California is in a dire, years-long drought and the New York Times is on it. After Governor Jerry Brown announced the state's first mandatory water restrictions earlier this month, the paper ran a feature on how California might change in the face of non-negotiable environmental pressures, illustrated at the top with a surreal photo (by Damon Winter) of a mansion and pool on a green square of land, surrounded on all sides by sandy desert, and beyond that, the edges of a suburban-style housing tract. It's a perfect illustration if you want to show that Californians are space-hungry, careless with natural resources, and indifferent to their environment. The story behind the synthetic oasis does not disappoint.
The photo was taken in Rancho Mirage, a wealthy city in the Coachella Valley, on the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert. Rancho Mirage sprawls beneath the 10 Freeway roughly halfway between Palm Springs and Indio (home of the Coachella festival), about a two-hour drive southwest from Los Angeles on a weekday. The city is served by the Coachella Valley Water District, whose residents used a thirsty 282 gallons of water each per day in February (compare to Beverly Hills, one of the highest per capita water users in the Los Angeles area, which used 162 gallons per person per day in February).
President Obama has taken to long-weekending in Rancho Mirage in the past year or so; when he's in town, he often meets with foreign leaders or plays golf at Sunnylands, the enormous estate built by Walter and Leonore Annenberg that bills itself as the West Coast Camp David. Since it was built in the 1960s, Sunnylands has hosted eight US presidents, Queen Elizabeth II, and one of Frank Sinatra's weddings.
It's free and easy to tour the recently-built Sunnylands visitors' center and the nine acres of desert gardens that surround it, but $40 tickets sell out long in advance for tours of the original Mid-Century Modern house (designed by the great A. Quincy Jones), which sits on 200 acres of bright green grass, along with a nine-hole golf course, 11 man-made lakes, and a pool.
You can't take a left out of Sunnylands, because Bob Hope Drive is a four-lane speedway intersected by a palm-tree-lined median, but if you hang a right, pull a u-turn when you can, then take a right on Gerald Ford Drive, you end up just around the corner at a gated community named—with perfect absurdity—Versailles.
According to the local real estate copy, Versailles is a "beautiful gated community offering common areas of lush landscape, several basketball and tennis courts." It was developed in the early aughts by a man named Peter Solomon (who built his own 18,000-square-foot mansion on 4.8 acres nearby) and the streets have names like Napoleon Court, Cartier Court, Champagne Circle, Moet Court, Chandon Court, and Victor Hugo Road. The zoning in the area requires that lots be at least 10,000 square feet.
Due north from Chandon Court, past the community's walls, at the end of an unimproved city street called Via Florencia, is the green rectangle seen in the New York Times. The parcel is 1.35 acres; the house on it is 7,170 square feet and was built in 2006, right around the same time the Coachella Valley Water District celebrated the installation of its one-hundred-thousandth residential water meter. Without getting too creepy about this, it appears to be owned by no one you've ever heard of and no one flashy.
It's not too important to dwell on the specifics of that house (although it's very stupid), because "it's not uncommon for single-family houses to be out there by themselves," according to Rancho Mirage Assistant Planner Jeremy Gleim. He says the parcel is legal and the owners were allowed to build on it; the particular spot "just happened to be what that owner picked … they were one of the first ones that wanted to build out there."
Now someone else wants to build out there too. Last year, the city processed plans for a new gated subdivision, called Tesoro for some reason, that would fill in the space between Versailles and the house on Via Florencia with 82 lots ranging from 9,057 to 19,101 square feet (most will be on the larger side because Rancho Mirage has recently updated its zoning to create a larger minimum lot size). A December 2014 staff report on Tesoro doesn't mention how big houses in the new neighborhood might be, except to note that a handful of irregularly-shaped lots have "a developable area that would allow for the construction of at least a 3,000 square foot home."
But nothing will be built out among that scrub anytime soon. The Coachella Valley Water District has stopped issuing residential water meters for any newly subdivided land in Rancho Mirage, since "there is no surplus capacity in the domestic water system for domestic water demand," according to the CVWD's note in the Tesoro staff report. They're working on it, though, and planning is underway for a 3.2-million gallon reservoir north of the 10 Freeway that's expected to be ready by the end of the year. "Once it's done," Gleim says, "they'll start issuing meters again."
· California Drought Tests History of Endless Growth [NYT]
· Mapping/Shaming the Most Water-Guzzling Places in SoCal [Curbed LA]
· Study: Rich LA Neighborhoods Are Using More Water Than Everyone Else [Curbed LA]
· Inside Sunnylands, the Annenbergs' A. Quincy Jones-Designed Camp David West [Curbed LA]