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Hearst, State Tentatively Agree to Coastal Land Preservation

The company would sell 1,400 acres of shoreline and be allowed to build a hotel and 27 homes.

June 05, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

California officials and Hearst Corp. have reached a tentative agreement on a $95-million deal to preserve most of the rolling hills and grassy tablelands of the Hearst Ranch around San Simeon, which have long served as a picturesque gateway to Big Sur.

Under the proposed accord, which California Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman announced after months of negotiations, the state would buy about 1,400 acres west of Highway 1. The purchase would make public about 13 miles of the state's best-known undeveloped stretch of coast -- a land of cliffs, rocky outcrops and short beaches colonized by lounging elephant seals.

Hearst Corp. would retain ownership of four parcels along the coast, totaling five miles of shoreline. At the base of one of those parcels -- San Simeon Point -- the company, owned by a family foundation, would retain the right to build a 100-room hotel based on architectural plans of Julia Morgan, who designed Hearst Castle.

The corporation would allow some public access across each of the parcels by way of the California Coastal Trail, a work in progress that is designed to run the length of the state.

On the rest of the roughly 120-square-mile cattle ranch that surrounds Hearst Castle, a "conservation easement" would prevent most development. The ranch reaches from the coastline far into the forests and rangeland of the Santa Lucia Mountains in northern San Luis Obispo County.

Hearst Corp. would keep the right to build 27 homes deep in the canyons so long as they were out of view of the highway and Hearst Castle, which is owned and operated by state park officials. The homes are presumably for family members, but could be sold to outsiders, according to negotiators. The family has owned the ranch since 1865.

Many details have yet to be divulged. But Chrisman said all aspects of the deal, along with legal documents, would be released for public inspection before the funding was approved by the state Wildlife Conservation Board and the state Coastal Conservancy -- two of the steps toward final approval.

"Once [the accord is] consummated, I believe all Californians will be well served by our efforts to present this spectacular working landscape as envisioned by William Randolph Hearst nearly a century ago," Chrisman said in a statement.

Stephen T. Hearst, the great-grandson of William Randolph and manager of the company's extensive real estate holdings, said the corporation was pleased to have finally reached an accord after five years of work.

"This landmark agreement will establish permanent public access to 18 miles of pristine coastline and preserve views of the Pacific and unique Central Coast ranchlands," said Hearst, who has performed most of the corporation's work on the deal.

The $95-million price tag for the deal includes $80 million in cash and $15 million in state tax credits. About $23 million would come from the California Department of Transportation as part of a pool of money used to preserve scenic highway views. The remainder would come from voter-approved bond measures designed to preserve open space, wildlife habitat and watersheds.

Chrisman, in a brief interview, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had been briefed on the tentative deal, but declined to characterize the governor's level of enthusiasm. Nor would he divulge any details of the agreement, suggesting that there would be plenty of time for "extensive public comment" over the plan's finer points this summer.

"The statement will have to stand on its own," Chrisman said. "We've still got issues, some things to work through."

The resources secretary said that after any purchase of coastal property from the ranch, the California Department of Parks and Recreation would end up managing the land.

The conservation easement, which would cover nearly all of the rest of the land, would preserve "the ecological and agricultural values of the property."

Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, was a key negotiator for the state. "We may not get everything we want," Schuchat said. "But if you get enough, then you have to say, 'This is a big opportunity.' Land values are only going to go up."

In addition to Hearst and state officials, the deal involves the American Land Conservancy and the California Rangeland Trust, two private, nonprofit groups that strive to preserve open space and working ranches from the high-stakes pressure of urban development.

All the parties will work on legal documents to be presented later this summer to the boards that oversee the spending of state conservation bond money.

The state Resources Agency, which was criticized under previous governors for not revealing details of other big deals until after they were approved, has committed itself to releasing the legal documents before state agencies make their decisions.

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