In press materials for the in-development Oculis Lodge in Glacier, 30 minutes from Mount Baker, deluxe stargazing igloos glow against evergreens. With slogans like “The Sky is Your Ceiling,” the glamping resort looks like a dream.
Renderings of the lodge circulated online this winter, drawing media coverage and investors with the promise of luxe, eco-friendly igloos opening this spring. In less than a month, project leaders fundraised $1.22 million in exchange for future stays at the globes. Earning more than 1,750 backers on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo distinguished the Oculis project as “the most funded lodging in Indiegogo history.”
Hotelier Youri Benoiston says his plan is right on schedule, and promises to make his Oculis vision a reality. But red tape, permitting and construction delays have slowed the project, leaving some backers concerned the Washington lodge is a pipe dream.
With the winding Whatcom County permitting process underway, here’s what needs to happen to open the globes.
A parcel, a permit
In May 2021, Benoiston’s Curated Land, LLC, purchased a 2.16-acre parcel in Glacier, between busy Mount Baker Highway and unpaved Old Mt. Baker Highway, from Mt. Baker Trailhead Group. It cost $224,000.
Curated Land entered an Option to Purchase for four adjacent, similar parcels from Mt. Baker Trailhead Group in 2021, but the Option expired last year. Declining to comment on any potential, incomplete business negotiation, or whether he intends to purchase more land, Benoiston said “we already own a property where we can build Oculis Lodge.”
The original pitch planned 35 concrete igloos that sleep up to six people apiece, in one- or two-bedroom domes with 15-foot skylights, a kitchen, bath, dishwasher and in-unit laundry. Most proposed igloos are 700 square feet; about one-third would be 300 square feet.
Oculis broke ground in January. Since the lot is not served by county water, Benoiston had a well dug. He picked up dome materials from Monolithic Domes in Texas last month. Benoiston now has a single-family residence permit from Whatcom County, and he said construction on the lodge’s first dome lot started March 13.
“We will build one dome first and decide how many more we will build depending on many factors that we are working on at the moment,” he said.
Getting the first unit operating is Phase One. With construction of the inaugural Oculis dome as a template, Benoiston hopes to grow quickly. A January update to backers proposed expanding the property by 10-12 and 15-20 domes in the second and third phases, respectively.
Benoiston completed the pre-application process with the county last year and, as of this week, has acquired a permit for a single-unit dwelling, which allows one dwelling and a potential accessory dwelling unit, said Jed Holmes, Whatcom County community outreach facilitator.
“It is a single structure that allows a single dwelling unit only. Any additional dwelling units would require subsequent review and approvals,” Holmes said.
“If an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) were applied for, additional review is needed and the code includes a requirement that the owner occupy one of the dwellings,” Holmes continued. “If additional dwellings beyond a single-family home and ADU were proposed, it is likely a conditional use permit would be required, depending on the proposed use.”
Though the county says further permitting is needed for more than two buildings, and Benoiston plans to build “a lot more than two” igloos on the site, he said this week that “I do not need a conditional use permit. It is zoned for what I need.”
Asked again this week about permitting and Benoiston’s assertion, Holmes sent The Times this “full and final” comment:
“A single-family home, one dwelling unit, has been approved for the site. Any additional dwellings or development beyond the one single-family home will require additional permitting.”
Further, Holmes said via email, the county is “not in a position to comment on what the individual may be telling the press or the public at large” about potential expansion on the site.
Protracted permitting process
So the red tape could get thicker: Building a commercial operation with multiple units entails a significant process in Whatcom County.
The first requirement is typically a conditional use permit, followed by public review and comments. A county committee then checks requirements for water supply, sewage and more, and conducts a State Environmental Policy Act review. The applicant has 180 days to address outstanding issues before a public hearing with the Whatcom County hearing examiner.
Benoiston is unfazed by the process. Last month, he said that with the first permit acquired, he would be ready “to go at high speed” building the pioneer dome, simultaneously planning and ramping up any necessary permits and construction for Phases Two and Three.
“This has been the plan since the beginning,” Benoiston said. “We just received the funding [from Indiegogo] two months ago and are moving as fast as we can.”
He told backers in January that “the first dome should go up pretty fast and should be able to host the first guests in April/May,” but that date is in flux.
“I will let everyone know as soon as I know more,” Benoiston told the Times this month. He did not give a firm opening date for the first globe.
Benoiston says per-night rates will fluctuate seasonally, but will be priced comparably to a one-bedroom house in the area that sleeps six. “The minimum is going to be $300-$350 during the dead season,” he said.
And Benoiston is thinking beyond Glacier. He says he’s received requests to build globe lodges “all over the world.”
The comments section
Meanwhile, the forum on the lodge’s Indiegogo page is restless.
Backers have demanded updates and questioned the permitting process; the resort’s timeline for accommodating thousands of visitors; promises of high-speed internet; and whether the construction of other globes will impact the experience for those who stay in the lodge’s sole globe in Phase One. Benoiston has responded to several comments himself. Some crowdfunders have called for refunds, but because the funds have been disbursed, refunds must be taken up with Oculis Lodge, per Indiegogo’s website.
Many raised concerns about the project’s environmental impact.
Richard Eggerth, chairman of the Mt. Baker Chapter of the Sierra Club, was unaware of the project when asked for comment but said developers should tread lightly in environmentally sensitive areas.
“Any kind of development in any forest in Washington or anywhere else should be carefully done, first considering what the environmental impact is going to be,” Eggerth said. “Whether it’s air or water pollution, all of it.”
Bellingham environmental group RE Sources declined to comment.
Benoiston’s marketing highlights the igloos’ sustainability, claiming to be 50% more energy efficient than a traditionally constructed lodging unit of the same size, with less cost and waste of materials due to the igloos’ simple shape. They heat quickly, so “you could heat the place with a heat lamp,” Benoiston said.
For appliances, “we are going to use as low energy as possible,” he told The Times. “And we are going to stay on the green side as possible with all the products.”
“It seems obvious to us that if you’re the sort of person who loves the outdoors, you want to do everything you can to preserve them,” Benoiston wrote in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in April 2021.
Outside observers have also voiced concerns over permitting and construction costs.
Stacey Carroll, of Blaine, who is part of a real estate group that has invested in Whatcom County for years, said her colleagues are “skeptical for sure.”
“I know some want to see him get it done so they can also try something similar with the county,” Carroll said, such as short-term tiny-home rental communities. “It’s a question of how the county will view this from a zoning perspective.”
Oculis’ origins and future
This is not the first attempt to develop the parcel.
Mt. Baker Trailhead Group, which sold the land to Benoiston, had conditional approval from the county more than a decade ago to build condos on the land, envisioning a resort and restaurant. The development was not built.
Oculis Lodge’s early fundraising efforts were unsuccessful. A 2021 Wefunder campaign raised zero dollars, for which Benoiston blamed a lack of preparation and support. After pledging $250,000, lead investor Robert Baltzer withdrew, deeming the investment “too risky,” per a lawsuit Benoiston filed against Baltzer in Whatcom County Superior Court in November.
After his first attempt, Benoiston hired Prelaunch, which tests product marketability, and The Crowdfunding Formula, for marketing. The lodge was covered this winter locally and in Travel + Leisure, Time Out and the U.K.’s Mirror, attracting detractors on the Bellingham Reddit page doubtful of Oculis’ ability to deliver dozens of lodges on its crowdfunded budget.
With a goal of $10,000, the Indiegogo campaign raised $100,000 in two days, surpassing $1 million in mere weeks. Benoiston received the funds from Indiegogo on Jan. 15.
It’s not Benoiston’s trial run with igloos. Benoiston created the Igloo Beach Lodge in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, with 24 vine-covered igloos surrounding a small pool.
Oculis Lodge “is really a continuation from the one in Costa Rica,” Benoiston said. He picked Washington while on a trip to Leavenworth with his girlfriend, who lives here.
“For some reason, I thought, ‘We should do some domes here,’” he said. “An igloo is more appropriate in a mountain area than in Costa Rica. So, we started inquiring. I discovered Glacier and it was just stunning, with nature all around. It’s not like other spots, heavily populated with tourism and hotels.”
Benoiston remains assured of his Cascade stargazing escape, noting in January that he went through a pre-screening for dozens of units with “Health, Environmental, Fire and Building departments — and everything looks good.”
The permitting process has been arduous. But the domes themselves are relatively simple to construct, Benoiston said. With Phase One underway, Benoiston says his project is meeting its timeline, even if permitting for expansion remains in question.
For glampers, skeptics and backers, Oculis Lodge remains a still-crystallizing dream.
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