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Babbitt Aiding Hearst With Land Deal

June 06, 2001|KENNETH R. WEISS and MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, in his first prominent role since leaving government, is helping the Hearst Corp. broker a deal worth $200 million or more that will determine the fate of Hearst's fabled seaside ranch at San Simeon.

Babbitt also has been hired by a developer hoping to jump-start stalled plans to build a mini-city of 3,050 homes on Ahmanson Ranch in rural Ventura County, just northwest of Calabasas.

At issue for Hearst is 83,000 acres of salt-sprayed tablelands that step down from Hearst Castle and span 18 miles of mostly wild, undeveloped coast that forms the southern gateway to Big Sur. At Ahmanson Ranch, the proposed development would spread across one of Southern California's last expanses of hillsides not yet crowded by urban sprawl.

As a trouble-shooter for wealthy developers, Babbitt would seem to have made a dramatic about-face from his years as an Interior secretary who reintroduced wolves to the Rocky Mountains, protected the countryside around Yellowstone National Park from the ravages of mining and saved giant redwoods from loggers.

Babbitt declined to be interviewed for this story.

But the Hearsts say that he is helping forge an environmentally friendly strategy that would preserve the vast majority of their ranch as open space and represent a substantial reduction of the corporation's previous plans for hotels, golf courses and a dude ranch.

Indeed, the Hearsts say, if the price is right, they might be willing to give up all development plans for the ranch.

"We are offering to conserve 99 1/2% of the property," said Stephen T. Hearst, who has taken charge of the project. "If someone wants to advance a proposal that is 100% conservation, we would review it."

The Hearsts' strategy, involving consultation with neighbors and negotiations with nonprofit land conservancies, stands in marked contrast to their aggressive, closed-mouth attempt just three years ago to build a multi-phased resort. Those plans, which enraged environmentalists and many local residents, were rejected by the California Coastal Commission.

Even with a modified development plan, however, Babbitt, hired through the law firm Latham & Watkins, and others on the Hearst team have their work cut out for them.

Their challenge is to avoid an epic battle that would pit the property rights of a famous, powerful family against the public's claim to a treasure of the California coast.

Both nature and the Hearsts are responsible for the scene that has entranced generations of passersby who have visited the fog-shrouded castle, watched the Hearsts' menagerie of zebras and other exotic animals loping across the plain and walked along the sculpted coastline with its sonorous elephant seals lounging on the beach.

Public Money Key to Deal

For the latest plan to work, Babbitt will have to draw on his own credit with environmentalists, long suspicious of the Hearst agenda. He also must satisfy his client, the Hearst Corp., which has wanted income-generating development to supplement the money-losing cattle ranch.

The hardest part of the deal, however, could be to come up with enough public money to make it work at a time when California's surplus is being drained by energy needs and federal sources are being shrunk by tax cuts.

Douglas Wheeler, former California resources secretary, believes that it will take a joint state-federal project on the scale of one that saved more than 7,000 acres of old-growth redwoods in Northern California's Headwaters Forest. Babbitt oversaw the Headwaters deal, but as part of the Clinton administration, which was more inclined than the current White House toward government acquisitions of open space.

"The numbers are huge--$200 [million] to $300 million," said Wheeler, who is associated with two land conservation groups talking with Hearst. "That is what has been estimated by the conservation organizations. . . . Hearst has said, if the public is adamant against [any] development, it will be even more costly."

Hearst, with Babbitt's help, is reviewing proposals by the Nature Conservancy, the American Land Conservancy, the Conservation Fund and other nonprofit groups that specialize in putting together complex deals to preserve land.

Although some environmentalists have been stunned by Babbitt's association with Hearst, others welcome his involvement in any effort to preserve one of California's last stretches of open, nearly pristine coastline.

"Babbitt has had a number of different roles in the conservation world," said Mary Nichols, Gov. Gray Davis' secretary of resources. "For him to continue on in public-private partnership seems like a logical extension of his career."

Commenting on Babbitt's silence, Stephen Hearst said Babbitt is constrained from speaking publicly by an attorney-client relationship.

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