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Eye in the Sky Keeps Watch on Coast

November 06, 2002|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Kenneth Adelman leans from the side of his helicopter -- the side without a door. His taut seat belt is all that's holding him in as he snaps pictures of the coastline 500 feet below. At the controls, his wife, Gabrielle, brings the nose up to slow their air speed.

It's a high wire act for a cause. For the past three months, this retired high-tech mogul has been photographing every inch of the 1,150-mile California coastline for one purpose: to help protect it.

"I've seen the beauty of the natural coastline and the destruction that man has brought. By showing both to the public, I hope to change people's attitudes that the coast is a valuable resource that we ought to conserve."

That means snapping pictures of dramatic cliffs and white crescent beaches unblemished by the hand of man. It also means capturing images of illegal development inside gated seaside communities or freeze-framing bulldozers pushing around rocks or sand without permits.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 08, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 172 words Type of Material: Correction
Coastal photography -- A story in Wednesday's California section incorrectly reported that Kenneth Adelman, who is photographing the entirety of the California coastline, had sold his second company for $35 million. The correct figure is $335 million.

Already, Adelman's merger of high technology and environmental activism has provided the California Coastal Commission with enough photographic evidence to cite the developers of a golf course in Half Moon Bay for building an illegal sea wall.

Environmentalists say the pictures -- 10,000 so far -- provide an invaluable tool.

"It will revolutionize coastal advocacy," said Susan Jordan of the League for Coastal Protection. "There's nothing like a picture of our beautiful coastline to tell a story."

Adelman began taking aerial photos several years ago at the suggestion of Mark Massara, the Sierra Club's manager of California coastal programs.

Now, thanks to Adelman's work, Massara said: "Every single day, I'm finding new questions and forwarding these to the Coastal Commission's enforcement division."

Massara added that "Builders and savvy property owners know that the Coastal Commission has no effective way to monitor illegal coastal development and in many ways, enforce it. Now we've got photographic proof."

Meanwhile, property rights advocates, such as the Pacific Legal Foundation's Harold Johnson, have condemned the project as nothing more than "video-toting vigilantes."

"My concern is that this will lead to a new orgy of nit-picking by the Coastal Commission," Johnson said. Furthermore, he said, he has received calls from oceanfront homeowners about pictures of their property on the Web site californiacoast line.org. They complain that the photos invade their privacy.

Adelman is not deterred by the critics.

"What we've seen happening here is that private property advocates use the cloak of privacy to disguise illegal or questionable activity," he said.

Adelman said the point of his project is to document the coast, not to single out anyone's house. "If someone wants to move their home," he said, "I'd be willing to re-shoot that stretch of beach and remove the old photo of their house from the Web site."

The project serves his twin passions: flying and environmental activism.

Retired at 39, Adelman has plenty of time -- and money -- for both.

A Caltech graduate who co-founded two software companies during the high-tech boom of the 1990s, Adelman sold them before the bust -- one to Cisco for about $110 million and the second to Nokia for $35 million.

When he and his wife are not in the helicopter, the Santa Cruz County residents can often be found flying one of Adelman's four fixed-wing aircraft.

"We were looking for excuses to fly," he said. "And if we can do some good, so much the better."

With his images, he said, "The public can see and know the coast. They won't love it unless they know it. They won't protect it unless they love it."

His photos of San Simeon Point, which were made into posters and postcards, helped environmentalists prod the Coastal Commission into preserving the area and rejecting Hearst Corp.'s proposal to built a golf course resort in 1997.

It was on another of these missions, as he describes his airborne errands for the Sierra Club's Massara, that he snapped pictures of the sea wall built by a developer in Half Moon Bay without a permit.

Sea walls, besides protecting property, can hasten beach erosion and block public access to the shore.

After Massara presented Adelman's photos of the sea wall to the Coastal Commission, the developer agreed to tear down most of the rock wall and build a $200,000 public stairway to the beach.

"The photographs clearly made an impact," said Peter Douglas, the commission's executive director.

"It's hard to get out there, and we wouldn't have seen it otherwise. As soon as we saw the photographs, it was clear we had to act."

Keeping the helicopter aloft costs Adelman $250 an hour, and after flying a number of missions at Massara's behest, Adelman concluded that it would be more efficient simply to start photographing the coast from one end to the other.

Two stretches remain. One is the fog-shrouded coast between Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay. The other is Vandenberg Air Force Base, which has yet to grant Adelman access to its restricted airspace.

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