OAKHURST – After a flurry of activity early this year at the site of three planned hotels in Oakhurst, progress has seemingly come to a halt.
Units of lumber sit baking in the sun and heavy equipment stands idle at the recently leveled site on the west side of Highway 41 between Hartwell Road and Winding Way, while the County and the developer try to come to terms.
The County says they’re doing everything they can to get the permits issued and construction underway, while developer Paul Patel, who owns several other hotels in the area, insists the County is doing everything in its power to stop the project.
“It’s problem after problem after problem,” says Patel. “Nobody at the County is trying to help. They’re looking for anything they can find to stop me from doing business.”
Madera County Building Official Harry Hinton strongly disagrees, saying the plans are ready to go and that the County is waiting on Patel to address the few outstanding issues so they can give final approval.
“The County and the departments here have really extended themselves,” says Hinton, who notes that changes to building plans and lack of cooperation from the developer have made the process very difficult. “We have some conditions which they’re going to need to meet for the safety of the general public.”
One major issue has been fire safety. The size of the 108-room Holiday Inn Express and two others of similar size, requires a certain amount of water storage for fire protection. Hinton says the water tank and pump required to provide adequate water in the event of a fire have not been installed.
“Before you put up combustibles, you must have a way for the fire department to fight a fire,” he says. “The Fire Marshall will allow them to stand the walls, but our big concern is when they start putting in the other systems such as electrical, mechanical and plumbing. When you use copper water lines, you have to solder those joints. And now you’ve got heat and the potential for the wood to be scorched and a fire to start.”
Another issue is the condition of the fire-treated wood that has been exposed to the elements since last December.
With the challenges of the water supply and firefighting resources in Oakhurst, and the size of the project, a more fire-safe construction is being required. County Fire Marshall Deborah Keenan says this type of construction will withstand flame impingement longer than the average structure.
“We’ve built some safety measures into the construction,” says Keenan, who notes that treated wood is one of those requirements, along with internal stairwells.
“Wood has to be treated so it has fire resistance,” says Keenan. “Treated wood will still burn, but much slower, and has a flame spread of about 25% that of non-treated wood. It allows occupants more time to get out.”
Keenan says that prolonged exposure to weather could have degraded the treatment, and now the developer will have to get approval from the original manufacturer stating that the treatment is still 100% up to standards. If that certification is not forthcoming, he may have to purchase new lumber.
Patel insists that not only is the County blocking him at every turn, but that District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler is ignoring his calls and refusing to communicate with him and support the project.
“They don’t want to help me out,” says Patel. “Wheeler wants everybody to think he’s doing so, but he just wants to make things more difficult for me.”
Hinton adamantly disagrees with that assertion, saying that Supervisor Tom Wheeler has “been working his fanny off” on this one, trying to help them get it done.
Wheeler says he has had countless conversations with Patel and done everything in his power to get this project moving. He asserts that all these delays rest squarely on the developer, who he says has tried to cut corners, skirt the rules, and avoid compliance with state fire and building codes. Wheeler also says that Patel has continuously made changes to the plans after they have been approved, slowing the process even further.
“When he first came in, he asked the staff what he had to do for a two-story building,” says Wheeler. “Then he brings in plans for a four-story building. Things would be approved, then he would change them.
“When he did his grading, he got a soil compaction test for a two-story building,” says Wheeler. “It’s a whole different level of compaction for a taller, bigger building. He’s also objecting to paying the school fees. We have nothing to do with that. As for code requirements, most of these things aren’t even county regulations, they’re state regulations. We have no say in those things.”
Everyone agrees that the 324 additional hotel rooms will provide a major boost to the local economy, bringing in revenue to business owners, along with the property tax and Transient Occupancy Tax generated for the county coffers.
“We definitely see this project as a good thing,” says Fire Marshall Keenan. “The tax dollars would really benefit the area. If we can just get them going the way the code requires that they go, instead of resisting at every turn.”
Patel says he will be creating 45-50 jobs per hotel, and is clearly frustrated by what he sees as intentional roadblocks to keep him from building.
“I already have a lot of money invested in this,” he says. “I can’t just walk off. If I back out, I lose the $2 million I’ve already invested, so I don’t know which way to go.”
Wheeler says the County is not going to let him build something that’s illegal by state standards, and unsafe for the public.
“So what if it catches on fire and we don’t have the water to put it out, or the firewalls to slow it down, and the access is too narrow and the fire trucks can’t get in; is that what you want to do – jeopardize people’s lives?”
When asked whether his frustration might inspire him to just sell the whole project to another developer and wash his hands of the whole thing, Patel said he didn’t wish to comment.