YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West | PETER H. KING

Eighteen Holes in Paradise

January 18, 1998|PETER H. KING

SAN SIMEON — Many fine points were raised last Thursday against the Hearst Corporation's proposal to build a golf resort here on the Central Coast, many fine words said. Little children fondling bunnies testified sweetly about preserving wildlife. Descendants of the Chumash spoke of ancient burial grounds. "Golf courses," declared a surfer who came dressed for the daylong Coastal Commission hearing in a wetsuit, "poison everything from sea otters to surfers with herbicides and pesticides."

Environmentalists and lawyers stressed both the letter and spirit of the Coastal Protection Act, the popular 1972 ballot proposition that empowered the commission to protect California's undeveloped coastline--or what's left of it. Said one witness: "I call it Remnant California, because remnants are all we have left."

One of the most eloquent, emotional speeches was delivered by Bud Laurent, a San Luis Obispo County supervisor: "There is an expression used to describe someone who understands only money, and little else, someone whose sole focus is short-term economic gain, misguided progress and poorly planned growth. This is a person who 'knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.' "

Even a dissident Hearst was heard, with William Randolph II suggesting by letter that his "ancestors recognized and respected the native character of this exquisite coast. The clank, whir, flash, buzz and blink of commercial complexes would easily obscure, if not obliterate, it."


On this day, however, the best witness for the opposition was silent. The best witness could be found about 30 miles north of the San Luis Obispo hearing, and quite alone. To reach this witness, it was necessary to scale a barbed-wire fence, hike along a cliff and plunge through a forest of Monterey pines. It was not easy walking.

A storm was up, hurling down splashes of rain and bending the trees with its winds. Cattle would wander out of the mist for a moment and then trot away, phantoms. The only sound was the crunch of surf slamming into rock and cliff. The smell was an earthy mix of ferns and moss and rain. Finally, after scrambling up a brush-covered hill, the best witness simply appeared at once, a startling sight.

There, from this rise, was the land. It rolled out from the coastline across gently curved hills and wide-open flats, across grasslands broken only by clumps of low, wind-carved trees and, in the distance, a collection of Hearst Ranch barns. It was beautiful in a way that words here, as with the words of the witnesses, could only fail.

It was on this very land, of course, that the powers running the Hearst Corp. wanted to put their golf course, resort hotels, dude ranch, tourist shoppes and other amusements. Why? Well, as the Hearst Corp. lawyer had put it in his lawyerly way, a prime motivation was the obligation under corporate culture and law to maximize returns for the generations of Hearst offspring united as beneficiaries of the family trust.

Business is business, in other words, and running golf courses promises more bang for the buck than running cattle.


The walk across the site made the commission's decision seem all but inevitable. The fix was in. The 12 commissioners had toured the land the day before; having absorbed its mute testimony, how could they not vote against the project? The place simply is too spectacular to squander on golf, no matter whether one views it as great sport or, in Mark Twain's phrase, a good walk spoiled.

And so the commission voted to send the matter back to San Luis Obispo County for overhaul, recommending that hotels be reduced and transplanted to less pristine grounds and that the golf course be eliminated. To act otherwise would have served as a clear admission that the Coastal Protection Act was null and void, the commission a tamed and toothless tiger.

Not that the decision marks the end. Now the battle will move back to county hearing halls and possibly courtrooms. The sanctity of property rights is a powerful American value, and the would-be developers are not without allies. Still, the vote against 18 holes in Paradise was a victory for Californians who believe, quaintly, that the purpose of the Coastal Protection Act is to protect coastline.

Some people around here expressed surprise at the broad interest the Hearst proposal generated. In a sense, however, the protracted battle provided a glamorous foreshadowing of the struggle certain to dominate California for a long time. As the state fills with people, the question of where to put things--houses, malls, factories, dumps, whole towns, yes, even golf courses--can only become more difficult. Few battlegrounds will be as beautiful as this one, and thus few of the decisions will seem so clear-cut. In the end, this one was easy.

Los Angeles Times Articles