’s not feasible because we don’t know the individual structures,” she said.

In addition, Coyle heard Idyllwild Arts’ water consultant Robert Krieger stress that the water district’s concerns about adequate water supply would be addressed each time the school requested a building permit.

“IWD is concerned they will be committed to water supply not needed for 30 to 40 years,” he emphasized. “That’s impractical because it’s too much capital cost, too much operating cost and too little benefit.”

Krieger and county planner Matt Straite emphasized that approval of the Master Plan was not tantamount to issuing one “will serve” letter from the district for every structure imagined in the Master Plan. The “will serve” letters will be issued when construction is planned for an individual facility, which means when funds are available.

When Idyllwild Arts is prepared to proceed with construction, the school is still required to obtain a building permit. This process requires that the water district issue a “will serve” letter, which means it can provide water for the facility’s needs.

If a letter is not issued, the county’s Department of Environmental Health cannot approve its portion of the building permit and construction cannot proceed. So Idyllwild Arts and IWD will still have to reach agreement about future water supply.

This summer, Idyllwild Arts had offered to provide IWD with early fees so that the district could construct a 300,000-gallon storage tank in the Tollgate Zone. The district has had several fruitful discussions with the Riverside County Parks and Open Space district about locating the tank in the western portion of Idyllwild County Park.

The school officials’ expressed their understanding that an agreement with IWD is necessary, but convinced the county the specifics of the agreement were outside its purview and between the two local institutions.

As a condition of the plan’s approval, the county is requiring a signed agreement between the school and water district within two years.

The lack of an agreement with Idyllwild Arts will slow but not stop IWD. Lyons said they would continue to explore new storage. On Tuesday, Allan Morphett, IWD president, wrote, “Most likely, with or without the agreement, we will go ahead and put the tank in place, because it is the responsible thing to do to provide a sustainable water supply to the Tollgate zone customers that includes Idyllwild Arts.”

The planning session opened with a statement from Faith Raiguel, President of the school’s board of governors, who stressed the three structures, which will be built first — a new health center and two faculty residences — will enhance the school’s programs and not expand them.

While John Newman, dean of students, committed to working “in good faith with IWD,” he indicated it would be challenging and believes the district has tried to derail the school’s plan.

“The county has read the [Kreiger’s water demand] study, the county knows the facts, the health center is woefully inadequate,” Newman concluded, appealing to the hearing officer.

Later, Reitz told the planning staff that the new health center would become a community asset and folded into the school’s and the community’s disaster plans. Both Sherman and Newman indicated that they supported this step when the facility is completed.

With this acknowledgement Coyle approved the Master Plan and the room gradually emptied and congratulations, smiles and back-pats were shared among the throng in the hallway.