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Alternative to Hearst Plan Is Proposed

May 26, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

When Hearst Corp. released a road map for preserving its magnificent coastal ranch from development last year, the plan was greeted with headlines and widespread praise from environmentalists and politicians.

Six months later, negotiators are finding out that it takes more than a road map to get where you're going, especially with the kids in the back seat clamoring, "Are we there yet?"

In this case, the clamor is coming from Central Coast environmental groups so frustrated with the secrecy and slow pace of talks that they have put together their own rival plan for saving the 82,000-acre ranch from development.

Hearst proposes to lock up most of the ranch in a conservation easement that would leave the land in Hearst hands. The new plan urges outright purchase of the ranch.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 118 words Type of Material: Correction
Hearst Ranch -- A quote in large type accompanying an article in the California section May 26 about plans for Hearst Ranch inadvertently made it appear that San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Shirley Bianchi was criticizing a Hearst Corp. plan. The quote read, "Now is the time for people to allow the process to take its course.... I don't think it's a real plan." In fact, Bianchi was referring to talks between Hearst and the American Land Conservancy when she said, "Now is the time for people to allow the process to take its course." She was discussing a rival plan put together by Friends of the Ranchland when she said, "I don't think it's a real plan."

It isn't clear whether release of the new 70-page plan will spur the negotiations or, as some fear, undermine them. The new document is much more ambitious than the Hearst plan and much less likely to be accepted by the corporation.

One official close to the Hearst talks called it a "nonstarter." Nonetheless, it has won the support of a number of influential local organizations, including the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara, the San Luis Bay chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the San Luis Obispo County Chumash Council.

"After waiting patiently for over six months" since the unveiling of the single-page Hearst proposal, said a statement from Friends of the RanchLand, it was "decided that, instead of waiting for information that never seems to materialize, it was time" to put forth the organization's own blueprint.

"This is a way for us to tell the people negotiating the deal what the public wants," said Jeff Kuyper, legal analyst for the Environmental Defense Center, which helped draft the plan with Friends of the RanchLand.

Development Ideas

The question of what to do with the spectacular Hearst Ranch, which stretches from untouched beaches where elephant seals frolic to inland mountain ranges, all enclosing the gilt opulence of Hearst Castle, has hung over the Central Coast for decades.

At one time, planners envisioned a thriving city with its own airport. That was scaled back to a resort development of golf courses, riding stables and hotels. That plan was stalled for years in disputes with land preservation groups.

The logjam appeared to break last December when Hearst Corp. announced it was entering negotiations with the American Land Conservancy to preserve the vast majority of the ranch in perpetuity. Gone were plans for a big resort. All the Hearsts wanted, they said, was to build a small boutique hotel and 27 home sites for family members. And one other thing: In return for locking up their land, they would need at least $100 million.

But other than noting a lack of specifics over how much of the 18 miles of beaches would be opened to general public use, even the most die-hard Hearst critics said the new road map looked like something they could work with.

As the months passed, however, high expectations have given way to anxiety and sniping about delays and the lack of involvement of the public in the talks.

"We all support conservation of the Hearst Ranch for the generations to come," said the president of Friends of the RanchLand, Doug Buckmaster. "Where we may differ on is how that vision takes shape and who should be sitting at the table making those decisions."

If it's not possible to purchase the ranch outright, the Hearsts should provide the easement free in exchange for permission to build the family homes, according to the plan by Friends of the RanchLand. It also suggests more public involvement to end the secrecy and strict guarantees that cultural and scenic values will be protected.

Although privately people close to the American Land Conservancy-Hearst talks do not hide their irritation at what they see as outsiders stirring up trouble because they were left out of the talks, publicly they say politely that they welcome other points of view.

At the same time, they make it clear that the new plan isn't going anywhere.

"The ranch isn't for sale," said Roger Lyon, an attorney and spokesman for Hearst Corp. "A lot of things in the report simply aren't on the table."

One person close to the talks laughed at the idea that anyone could raise enough money to buy the ranch. The cost? "In the billions," he said.

As for whether it's all taking too long, Lyon said it has been only three months since the conservancy and Hearst signed documents committing them to make a deal. "We're making great progress on a very complicated transaction," Lyon said.

Harriet Burgess, president of the American Land Conservancy, agrees. "This is not a negotiation where we're haggling," she said. "It's amicable."

Even though an appraisal of the property's value is still not done, Burgess doesn't think things are taking too long, considering what's at stake.

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