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California and the West

Will San Simeon Coast Become a Playground?

Development: Hearst Corp. seeks rule change to allow resort complex. golf course, hotels. Opponents say it would harm wildlife and landscape.


In a case that will chart the future of one of the state's most spectacular stretches of coastline, the California Coastal Commission this week faces a decision whether to ease long-standing protections of scenery and wildlife to allow the Hearst Corp. to build a resort complex near San Simeon.

The commission hearing is shaping up as a classic struggle over private property rights, rural growth and environmental values. The state panel must weigh the merits of proposed changes to a San Luis Obispo County coastal plan that would allow significantly more development along 30 miles of the coast south of Big Sur.

"This is the crown jewel of California's undeveloped coast. What we do in this case is going to make a lasting mark on a place beloved to many, many people," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission.

The revised county plan would let the Hearst Corp. build hotels, shops, restaurants and a golf course on wave-sculpted headlands that have never been developed and are, today, home to seabirds, a few cows and a spreading colony of elephant seals.

The most controversial element of the Hearst Corp.'s four-stage plan is a vacation and golf resort, with up to 27 holes, that would extend from the base of San Simeon Point north across coastal bluffs west of Highway 1. The rest of the development, including a dude ranch and two more hotels, would be built along the coast highway at the base of the magnificent 77,000-acre ranch that leads up to the late William Randolph Hearst's hilltop castle. In order to accommodate the Hearst development and make way for growth elsewhere along the county's north coast, San Luis Obispo supervisors want to relax rules that safeguard the rural character of the region by retaining agricultural land, limiting the scale of buildings in scenic areas and prohibiting construction where it would necessitate widening two-lane Highway 1.

The commission hearing, scheduled for Thursday, will pit a coalition of environmentalists, ranching families and other residents against representatives of the building industry, organized labor and business groups that favor the Hearst development and the changes to the county coastal plan.

The proponents say that the Hearst development would generate $3 million in tax revenues for the county and an annual payroll of $13 million.

Late in December, however, the staff of the commission issued a report contending that the proposed changes violate the state Coastal Act.

The report said that the resort complex, and particularly the golf course, would obstruct views, intrude on sensitive wildlife habitat and generally alter the bucolic landscape. It recommended that the commission approve the resort only if its scale is substantially reduced.

"There are about 140 separate issues in the plan that the county needs to adjust to live within its means, in terms of available water, and to protect sensitive resources," said one Coastal Commission staff member.

The staff says the water needs alone of the Hearst development would severely deplete streams vital to a number of threatened fish and other wildlife. The staff report also maintained that the Hearst project and other proposed developments in the region would violate the Coastal Act by converting economically viable agricultural land to commercial uses.

At the same time, staff members have indicated a willingness to revise their negative assessment of the Hearst project if the developers agree to certain modifications.

"If there were a major dedication of public access and if they came forward with some sort of permanent agricultural protection, it would require us to look at the project in a different light," said a staff member who asked not to be identified.

But the county's amended coastal plan--which will be at issue at the Thursday hearing--does not now specify how much coastal access would be permitted after the resort is built, according to the commission staff.

So far, the Hearst Corp. is sticking to its guns, insisting that the county plan, while allowing the resort complex, would actually strengthen environmental protections in the area.

"The staff's report is seriously flawed and contains numerous factual errors," said Philip M. Battaglia, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the Hearst Corp.

Battaglia said that the staff was off by nearly two-thirds in its estimate of the amount of water that could be safely pumped for the resort development without jeopardizing wildlife.

The Hearst lawyer also maintains that the county plan adds environmental protections by limiting future recreation on San Simeon Point to hiking, picnicking and bicycling. The exact amount of public access to the coast cannot be specified, he said, until it is known how much development will be allowed.

Hearst representatives have pointed out that the resort would occupy about 1% of the ranch property, but they have firmly opposed any agreement that would permanently restrict the remaining land to agriculture.

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