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Two Camps in Big Sur

An aging, dwindling population and strict development rules hurt the area, some say. For others, it's a matter of preserving the land.

March 15, 2004|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

BIG SUR, Calif. — For years, the phrase "Save Big Sur" meant preservation of the timeless forests and streams perched high above the Central California coast.

Now it means the people.

"A lot of people bemoan the loss of community," said Kirk Gafill, co-owner of the famed Nepenthe restaurant on Highway 1. "That's code for fear of the future of Big Sur."

Beset by sky-high real estate prices, rich absentee landowners, restrictions on development and a shrinking, aging population, many residents fear their community is losing its vitality. With the median price of homes in the region nearly tripling in five years to $1.65 million (one hillside home of 1,200 square feet is on the market for $7 million), and the average age of a Big Surite now above 45 years, longtime residents say they are having trouble finding people to man the hoses at the fire brigade or head committees at Captain Cooper Elementary School. Enrollment -- just 74 students -- was so low this fall that the school narrowly averted closure.

According to Census Bureau statistics, Big Sur's population, at just over 800 people and falling, is lower than it was in the 1880s, when there was no highway and the only jobs available consisted of scraping for gold and knocking down trees.

Today, much of the private property has been put off limits to development. According to Monterey County figures, 84% of the 255,000 acres included in what is called the Big Sur Planning Area is restricted. Just 45,000 acres along the coast remain in private hands, and some of them are owned by land trusts that also prohibit development.

Most of the land in public hands was included in the Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness long before concerns arose over the public-private mix. Historic planning documents envisioned that 60% of the land along the Big Sur coast would remain in public hands, but today it's almost 70%, not including land-trust property.

"When I look out over Big Sur now, I don't just see beauty.... I see my community being dismantled, one parcel at a time," said Mike Caplin, a welder who represents a group called the Coastal Property Owners Assn.

Not everyone thinks things are as bad as Caplin's group does. Still, anxiety over the future of the Big Sur community is widespread enough that two citizens committees issued a report last year calling on the county to oppose new parks that would bring more tourists to the area, saying they would contribute to crowding and snarl traffic on California 1. The panels also said the community should have veto power over any new purchases of private property by land trusts.

Environmentalists dismiss these ideas out of hand.

"Statements like 'The Big Sur community is going to be exterminated' -- this is not true," said Zad Leavy, 73, founder and counsel for the Big Sur Land Trust. "There isn't enough money to buy them out in Big Sur."

Arguments that Big Sur could be preserved out of existence "don't seem logical to me," said Gary Patton, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County. To Patton, the property owners' complaints are simply a backlash against the hard-won environmental gains that have kept Big Sur's spectacular landscape intact for the millions of people who visit each year. "Current laws are quite protective," Patton said. "People up there resent that."

Land-use experts say the forces at work in Big Sur are no different, except in scale, from what's happening up and down the California coast. Competition for land has inflated housing prices out of reach. Even if no more land is bought up by the government and various land trusts, middle-income people "are going to be driven out one way or the other," said Bill Fulton, a land-policy researcher.

Maybe so, but Monterey County officials are taking seriously the landowner complaints. A new plan for the future of Big Sur and the county, released recently, makes preservation of the Big Sur community a priority. Among its policies, the document would relax restrictions on nontraditional homes, such as those made of hay bales and other unusual materials, in hopes of restoring some of Big Sur's legendary "funkiness." The plan also would ease housing-density provisions to allow the construction of clusters of low-cost workforce housing, up to a total of 300 units. In an unusual policy that would apply only to low-income housing in Big Sur, residents would be required to be employed solely in Big Sur.

"This proposal recognizes the need for critical workforce housing, and it goes a long way toward providing it," said Lynn Burgess, a county planner.

The 20-year planning document also says any future land-trust purchases should preserve any residences on the property to prevent the loss of any more homes in Big Sur.

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