The Byron Hot Springs Hotel building is both a historic landmark and a hotbed of illegal activity.
Located north of the Byron Airport between Vasco Road and Byron Highway, the hotel and surrounding hot springs were once a destination for celebrities and the wealthy. Now abandoned, the hotel is the site of trespassing, graffiti and illegal fires.
As the building crumbles closer to desolation with each passing day, its owners are struggling to be allowed to complete repair work in the face of continuing requirements from the Contra Costa County Planning Department.
Robert Cort manages the property for his mother, owner Vera Cort. He originally planned to make the building a restaurant, add an outside seating area and possibly a wedding garden, but leave the property largely unchanged to preserve its historical significance.
“We wanted it to be for the community,” Cort said. “Just something so people can come out and see it and know what it is, because every day, 10 or 20 people break in and walk over to see what it is … so I went to the planning department and submitted it and they gave me this insane list.”
Cort said because the 350-acre property — in terms of size and significance — is historically important in the East Bay, the county planner he worked with gave him a long list of large, expensive items to be completed, such as widening the main road and conducting comprehensive “environmental impact and Native American studies.”
Cort, who has a long history of developing real estate, said it was “unbelievable” what the county asked for, and he ended up walking away from the project for months.
Another hurdle is the property’s zoning. According to County Project Planner Joseph Lawlor, though the hotel is currently zoned F-R1, or Forest Recreation District, which would allow for a wide variety of uses, the county’s new Envision 2040 draft plan rezones it as Agricultural Land, severely limiting what can be done on the property.
In an email, Lawlor added, “Draft maps for Envision 2040 continue to designate the property as Agricultural Lands. The draft General Plan also includes the following draft policy applicable to the property: ‘Encourage re-use of Byron Hot Springs that rehabilitates historic buildings, is compatible with operations at the Byron Airport, and attracts regional tourists.’ The timing of the adoption of the new general plan has not yet been determined.”
The next problem surfaced when Cort visited the hotel early last year. He realized the building’s foundation was severely damaged and needed to be repaired or there wouldn’t be a building to preserve.
“The building is just at the point that it’s starting to collapse,” Cort said. “It’s old, there’s been fires and vandalism and damage and the building has been faithfully solid. But it’s just now giving in. There is a corner that’s cracked and sinking about six inches down. I called some engineers out to look at it and most said I need to do some emergency foundation work just to stabilize the building, or it will all fall down.”
Cort went back to the planning department. Since his last trip there, he had conceived an idea for a brewery that would work within Agricultural Land boundaries, but knew that project would take several years. He asked for permission to stabilize the foundation of the hotel building so there would “still be a building to talk about in a couple years.”
Again, he was met with a long to-do list before any repair work could be done. At that point, Cort said he’d had enough.
“I called the planning department, and I just felt they were being unreasonable,” Cort said. “They wouldn’t even give me permits to board it up. And it’s a very dangerous site, so I said just give me permission to board it up. The neighbors are calling me and telling me it’s like ‘Mad Max’ out there, so I said I was going to sue the (county) because I was not given permission to make it safe.”
That seemed to help. Cort was assigned a new planner — Lawlor — who visited the site and acknowledged the need for some repair work to preserve the building. Cort said Lawlor was able to eliminate some of the superfluous work required previously so the foundation could be stabilized.
“So now we can get the foundation fixed and I can work with the county to get something going out there,” Cort said. “That’s Phase 1. Then I would like to move forward on a small, family-oriented project where people can come out and have a drink and some food, and enjoy the property and maybe have a wedding and events and just use the one building.”
During its history, the hot springs on the property were used by Native Americans, Spanish settlers, Mexican ranchers, and pioneers during the John Marsh pioneer era. The Federal Land Commission became involved once California became a state in 1850, and then Risdon Iron Works of San Francisco surveyed, mapped, fenced and improved the springs. The property saw the first nonagricultural commercial development in East County, and people from all over would come to drink the medicinal waters. Once the hotel was built, it was one of only a few five-star hotels in the state in 1906.
By the 1920s, it was a popular spot for celebrities, business tycoons and other wealthy patrons. The history of the building took a darker turn during World War II when it served as a secret military interrogation facility for Japanese prisoners of war before they were shipped to camps in the Midwest for the duration of the fighting. Now the building has fallen victim to time, the elements and vandals.
Local historian Carol Jensen wrote the book on the Byron Hot Springs. As a longtime East County resident, she said the county’s change in zoning to the 350 acres of property is not in the best interest of the small town of Byron. She would prefer the county allow the property to be grandfathered into the new zoning as F-R1, and not rezoned as Agricultural Land, saying the restrictions would be “deleterious” to the Byron Hot Springs property.
“Now you can’t do anything with the Byron Hot Springs except what’s in compliance with agricultural zoning,” she said, adding that is limited. “Revitalization of Byron cannot happen that way. Just think of having a venue for concerts and all the possibilities associated with that, but the county is also concerned about traffic infrastructure and the fates have cast the die … God Bless Robert Cort for thinking he might actually do something. Heaven knows he’ll never be able to make any money off of this, but if he could keep the vandals and the meth heads from destroying everything, that would be something.”
Government (in)action. Please get out of the way.
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