SAN FRANCISCO — A controversial development on the San Mateo County coastline south of San Francisco has split some traditional allies in the environmental movement and generated sharp criticism of the California Coastal Commission.
Approval by the Coastal Commission Wednesday of a luxury health resort and upscale campground near the Santa Cruz County line has pitted some local environmentalists against the Trust for Public Lands, a private San Francisco agency that preserves environmentally sensitive areas for wilderness.
"This is basically going to create an entire new town on the southern San Mateo coast," said Tim Duff of the Los Prietos chapter of the Sierra Club, adding that the project required a generous reinterpretation of the county's coastal plan. "It sets a dangerous precedent for future development."
Nelson Lee of the Trust for Public Lands countered that the current plan is the best that could be expected, and much better than the original subdivision that would have closed the entire property to public access. This project will open 97% of the land to the public, he said.
"I think it's a real reasonable compromise," he said, adding that the resort was mandated by county planners and supported by Gov. George Deukmejian.
The controversy centers on an old 4,088-acre dairy farm called the Cascade Ranch, a parcel of land with sweeping ocean views that the trust purchased in 1985 to save it from being developed for 32 luxury houses.
At the time, it seemed the trust had extended its record of using privately raised funds to solve another difficult controversy--this time over the site where Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola met the Ohlone Indians in 1789.
Most of the land, about 2,900 acres, was used to open Cascade Ranch State Park, once the state raised the money to buy it. Another 644 acres was bought for the state Coastal Conservancy to preserve as farmland and thus maintain some of the area's historic, rural character.
However, when the deal was being assembled, San Mateo County insisted the remaining 480 acres be devoted to recreation-oriented private development, to generate jobs and property taxes. Deukmejian supported the county by vetoing a parks plan that lacked any private development, so the resort was added.
Local activists hoped for a rustic lodge and modest campground to serve people drawn to the new park and other parks nearby, such as the Big Basin Redwoods and the marine mammal sanctuary at Ano Nuevo State Reserve.
However, the Trust for Public Land said it could not find a developer for that sort of modest project. What emerged instead was Cascade Ranch Health Resort and Whitehouse Creek Campground, large upscale resort facilities only tangentially related to the adjoining state park.
The resort itself is envisioned as a 98-room lodge with special dining room and fitness facilities, including swimming pools, tennis courts, racquetball courts and a full gymnasium and spa. Rooms at the $18-million facility would run from $240 to $310 a night--with the tutored fitness curriculum extra.
The adjoining $3-million campground would have 240 spaces for recreational vehicles and tents, with some cabins and hostel rooms also available.
"It's decadent, shallow, narcissistic, and not at all in keeping with what we have in this part of California," said Joey Jacobs, who operates a general store and speaks for the San Gregorio Environmental Resource Center.
Called Too Big
Top among opponents' complaints are that the resort is too big--occupancy near 1,000 people is far greater than the 32 homes originally intended--and that it lacks an indigenous water source. Land-use plans require on-site water, but to facilitate the deal, the resort will be permitted to pump water in from the new state park.
Opponents are critical of the land trust for allowing such a development when it could increase pressure to further develop the largely rural coastline.
"It is more like something you would find in Los Angeles--La Costa--and it's out here, far from a city, where it will only encourage traffic and more growth," she added. "It's totally out of scale."
However, Jacobs and other critics concede the Connecticut-based developer, who could not be reached to comment on the controversy, now has all of the permits and approvals needed to make good on its plan to open the resort next fall.