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Conservancy to Pay $34.5 Million Toward Hearst Ranch Open Space

Agency wins agreement for more beach access. Another state board still must approve the deal.

September 16, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Los Angeles Times

WINDSOR, Calif. — The state Coastal Conservancy on Wednesday agreed to contribute $34.5 million toward preserving the Hearst Ranch as open space, but altered the deal slightly to require more public access along the ranch's 18 miles of beaches, grassy bluff tops and rocky headlands.

The Coastal Conservancy, which has a legal mandate to maximize public beach access, insisted that the Hearst Corp. remove restrictions that would have barred the public from this coastal strip west of California 1 from a half-hour before sunset to a half-hour after sunrise. Now the area will close after dark.

It also encouraged state officials to work with Hearst Corp. to allow parking facilities, picnic tables and restrooms on what is slated to become a strip of state parkland

As the deal is fashioned, Hearst has agreed to turn over 13 of the 18 miles of shoreline west of California 1 (about 1,500 acres) to the state as parkland and forfeit the rights to develop about 400 homes on the ranch's 80,000 acres east of the highway.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Hearst Ranch -- An article in the Sept. 16 California section about a pending deal to preserve much of the historic Hearst Ranch misidentified Graham Chisholm, the author of a letter critical of the deal, as executive director of the Nature Conservancy's program in California. He was its executive director when he wrote the letter but had resigned before the article was published. His resignation was announced this week. Conservancy officials said they stand by the letter.

In return, Hearst, a major media company that owns newspapers, magazines and TV stations, would receive $80 million in cash and $15 million in state tax credits. It would keep the right to build a 100-room hotel and 27 homes it could sell or distribute among Hearst family members who own the corporation. It also could build 15 homes for ranch employees.

The conservancy's action was the second of three approvals needed for the $95-million deal that would protect one of California's most beloved landscapes: the grassy tablelands, unblemished pocket beaches and rocky shoreline that offer a scenic gateway to Big Sur for the 4 million people a year driving the coast highway. The state Public Works Board will take up the matter next, probably in November.

But to the disappointment of coastal activists and some state officials, the seven-member conservancy board didn't toughen the conservation deal or insist on removing an assortment of other restrictions that Hearst has proposed that will affect public use of state parkland.

Nor did the conservancy push the Hearst Corp. to allow the state-long California Coastal Trail to run through five miles of oceanfront property that Hearst will keep. Hearst has insisted that any trail on its coastal property run alongside California 1.

"Not everybody is happy, but this is a very balanced deal, a win-win," said Karen Scarborough, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointee to the conservancy board. At the meeting, she repeatedly thwarted efforts by California Coastal Commission Chairman Mike Reilly to insist on more public access and tougher conservation measures.

Stephen T. Hearst, who manages the Hearst Ranch and other properties, said that he was grateful for the outcome and that his corporation board was unlikely to make any further concessions. "I understand everybody wanted more, but there was no more to give."

The Hearst Ranch deal represents an increasingly popular way for land conservancies to preserve agricultural land and open space without having to buy the property.

Such "conservation easements," which essentially is purchasing development rights, are cheaper than buying title to the land. They leave the property on the tax rolls and leave ranchers -- rather than government employees -- saddled with the burden of property upkeep.

Cattle ranchers are lining up for these conservation easements as a way to continue their operations and overcome the temptation -- or the need -- to sell to housing and shopping center developers.

The proposed conservation easement of the Hearst ranch has been one of the most controversial in state history.

The Nature Conservancy has criticized its terms as "significantly weaker" than the terms of others adopted by the state. Specifically, it said, the deal fails to ensure that new houses don't fragment important habitat, or set specific standards for protecting the ranch's rare plants and animals, or allow state biologists to monitor ranch practices that harm wildlife.

"As originally proposed, it would set a poor precedent and will likely result in a weakening of the standards and effectiveness of conservation easements funded by the state," wrote Graham Chisholm, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's program in California.

Yet a number of large ranch owners have rallied behind the deal, and insisted that any new restrictions would scare off other ranchers who might opt for a conservation deal over housing subdivisions.

"Ranchers and cattlemen are standoffish about this," said Jack Varian, a rancher near Parkfield, Calif. "They're all watching this to see how it turns out."

During Wednesday's meeting, conservancy board member Reilly, who is also the Coastal Commission chairman, made several futile attempts to toughen the deal.

For instance, Reilly tried to make it harder for Hearst to sell water from its property if it would harm wildlife. He also sought to give the state a larger role in enforcing the terms of the agreement, which will largely be monitored by the nonprofit California Rangeland Trust.

Carl Zichella, regional director of the Sierra Club, called Wednesday's meeting "a mixed bag. Minor improvements were made, but it allowed other deficiencies that will create problems for us on other deals."

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