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More Seaside Golf Before Panel

The state Coastal Commission plans to review a proposed course at Pebble Beach. Agency staffers call for rejecting the project.

June 12, 2006|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

The most ambitious development proposal on the Central Coast in years has triggered a fierce backlash among environmentalists, who say it will spoil an ecological treasure and turn more of the coast into an exclusive playground for the rich.

More than 17,000 trees at Pebble Beach would be uprooted to build a new golf course and expand two luxury resorts under a development plan being led by a group of high-profile investors that includes actor Clint Eastwood.

But Pebble Beach Co. says it has the right to build on its land and is doing so consistent with other recreational uses in the Del Monte Forest near Carmel. Eastwood, former Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, golfer Arnold Palmer and others bought the company for $820 million in 1999 with plans to build.

More than five years after winning voter support for its project, the developer is preparing for a showdown Wednesday with the California Coastal Commission. The panel's staff is recommending the project be rejected because it would further carve into rare coastal forestland and disrupt habitat for endangered plants and animals.

"This is one of the biggest disputes, one of the most significant issues since I've been on the Coastal Commission for 10-plus years," said Sara Wan, whose panel is charged with protecting the coast. "It ranks up there with the biggest controversies."

The more than $100-million Pebble Beach plan is also a potential environmental albatross for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Senate Rules Committee and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), whose appointees each control four votes on the 12-member commission.

On Friday, Nunez announced that he was naming three new alternates to the commission and chose Orange County attorney Elizabeth Brem as a substitute for Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla, who is unable to attend Wednesday's meeting in Santa Rosa due to a family commitment. Padilla has expressed doubts about the Pebble Beach project.

Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission, said the Assembly speaker has no authority to pick alternates, but rather can only ratify those chosen by appointed commissioners. Padilla said he doesn't know Brem and won't endorse her appointment, adding that his alternate, David Allgood, will cast a vote.

Nunez, who received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Pebble Beach Co. last year, said through a spokesman that his intention was to fill some vacant positions. Brem could not be reached for comment.

But the speaker's actions, coming only days before the commission vote, have raised suspicion among environmentalists. "This is outrageous," said Mark Massara, the Sierra Club's director of coastal programs. Nunez "is playing politics and trying to stack the deck in favor of the project."

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Bounded by the cities of Pacific Grove and Monterey to the north and Carmel to the south, the Del Monte Forest is known for its rare Monterey pine groves, craggy shoreline and white sand dunes. It costs $8.75 to go on the famous 17 Mile Drive that winds through the postcard setting.

Pebble Beach Co. owns most of the private roads and almost all of the undeveloped land in the forest, which is dotted with $20-million mansions. It also owns the forests' two posh resorts and four of eight golf courses, including the premier Pebble Beach links, where a single round runs $450.

Striking a delicate balance between development and conservation in this extraordinary coastal region has always marshaled clashing forces.

The latest proposal is particularly contentious because Monterey pine forests are so rare and the new development would remove 15,000 pine trees and hundreds of others. Only five such pine forests are known to exist in the world, including three in California.

The 8-square-mile forest is also home to significant wetlands and critical habitat for rare vegetation and wildlife, including the federally endangered Yadon's piperia orchid and the threatened California red-legged frog.

At issue are two dozen distinct developments spanning 600 acres, nearly all of it on undeveloped land. The project calls for an 18-hole golf course, an equestrian center, 60 employee guest houses, 33 residential lots and expansion of the Pebble Beach Lodge and the Inn at Spanish Bay, which would include an additional 160 2,000-square-foot overnight suites.

The developer says its project would help the environment because it sets aside more than 400 acres of forestland for permanent preservation and involves far less intrusive development than the hundreds of homes initially proposed. Some of the development's profits would help pay for maintaining the forest.

"When you own all this land, you've got a right to do something with it," said Alan Williams, president of Carmel Development Co., project manager for Pebble Beach Co. "This wasn't designed in a void. It's not something we're trying to bulldoze. It was designed with an eye to protecting resources."

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