Threat to Pull Plug on New Hotel’s Emergency Water Triggers Negotiation

By Patric Hedlund

LEBEC (Thursday, Jan. 7, 12:53 a.m.)—The Lebec County Water District has given notice to the developers of the Holiday Inn Express that the hotel’s fire-emergency water supply may be turned off today (Thursday, Jan. 7) at 2 p.m. The hotel management has quickly lined up a back-up plan to continue operating safely, but tension is in the air.

Attorneys are rattling sabers in the wings amid a whirlwind of musical chairs by members of the board. Residential customers who lost water during the Christmas holidays are angry. In a unified show of dissatisfaction, 50 people walked out of a public board meeting Monday, Jan. 4, halfway through the agenda. Meanwhile, newly-returned Board President Darren Hager tries to explain to any who will listen: "it’s complicated. But we have to do things legally."

By Tuesday morning, Jan. 5, it was also clear that two of the five LCWD board seats are now empty. Newly-elected Robert Karr (who retired from a career as a water system operator for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power last year) served only one month before reporting he has had a flare-up in health problems that make him vulnerable to stress. He said he is unable to serve further. Board President Bruce Koch (pronounced ‘cook’) excused himself early in the Monday evening meeting, also citing health concerns.

In his absence, Koch was voted out of office by the remaining three members of the board and replaced by Hager—the former president who had been re-elected to the board in the recent election but then withdrew from serving due to business issues. He asked to be re-admitted to the board late in December. Hager had served as president of the LCWD during challenging encounters with developers of the proposed Frazier Park Estates, which asked that their proposed 620 houses, commercial center and wastewater treatment plant be annexed by LCWD. Hager has several years of experience with the water system’s legal, financial and maintenance status.

On Wednesday, Jan. 6 Robert Karr was concerned to learn about the threat to cut off the emergency line to the hotel: "I am heartsick over it," he said. "These are some good people. They are gentle, god-fearing people." He said that he understood that If they didn’t have fire protection secured and signed off by December 9, they could have lost their [Holiday Inn] franchise.

Kevin VanderBes, President of DeepWater Hospitality (which is managing the hotel) called The Mountain Enterprise Wednesday morning to say that hotel co-owner [Lexander] Singh of Lebec "is in Bakersfield right now seeking legal assistance to get a judge to put a stay blocking the turn-off valve until an impartial engineering review can be made. We have also made an agreement with RLH, who will supply us with six or eight tanker trucks to park on the property to supply [the emergency water pressure we need] if LCWD [cuts us off]. It costs us in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"We are trying to get the board to stop taking further steps for a few days. The owners want to be good neighbors, but they cannot stand by for something that seems as arbitrary as what they see happening now.

"There are 22 local residents employed here. They’ve completed five days of intensive training about quality standards and systems. Irma Drew is doing a great job…a superb job…. We have 30-some guests in the hotel. We have more than 20 reservations for the weekend.

"Speaking on behalf of DeepWater Hospitality," VanderBes said, "it feels as if it this is personal. Common sense has been put out the door. It is like they [those remaining on the board] are trying to prove the point that they can do it. It isn’t based on science or fact."

But how did things get to this point?

During Hager’s absence, Koch and Karr earned applause in December by helping press through construction of an emergency pipeline to help the hotel open its doors for a deadline they say was required by the business’ franchise. Both men were new to their positions on the water board and stepped forward as unpaid volunteers to implement what they see as a necessary service.

To receive sign-off by the county for the hotel’s fire code permit, the Holiday Inn had to have 1,400 gallons per minute (gpm) of pressure available to the hotel site’s fire hydrant—not for constant use, but on standby for instant access in case of a fire emergency.

According to Hager, a set of CLA-valves (automatic control valves designed to modulate pressure in water systems) were installed into the LCWD distribution system for that purpose. After Hager’s departure, Koch stepped up to have the system tested. Water operator Kristopher Hollands found that the 1,400 gpm pressure was not achieved. He identified a corroded pipe in the run to the hotel that appeared to be the likely culprit, impeding water flow.

Unfortunately for Koch, that run of pipe crosses the property of the vacant building once known as the "Okie Girl" restaurant. When the district contacted the absentee owners, "they basically said ‘go pound sand,’" Hager said in his account of how he understands events evolved.

[This detailed report is in the process of being completed this morning, in the meanwhile, we are posting this section to keep the public informed.]

LCWD is seeking submission of resumés from willing replacements. Board members are paid $100 per meeting. The remainng board members voted Monday, Jan. 6 to meet twice a month while problems are being resolved. They also voted to make their water operator’s position full-time at $25 an hour.

This is part of the January 01, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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