A Letter to Our Community | May 2022
Last fall, after a long search for bids, we hired a pool contracting company to resurface our pools. We were over the moon to finally do this job after waiting and saving for six years since we purchased the property (arguably, though, it should’ve been done a dozen or more years before that!). Horribly, the work went south pretty quickly and the disastrous results have delivered us into the heart of a very unexpected pickle. However, we hope that it’s a pickle which could ultimately lead to the very thing these historic springs have needed for such a long time- a legacy-saving update.
The work that commenced on our pools in the fall turned out to be, in every way, very poorly done with terrible leadership and communication. The company had presented really well at first with a few positive Yelp reviews, a claim of more than 35 years in business, and a sales pitch and sign-on period that seemed great. But the crew was a no-show/no-call for a full four days from when we were scheduled to begin. Then when we were at the zoo with our daughter on our day off, a subbed-out crew with no leader showed up unscheduled and began a completely botched demolition job resulting in significant damage, not only to our pools, but also to other parts of our site nearby. As we weren’t on site to supervise, we didn’t know what was happening until we began getting frantic calls from home. It felt like a horrible trespass; a betrayal of trust, and perhaps of our naivete in not asking more questions or double checking the credentials of the company.
A few days later, after attempting a laughable renegotiation, we pulled the plug entirely on working any further with these individuals. We hired a construction lawyer, who found out this company’s contractor’s license wasn’t even legitimate, and for the next months we attempted to get our sizable deposit back. But we’ve now reached a point where the only path forward involves litigation, a costly strategy we can’t afford and which only offers very slim hope anyway. Litigation would also require going after a very questionable individual who has shown himself to be unpredictable and arguably unstable, so it doesn’t feel worth it to us considering the cost, the stress, and the safety of our family here on site.
One final result of this company’s negligence was leading us to believe no permits would be needed when, in fact, they were. So, shortly after the fiasco happened, our county pool permit was revoked until such time as we could get through a permitted replastering process with a reputable company. We immediately began reaching out for new estimates again, hoping this time to find better options than when we had been looking in the middle of the pandemic. And we did get more responses this time, but the new estimates started coming in at prices consistently 4-5x more expensive than what we’d negotiated the summer before with the company we’d just jettisoned.
In the end, to simply refinish the partially stripped plaster surfaces and trim our pools with fresh tile, it was looking like it could cost the lion’s share of our highest-ever gross annual revenue. Basically, for the same amount of money we could either fix our pools OR operate for a full year, pay our mortgage and open our guest season, but not both. But of course there’s no normal guest season without swimming pools. Well… could we borrow the money? Perhaps. But after our early pandemic closure in 2020 and taking on new EIDL loan debt, we’re no longer in a position to borrow that kind of cash on the backs of a business that’s county-constrained to operate for the general public just three full months of the year with a few extra weekends.
So. We are in a pickle. It’s horrible and a huge problem, but actually not wholly insurmountable- if it were the only challenge before us. However, these Springs have been shackled for decades with bigger issues of sustainability- issues which we actually came here hoping to tackle one day.
Back in 2015, we spent 8 months researching the history of the Springs, convening with dubious neighbors, and meeting wary county planners. We knew coming into it that this place was stuck in an unsustainable limbo -one that would inevitably lead to either an end or a new beginning. But it has always been our dream to steward a place where the community gathered around flowing waters. So we felt the immense honor and privilege it was to dedicate ourselves fully to the task of re-enlivening this place, to take it as far as we possibly could towards that possibility of rebirth, all the while knowing that, one day, we’d need to address these critical updates in order for the Springs to have any kind of a long-term future. We also knew that this process to update the aging infrastructure, bring the place to code, realign its uses with its community, and to restore the health and vitality of the ecology here would be arduous, politically daunting and mind-bogglingly expensive. So many people who are familiar with county processes like this have warned us away from it. And, as one retired county official told us, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
But we’re willing to try. We want to give it our all, because this little slice of heaven- these magma-heated, life-giving waters, this gorgeous oak and madrone-studded valley, and the way people feel when they connect here- it’s worth giving our all to. We just thought we’d have more time -maybe at least a full ten years to stabilize financially and prepare before working on this bigger nut. But here we are, having unexpectedly tripped and fallen into the necessity of it all much sooner than expected. And we’re choosing to turn into the skid; to say ‘Yes’ to the crisis-opportunity of this moment. Because if we’re going to work to put together that kind of money to fund a next step here – it’s not going to be for an aesthetic, albeit important, job like resurfacing the pools. It’s going to be put toward fixing what matters most and what will create sustainability long term so this place can remain accessible for generations to come.
So what’s so dang unsustainable about this place anyway? Well, it would be a much shorter list to try to name things that actually already are sustainable, other than perhaps people’s love of the place, and the simple perennial value of geothermal waters coming out of the ground (though even that needs our attention to protect it). But the biggest thing that needs updating here is the long outdated and misaligned “uses currently allowed.” These uses involve both activities and built infrastructure, and they include things like the ability to have a thousand or more people here in the space of a single day, or the right to blast a jukebox around the pool area or have a public address system bark the score for a baseball tournament going on in the back field. We have the vestigial right to host youth groups and summer camps for countless hundreds of schoolchildren in both May and September; only schools today no longer include May or September as a part of that hallowed summer break kids used to enjoy a generation or two ago.
All these outdated uses basically set in stone the way the place was run in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. There were big corporate parties, school kids by the busload and general admission could be paid by the carload. Perhaps that made sense back then and was truly wonderful for that time. But that was also the era when there were drag races down Warm Springs Road and you could live high on the hog with a family of five on a single salary of $20k a year. Obviously conditions have changed, and the Springs need to be allowed to change with the times and the shifting needs of its community, whether or not it’s easy to do so, and regardless of a handful of neighbors who still might say otherwise.
To paint the picture a little more concretely, what’s not yet allowed in our existing use would be the addition of a few very basic and highly desired things such as a new area with a hot tub, sauna and cold plunge, or the addition of early morning quiet soaking and warm water therapies for adults, or having indoor workshops or groups. Critically, our current use also doesn’t yet allow for some very basic infrastructural upgrades that the pool areas, water systems and buildings sorely need. Lastly, and very importantly, in our many years here we’ve witnessed first hand how these outdated uses, at the current scale in which they’re allowed, actually have a negative impact on the land, the water, the staff and the neighborhood because they incentivize (and even necessitate) that whomever owns this place prioritize either high-volume, high-intensity, low-cost uses or low-volume exclusive spa type uses, both of which we would argue are deeply misaligned with the history of this place and the character of our upper Warm Springs valley.
So what would changing things at the Springs even mean? At its most fundamental, it would mean overall lessening impacts. It would mean breaking free from the equation of either needing thousands of people to come through in a week or having to turn the place into another high-end resort with prices that exclude the community members who need it the most. It means imagining new solutions for affordable staff housing and being able to offer those who care for this place consistent positions with real living wages. It also means re-engineering the water systems to modernize them, drastically increase efficiency, optimize them for the geothermal sources we have, and meanwhile create beneficial and regenerative environmental impacts from our human activities here. It means restoring the watershed and aquifer which gives us so much, and doing our part to rebuild a fuller, healthier water cycle in Sonoma Valley. It means reimagining and realigning with the way water wants to move on the land: the way it falls, is stored, pumped, treated, used, reinfiltrates into the aquifer below; and also the way it’s seen and regarded as essential, as life-giving.
This may be a turning point for these Springs; much as it is for so many of us right now in our lives, perhaps also for this region and our country, and for our world right now. We are feeling the intersections of compounding crises: the economic crisis, affordable housing, catastrophic drought and wildfire, and the critical societal healing we need. Basically, our old ways of doing things are increasingly unsustainable on many levels. This place is no different, though it’s another vivid example of how these crises are intersecting. But the pathways through are also fairly clear -at least to the ecologists, restoration scientists, nonprofits leaders, as well as many elected leaders and ordinary citizens, too. The changes needed to address these compounding crises are all out there. They exist. Many pathways for regenerative solutions, restoration, renewal and healing are even already proven and evidence-backed. We need the political will to shift this at the policy level, at a structural level. And that will take the will of the people to do so.
For our smallish part in this great turning moment, we are seeking to restore and rebirth these Springs into something new and ancient. And we’re going to need a lot of community support if we’re to be successful. We’re going to need your support. Though we’re not sure where the help will come from just yet, we know how deeply loved this place is. And we know so many of you want this with us.
If any of you also have young kids, you’ll know about this new Oscar-winning Disney animated feature film called Encanto. Well, our 4-year old daughter, Aura, is obsessed with this movie, knows all the songs and is totally into learning Spanish now, too (how awesome is that??). And, just like in that movie, our family finding these Springs when we did felt like a miracle for us, even though there’s always been cracks in the foundation. And, as the family in the movie so beautifully shows us, maybe we can’t keep holding it all together in a rigid attempt at perfection while the foundation breaks apart around us. Perhaps it’s finally time to let the previous way crumble, trusting that something new, something far more real and wonderful is actually possible and waiting for us on the other side. If that’s not a parable for our times I don’t know what is.
So, our regular guest season will be closed for now, though we’re exploring how we can host community workshops, private events, fundraisers and other gatherings which don’t require use of the pools. As we move through this chrysalis phase, we’re also exploring other operational pivot possibilities that could serve our community while keeping the lights on and the mortgage paid. And we’d love to hear from you! How does this land, what are your ideas, and who should we be bringing to the table right now? Please stay tuned for more updates on our emerging strategy, our progress and some upcoming opportunities to participate and support the Springs!
Thank you for being with us,
~The Morton’s Warm Springs Stewards
Support The Springs
There are countless ways you can help us through this tight spot- from volunteering your time in our organic garden or with the wildland tending and ecological restoration work we’re doing, or by donating either in-kind gifts or money in support of basic operations or our restoration work. We are set up to receive simple cash donations and tax-deductible donations to our nonprofit initiative at this time. Please visit our Support the Springs page to learn more, or to make a donation. Thank you!