It was to be called Piedra Blanca, a gleaming new city at the edge of an untroubled sea.
It was 1965. The Hearst family had big plans for its majestic 82,000-acre coastal ranch. In place of the stark and mostly treeless landscape, there would arise a thriving city of 65,000 people. There would be hotels, businesses, Hearst Airport and a bustling marina.
Think Santa Monica at the foot of Hearst Castle, but move it just down the road from Big Sur.
That plan vanished into history as the legendary newspaper family quietly pulled back its plan and left the pastureland mostly to its cattle. But as people who deal with them say, the Hearsts don't give up easily.
Thirty-seven years later, they are back with a more environmentally friendly proposal: No longer is there talk of new cities, a resort village on stunning San Simeon Point, or golf courses and riding stables.
The only vacation development that remains part of the plan made public last week would be an inn, to be built in Old San Simeon Village. With future generations of Hearsts in mind, negotiators for the Hearst Corp. are also asking for 27 home sites, to be clustered east of Highway 1. They also want a couple of private beaches so the Hearst children won't have to share their sand pails with outsiders. One more thing: They're asking for $100 million in cash.
That's hardly chump change. But some of Hearst's strongest critics say the publishing empire may finally have come up with a deal taxpayers can't refuse.
"I'm basically a very paranoid person," said Shirley Bianchi, a member of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors and historically a staunch Hearst critic. "But if this framework goes through I, for one, am ecstatic."
And as to the $100-million price tag to guarantee that Piedra Blanca will never be built? "A bargain," she said.
Some people insist it's too early to celebrate, however, and it remains unclear whether the state and private foundations can come up with that kind of money to forestall greater development by the Hearst Corp.
Longtime residents and environmentalists say there are still plenty of other unanswered questions and unresolved issues, as well. These skeptics fear a bandwagon is developing in favor of the deal. They worry that local and state officials are becoming so giddy at having Hearst Ranch almost within grasp that they won't scrutinize the details closely enough.
"This deal is so big, it has the capacity to corrupt anyone involved in it," said Kat McConnell, a longtime environmentalist on the Central Coast. "That includes the governor, the Legislature, land trusts and local politicians."
Perhaps the hardest thing to overcome as negotiators try to finalize a deal in time for Christmas is a legacy of mistrust and suspicion.
"There's been a hostile relationship with the local community for a long time," said McConnell.
The relationship has been so poisonous that Bianchi said that Stephen T. Hearst, the grandson of William Randolph Hearst who is now in charge of the ranch, told her not a single environmentalist would sit down with him when he tried to get talks moving again three years ago. When Hearst invited Bianchi over, she made her assistant go along. "I was not going to talk to a Hearst alone," she said, half-joking.
What to do with the Hearsts' vast holdings has been a topic of debate on the Central Coast since William Randolph Hearst built his castle and invited pals and entertainers up for his legendary weekend-long parties.
In the early days, the small cluster of shops at Old San Simeon Village met visitors' needs. As time went on, and the Hearst empire became less a family operation and assumed a corporate identity, planning for the future of the ranch grew in scope.
In 1965, Hearst revealed its plan to build a new city. Besides all the construction, planners envisioned damming two creeks on the ranch to form lakes. Although it was submitted, the plan was never put through the detailed county planning process, Bianchi said.
In recent times, the Hearst Corp. downsized its plan to focus on a visitor resort, riding stables and golf courses. The centerpiece of the development would be scenic San Simeon Point. That plan ran into one roadblock after another -- first from environmental groups and then the California Coastal Commission.
Then, three years ago, Stephen Hearst, a general manager of the company land and livestock divisions, showed up. Smiling and inviting everyone willing to come to lunch at the ranch, his charm offensive was designed to change the Hearst image. Gone, he said, was the high-handed corporate style of years past. In its place, he presented himself as a neighbor trying to do what's best for the neighborhood.
That effort snagged when it was revealed the Hearsts had quietly dug up historic property records that could be used to build hundreds of homes on the ranch.