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State coastal panel OKs scaled-down plan for Pebble Beach project

After years of fighting, the Coastal Commission and developers reach an agreement on what is being called the last project planned for the exclusive Monterey Peninsula complex.

May 10, 2012|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • The Pebble Beach development was approved after being scaled back significantly. The deal will protect 635 acres of the world’s largest stand of Monterey pine forest.
The Pebble Beach development was approved after being scaled back significantly.… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

A truce has been forged in the decades-long fight over the forested land surrounding the world-famous Pebble Beach resort.

The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday approved a plan by actor Clint Eastwood, golfer Arnold Palmer, former baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and other Pebble Beach Co. owners that is billed as the last development ever at the gated complex of golf courses, mansions and hotels on the Monterey Peninsula.

The decision largely puts to rest a contentious environmental battle over the company's plans to expand into its prime real estate holdings in the forest above the craggy bluffs and crashing surf. The deal, approved unanimously by the panel at a hearing in San Rafael, allows limited hotel development and home building while preserving hundreds of acres for public use.

The accord drew a rare level of consensus, earning the support of most conservation groups, which have fought to protect the spectacular stretch of wooded coastline from development since the 1960s, when photographer Ansel Adams took up the cause.

The development has been significantly scaled back since 2007, when the state panel rejected the company's bid to cut down 18,000 trees to make way for an 18-hole golf course — the area's ninth — luxury homes and other amenities.

The new plans have a much smaller footprint. Gone is the golf course, the driving range and the equestrian center. Spared are thousands of rare Monterey pines.

Instead, the company will build a 100-room hotel on an old quarry site, expand its lodge and inn with up to 140 new rooms and build 90 homes. Clustering construction in areas that are already disturbed would permanently protect 635 acres of the world's largest stand of Monterey pine forest, a rich habitat that is home to rare plants and animals, coastal officials said.

As part of the deal, the company is required to expand public access by building more coastal access ways, scenic overlooks and trails through the Del Monte Forest, which spans 10 square miles and seven miles of Monterey County shoreline.

"Many years from now we'll look back on this and ask: How did we manage to preserve so much of this area when it's such an amazing place to live and recreate?" said Charles Lester, the commission's executive director.

The compromise was negotiated through more than 50 meetings over several years.

Key was a series of discussions between Pebble Beach Co. Co-Chairman Ueberroth, who organized the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the Coastal Commission's longtime head Peter Douglas, who died of cancer last month. Over private dinners and hikes, Ueberroth assured Douglas that it would be the last development at Pebble Beach and that its owners would never sell the property. Douglas made it clear that another golf course was out of the question.

"Instead of just objecting to the original plan, Peter taught us what was wrong and what was right and we were able to come up with a plan that they're able to support," Ueberroth said. The project will be smaller and less profitable than hoped, he said, "but that's all right with us, because we've come to their point of view."

Rita Dalessio, conservation chair of the Ansel Adams-founded Sierra Club Ventana Chapter, said past construction plans were so extensive they gave the impression Pebble Beach Co. didn't respect the forest's rich natural resources.

"Now it appears that they do, and that's a good thing," she said.

Pebble Beach has a storied history stretching back to the 1880s, when a group of railroad barons known as the Pacific Improvement Co. purchased the land and built 17-Mile Drive, the scenic roadway that winds along the coast.

In 1919, Samuel Finley Brown Morse, a distant cousin of the telegraph inventor, oversaw opening of Pebble Beach Golf Links — now regarded one of the finest courses in the nation — and guided the Del Monte Properties Co. through decades of expansion. It was reincorporated as Pebble Beach Co. in the 1970s, when Twentieth Century Fox bought it using profits from the film "Star Wars."

In 1999 a partnership including Palmer, Ueberroth, Eastwood and former United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Richard Ferris bought Pebble Beach Co. from Japanese investors for $820 million. Monterey County voters in 2000 approved a company-sponsored initiative allowing the company's development plans to move forward, but they were blocked by the Coastal Commission in 2007.

Home building plans in the new project still raise concerns among conservationists, who say that dozens of new lots will require cutting down several thousand Monterey pines and destroy the habitat of threatened species like the California red-legged frog.

Critics also questioned whether the agreement would truly put an end to development at Pebble Beach.

"Pardon me for my skepticism," Sierra Club member Kevin Collins told the commission. "We can all hope that it's the final build-out plan, but only time will tell."

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