Thursday, September 1, 2005
Paul Cooper is driving down a rutted, dusty trail in the hills above Quail Lodge, at the dignified speed of 1.6 mph. He’s not using any brakes or gas. “No pedals,” he says, drumming his heels on the floor of the 2006 Range Rover Sport. Instead, Cooper is utilizing the SUV’s highly technological Hill Descent Control system to keep the vehicle in check.
Cooper, a Land Rover driving instructor, is taking a couple of reporters on a spin to show off the new Land Rover Experience Driving School, a few days before the official Aug. 22 opening. It’s a cool event at an even cooler venue—the Quail Motorsports Gathering. And it’s an experience that seems to have gotten on the road prematurely.
In order to build the route, which is North America’s newest Land Rover Experience Driving School, Quail Lodge converted 80 acres of existing trails and roads south of the Quail golf course. When asked on Monday if Quail had obtained a use permit, Lawson Little, vice president of Quail Lodge, Inc., told the Weekly he didn’t understand the question.
“We are just driving on roads that we own,” Little said. “They are existing roads. We will take better care of the roads than what they were.”
When the Weekly called the County’s planning and building department for a comment, Director Scott Hennessy said he had just heard of the driving school for the first time and had placed a call to Quail. A few hours later, Hennessy said that he had spoken to Little.
“I discussed it with Lawson, and he was totally unaware that a permit was needed,” he said. “He was shocked. The Lodge has always been very cooperative with the County.”
Hennessy said that the area where the driving school was placed is designated rural and grazing land, a designation that could allow for riding clubs and hiking clubs.
“This somewhat fits the definition,” Hennessy said. “Therefore we feel it could be permitted. But public review has to be allowed. It has to go through the process and it could take a while.”
When asked if the school would have to cease in the meantime, Hennessy said, “That is what I understand. They will most likely seek counsel and look for an avenue to keep it open. As far as I can see, without a use permit, it will have to shut down.”
In a subsequent phone call, Little said that he was planning a meeting with Hennessy. “We are definitely looking into it and need to have a meeting with Scott and concur on what our understandings are. We have a long history of good relationships and we are going to do what’s right and we always will.”
Gillian Taylor, conservation co-chair for the Sierra Club’s Ventana Chapter, says she’s surprised that Quail Lodge did not go through the permitting process without being forced to do so.
“A business of that size and sophistication should certainly know that there are requirements when you plan to intensify the use of your land, especially when there could be environmental concerns or neighbor’s concerns,” Taylor said. “It’s through the use permit process that public and environmental agencies can determine if there are problems. If you don’t do it, if you deliberately ignore the oversight process, then you are really asking for problems.
“We have a problem in general with code enforcement in the County—so much can go under the radar. I would expect the County should red flag it and stop the project.”
For $195, anyone with a valid drivers’ license, whether or not they are a guest at Quail Lodge, is invited to take a one-hour lesson at the resort’s new Land Rover school. For $750, up to three drivers get a six-hour driving adventure and lunch. All participants must drive the school’s vehicles.
Isabelle Defourny is location manager for the school. She says that Land Rover seeks partnerships with high-end resorts and had been searching for a West Coast location when they approached Quail.
To prepare Quail’s hills for off-roading, she says that Land Rover “enhanced the terrain a little.”
“We reopened old trails, mainly used for hunting, and fire roads. There was an old quarry too. We cleared out overgrown bushes—mainly poison oak.”
Land Rover is a founding member of the nonprofit Tread Lightly!—a group that says it focuses on “the ethical use of motorized and mechanized vehicles on both land and water.”
“In all our courses we cover not going off-trail, staying out of sensitive areas where there is fauna or wildlife, and turning around when you can’t go any further,” Defourny says. “Our standard principle is to drive as slow as possible and as fast as necessary.”
She says that drivers on the Quail course are taught not to drive over three mph, and to stay off the trail if it looks like driving could cause damage to the roads.
“If we’ve had a rainy day and we think we are going to damage the terrain, we will not go out,” she says.
Unlike Land Rover’s school in Quebec, which has 20,000 acres of terrain, Defourny says the Quail school is not meant for an experience of deep wilderness adventure.
“We are trying to provide an experience for people that they can apply to everyday driving,” she says. “Here we do it primarily for the experience of learning off-roading in expedition style. We do it very slow. We have $70,000 vehicles and we like them to come back in good shape.”
It’s a principle that Paul Cooper adheres to, even in his free time.
Cooper says that the off-roaders who annoy him the most are the ones who “like to drive fast.”
“[Our motto] is to conserve the vehicle, conserve the environment, and conserve passengers.”