The Hearst Corp., one of California's largest property owners, is stepping up its efforts to gain approval to build at least three hotels and several other commercial projects on more than 300 acres of prime coastline property near the famed Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
The publishing conglomerate, which owns a 14-mile-long parcel along California 1 from Pico Creek south of San Simeon to the Monterey County line, has been trying to develop five different sites in the area for more than seven years. One site, on picturesque San Simeon Point, would include a 250-room hotel, restaurant and golf course.
Hearst's plans have been stymied by opposition from many of the area's residents and by the California Coastal Commission, an agency charged with ensuring that the public has maximum access to the ocean and coastal land.
The Coastal Commission has repeatedly said it will only approve the project if Hearst accepts an easement guaranteeing that the remaining 76,650 acres it owns will be used for agricultural purposes only.
Frustrated by its lack of progress and by what the company calls the public's "misunderstanding" of its development proposal, Hearst has hired a local architect and planner to conduct public information sessions aimed at building community support for the project.
The planner, Victor Montgomery, has helped generate support for other development projects in the past. He hopes his efforts will also persuade the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to recommend that the Coastal Commission drop the proposed easement when the matter comes before the board in the fall.
Hearst officials say the company doesn't intend to develop the remaining land, but they oppose the creation of any legal instrument--such as an easement--that officially prevents the company or a future buyer from building on the property.
Officials from the Coastal Commission say they don't mistrust Hearst, but insist that a mere promise not to build isn't good enough--it must be in writing and entered into the legal record.
"The easement the Coastal Commission wants just isn't justified by the size of this project," Montgomery said.
"The Hearst Corp. wants to build on one-half of 1% of its 77,000 acres, and the commission will only let the company do it if Hearst agrees to keep the other 99.5% for agricultural use only. That's just not fair or equitable."
The Coastal Commission disagrees.
"This might not be equitable if we were talking about an undeveloped lot in a heavily developed area," said David Loomis, a Coastal Commission official who has been working on the Hearst proposal for several years.
"But right now, the Hearst property is basically 77,000 acres of undeveloped rolling hills and plains. You'd be going from no development to some development--and that's a very big step."
If Hearst builds on the five sites, Loomis said, local residents will suffer because traffic will increase and the area's pristine air will be adversely affected. Visitors who relish the open space and scenic views of the Pacific Ocean would also be impacted by the congestion and additional development.
The Coastal Commission is also concerned about how much water the new projects would use. The area isn't served by an aqueduct or delta; all the fresh water comes from creeks and streams that flow from the Santa Lucia Mountains.
The Central Coast is prone to water shortages, Loomis said, and the Hearst Corp. may have problems finding enough water for the three hotels, four restaurants, golf course and other tourist attractions the company wants to build.
The proposed developments might also endanger the steelhead trout, a fish that starts life out as a fresh-water rainbow trout and matures into a silver, cigar-shaped ocean-going fish. Steelhead have already disappeared in some areas, Loomis said, and many more could die if the flow of local streams and creeks is diminished.
Loomis' concerns are being echoed by many of the people who live in and around San Simeon. In Cambria--the largest town in the area, about 10 miles south of Hearst Castle--some residents also fear Hearst's development program would wind up lining the pockets of the corporation at the expense of the 3,500 people in town.
'Pay for Services'
"It's bad enough that we'd have to deal with all the traffic and air pollution the project would generate," said Shirley Bianci, who began visiting the area in 1930 and retired there in 1979. "But we'd also have to pay for all the services the tourists and the people who work at the hotels would require--sewers, paramedics, even schools.
"Hearst would make a bunch of money, and send it off to (corporate offices in) San Francisco or New York. We'd get stuck with all the headaches."
Such concerns helped spur the creation of Coastal Residents United, a group of local residents that opposes the Hearst plan and some other developments proposed for the area.