YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Panel Declares Coast Isn't Clear for 'Mansionization'

Property owners chafe as the state commission acts to limit building and preserve farmland.

December 26, 2005|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

PESCADERO, Calif. — Silicon Valley manager Mike Polacek and his schoolteacher wife, Ana, considered themselves environmentalists. They loved the rolling farms that dotted their little piece of coastal San Mateo County.

So when they bought 18 hilltop acres up Bean Hollow Road half a mile from the ocean, they planned to build their dream house and farm the land around it.

For three years, they quizzed farmers and courted environmentalists. They studied the soil and drafted a plan to plant specialty crops that could make a little money.

"The agricultural community loved it, the county Planning Commission approved it and there were no appeals," Mike Polacek, 41, recalled recently.

"Then at the very last minute, literally 5 o'clock at night," he said, "the Coastal Commission appealed it. It was like somebody punched me in the stomach. We thought we'd done everything right. But we didn't know what we were up against."

The Polaceks were up against one of the nation's most powerful planning agencies. The commission saw the couple's plans as a new test in its three-decade struggle to keep as much as possible of the state's 1,100-mile coastline pristine.

The target this time is the "mansionization" of coastal farms and remote open spaces.

"The dot-com boom really changed everything," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the commission. "People with wealth buy 50 or 100 acres just to put a starter castle on it; technology allows them to live remotely and commute electronically.

"We have a history of speculators buying ranches for subdivision; but this is a new phenomenon," Douglas said. "Our farm and remote scenic lands are under pressure by people who want to build these mega-homes."

And as prices rise, the land moves out of the reach of working farmers, Douglas said: "The farming is lost. It's a trend that set off alarm bells."

To restrain the trend, the commission has begun pressing untested limits on development of the wooded ridgelines of Mendocino County, the vegetable farms of San Mateo County and the grazing lands of San Luis Obispo County.

The Polacek family planned to continue farming. But the commission wanted to ensure that future owners of the property would do the same.

The agency sought and eventually won an "affirmative" farmland easement to require that owners in perpetuity farm the land, if at all feasible.

To the Polaceks, that seemed unnecessary. And what they saw as high-handed treatment by the commission and its staff angered them.

A couple wanting to start a family, the Polaceks had paid $750,000 for the land, an old broccoli field with an ocean view. They planned to spend another $750,000 to build a home of nearly 5,000 square feet.

Now, after three years of review by San Mateo County, nearly two more by the Coastal Commission -- and the birth of two children -- they're awaiting a state permit. Because of about $200,000 in application expenses and skyrocketing construction costs, they figure the house will end up costing them double what they had planned.

Overall, the Polaceks say, they still agree with Coastal Commission goals.

"Ask anybody if they'd rather have more homes and parking lots and shopping malls on the coast, and 99 out of 100 would say they'd rather leave it open space," Mike Polacek said. "But the zeal with which the Coastal Commission went after us was about setting a precedent and sending a message, not about balance or fairness."

The easement on the Polaceks' property is one of three now in place in the state.

"It's potentially very significant," said Alvin D. Sokolow, a public policy specialist at UC Davis and an expert on farmland easements.

But the new type of easement raises questions, particularly if imposed on marginal farms at the edge of suburbia, Sokolow said.

"What constitutes agriculture? Does it mean running a few horses or a few cows on the land?" he said. "And what is the value of maintaining agriculture on these parcels if they are not part of a larger agricultural economy? Why put on the facade?"

Throughout its 33-year history, the Coastal Commission has drawn fire from property rights champions who say it tramples on constitutional liberties, and from environmentalists who contend it's a rubber stamp for oceanfront construction.

Douglas, coauthor of the 1972 Coastal Initiative and the commission's longtime chief executive, said the panel is simply enforcing the letter of the state Coastal Act by preserving "the maximum amount" of coastal land in agricultural production.

"It's imperative that we have controls that are enforceable for the long term," he said, "so that when the owner of this brand new house sells it, the new owners know this land must be farmed."

That has worked in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where mandatory farmland easements are commonplace, according to the American Farmland Trust.

"In the East, we're finding people buying farms as large-home sites," Sokolow said. "And they're simply turning around and leasing them to real farmers."

Los Angeles Times Articles