‘Driveway extension’ on city hillside is actually a road that would threaten sheep, disrupt lives: Opponents

A developer whose reputation was tarnished after being indicted on bribery charges wants permission to grade a roadway in the hills above Palm Springs. A decision to allow that won’t come any time soon.

When is a driveway not a driveway? When it’s a request to grade 775 feet of unfinished roadway in the hills above the city on land that may be critical habitat for peninsular bighorn sheep.

That was the issue before the Palm Springs Planning Commission Wednesday evening. Commissioners ultimately elected to punt consideration of the request to an “unspecified date” in the future.

“We have very serious letters from the Oswit Land Trust, the Bighorn Institute, and state Fish and Wildlife,” said Kathy Weremiuk, who chairs the Commission. “I think we can assume that staff will take appropriate measures to address them before this matter comes back to us.”

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Exactly when the proposal comes back for Planning Commission consideration is unknown. City staff will likely need months to explore whether the roadway on private land off South Camino Monte, first permitted in the 1960s, is on land deemed critical to sheep in the 197os.

For neighbors who spoke Wednesday evening and dozens of environmental activists who wrote letters or took to social media to alert the community about the proposal, it’s safe to say that if it never came back up for Planning Commission approval, it would be too soon.

Neighbors of the proposed “driveway extension” claimed it was disguised as road construction aimed at making access to future hillside homes easier and that allowing it would disrupt the quality of life in the neighborhood known as The Mesa. Oswit Land Trust members, state officials, and Bighorn Institute representatives pointed to the fact the land could actually be part of an area deemed critical habitat for the endangered sheep.

“This would result in years of construction noise, dust, and uncertainty,” said Daniel Caldwell, a South Camino Monte resident. “That’s just unacceptable. I believe the neighborhood we love and call The Mesa will simply call it unacceptable.”

Also raising eyebrows was the person asking to do the grading. John Wessman, one of two developers accused in a bribery case involving former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, is the owner of the property. The roughly 18 acres that contain the roadway was plotted for three homes in 1969 but never developed. Wessman was indicted in 2019 but had charges dropped in 2020.

Wessman did not address the Planning Commission Wednesday evening, but city staff did initially recommend approval of the permit in a 33-page report reviewed by Commission members. In the report, they acknowledged that the roadway would be used to access future hillside homes but said the permit is allowed since Wessman is only seeking to improve the “eroded and deteriorated” roadway at this time.

However, some who spoke during public comments Wednesday evening said the permit should not be granted without an environmental review that considers not only the sheep habitat but the entirety of what was originally proposed as a development known as Camino Del Monte.

“Why would you separate building homes and building driveways?” asked Scott Connelly, a Palm Springs resident who said he hikes in the area. “If the homes are not built, for whatever reason, then you have a road to nowhere. That’s poor planning.”

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