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Hearst Deal Preserves Ranch But Frustrates Environmentalists

Paul Shigley on
Oct 1, 2004

A complex deal that would prevent large-scale development of the Hearst Ranch on California’s central coast is nearly complete. But the deal that will preserve the 82,000-acre ranch does not satisfy many members of an environmental community that has fought Hearst Ranch development plans for decades.

While environmental groups dislike the deal, there is wide support for it among ranchers, farmland advocates, area residents, and San Luis Obispo County officials and business leaders.

With the state Coastal Conservancy’s approval providing the last major hurdle for the $95 million deal, people rallied on both sides during a 6 1/2-hour public hearing on September 15. When the Conservancy’s board voted 6-0 to approve its part of the agreement, scores of people erupted with cheers, hugs and tears of joy — while people on the other side shook their heads and quickly fled the room.

The deal appears to conclude years of sporadic fighting over Hearst Ranch. During the 1960s, a new town of 60,000 people was contemplated. In the early 1980s, San Luis Obispo County and the California Coastal Commission approved a local coastal plan that allowed development of several large resorts and two golf courses. While the new town was probably a pipe dream, the golf resort proposals were serious. Finally, in 1997, the county modified the coastal plan to allow one golf course, four hotels with a total of 650 rooms, several restaurants and shops, and a convention center. During an historic, four-day meeting in January 1998, the Coastal Commission unanimously rejected the plan (see CP&DR, January and February, 1998).

Hearst Corporation representatives, led by ranch manager Stephen Hearst, then began talking with land conservancies and state representatives. A tentative deal was struck in 2003, and Resources Agency officials endorsed the proposal earlier this year.

Although the deal is complicated and includes numerous parties, the basic question for the Coastal Conservancy and other state officials was simple: Are Californians getting their money’s worth?

“My instinct is to always want more,” said Conservancy board member Douglas Bosco, a former Democratic congressman from Humboldt County. “But this is a deal. It is a deal that’s been worked out over a long period of time. … I think we can’t be in the position of delaying it further or changing it.”

Delays and changes were exactly what the deals detractors sought. Among the members of that camp were the California Coastal Commission, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California League of Conservation Voters, Surfrider Foundation and some state lawmakers.

“I’m concerned about what is going to be conserved and how,” said state Sen. Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), whose request for an up-front inventory of natural resources was rejected by the Coastal Conservancy. “I want to make sure we know what the taxpayers are buying.”

Besides the Schwarzenegger administration, supporters included the California State Parks Foundation, numerous local officials and residents, individual Sierra Club members, and different members of the state Legislature.

“On balance, this is a tremendous opportunity,” said Pete McCloskey, a former maverick Republican congressman and co-founder of the League of Conservation Voters.

That has been the message from supporters since the release of the deal’s details in July: It is an historic — and, possibly, fleeting — opportunity to preserve the famous ranch and stave off future fights over development. Under the deal, Hearst will get $80 million, plus $15 million worth of state tax credits. Although the deal contains no development entitlements, it does permit Hearst to pursue development of 27 houses on 5-acre lots (with larger buffer zones), 15 units of employee housing, and a 100-room hotel in Old San Simeon Village. Hearst also would maintain ownership of five miles of coastline, including the highly treasured Ragged Point, San Simeon Point and Pico Cove. The state Department of Parks and Recreation will get 949 acres west of Highway 1 (13 miles of coastline), and Caltrans will get 518 acres to allow the agency to move the highway inland. Additionally, a conservation easement will be placed on about 80,000 acres east of the highway.

“As far as I know, it’s the monster of all transactions in California,” Alvin Sokolow, a professor at University of California, Davis, said of the conservation easement. “I don’t think anything can match it for maintaining ranchland.”

At its September meeting, the Coastal Conservancy approved $34.5 million for the deal. The Wildlife Conservation Board approved a like amount in August. That money comes from four different resource bonds — Propositions 50, 40, 12 and 117. Caltrans has received $23 million in federal funds for the project. Parks and Recreation is also supposed to put in $3 million. Of that $95 million total, $15 million would be in the form of tax credits through the Natural Heritage Preservation Tax Credit program. Hearst also will get a $140 million tax write-off — the difference between what the state is paying and the $235 million appraised value.

Before the state disburses the funds, the Wildlife Conservation Board must approve a baseline conditions report and monitoring program, and review a management plan, according to Al Wright, executive director of the wildlife board. The baseline conditions report, however, will not be made available to the public.

Under the deal, the state will grant funds to the American Land Conservancy (ALC), which will then purchase the conservation easement from Hearst. The ALC will then convey the easement to the California Rangeland Trust, a fairly new offshoot of the California Cattlemen’s Association, which will oversee the easement. The property would continue to serve as a cattle ranch, although Hearst could cultivate up to 3,000 acres.

The conflict centers on public access to the coast and to the 80,000-acre backcountry, the provision of public facilities along the coast and ensuring that natural resources are protected. When the Coastal Conservancy considered the various agreements that comprise the deal, board member Mike Reilly (who is also chairman of the Coastal Commission and a Sonoma County supervisor) repeatedly sought to enhance public access, and to strengthen state oversight. But he was repeatedly thwarted by board member Karen Scarborough, who is undersecretary of the Resources Agency. In the end, the Conservancy board made only two fairly minor amendments to the agreements, and even Reilly voted for the package.

Detractors said that public access limitations on coastal lands that Hearst will retain and on new public lands were unacceptable. Under the deal, only 100 people per day may visit San Simeon Point. Only 20 people per month — and only on guided tours — may visit Ragged Point and Pico Cove. Although all of those scenic vistas are private property, Hearst has not limited public access to them in the past. Furthermore, the deal prohibits nighttime use of the new public lands, and a new scenic easement along Highway 1 could limit the construction of public facilities. People also complained that five miles of the California Coastal Trail would run along the highway.

“Hearst has essentially retained the prime parcels along the coast … and the Coastal Trail bypasses them,” said Susan Jordan, who heads the California Coastal Protection Network.

Reilly sought to give Parks and Recreation the authority to determine the location of the Coastal Trail through Hearst’s lands — a proposal backed by Sen. Chesbro, who authored legislation to create the pathway. Reilly called the trail’s location a “litmus test” for the Conservancy, but the proposal died on a 3-3 vote, with Scarborough, Bosco and Patrick Kemp, sitting in for Finance Director Donna Arduin, unwilling to give Park and Recreation this authority. (The board’s seventh member, Chairman Paul Morabito, was absent.)

Reilly also sought more direct state oversight until development rights have been extinguished on all 271 parcels that Hearst has established during recent years with certificates of compliance. As the deal stands, Hearst would retire the development rights on a prorated basis as the houses allowed by the deal are developed. Reilly also sought to give the state more say in potential water transfers.

But during the Conservancy’s marathon meeting, Scarborough emerged as the deal’s champion. She said it was acceptable for the Rangeland Trust to serve as the enforcement authority because Hearst might not trust the state. And both Scarborough and Rangeland Trust Executive Director Nita Vail said Hearst would not permit additional restrictions on water transfers.

Vail and other deal supporters repeatedly noted that the “pristine” lands that environmentalists want to protect have been owned and managed by Hearst for generations, and there is no reason to believe the level of stewardship will diminish. “We really believe it [the easement] will protect this magnificent landscape in perpetuity,” Vail said.

A number of deal supporters warned the Conservancy board not to delay or condition the deal because Hearst was unlikely to accept amendments — an argument rejected by deal detractors.

“I’ve never once seen a landowner or developer walk away from a deal because they were pushed,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center.

Krop and others were distressed that they were not more successful before the Coastal Conservancy and Wildlife Conservation Board.

“It was very clear that the administration was supporting Hearst against the public interest,” Krop charged. She added, “I really do appreciate the extinguishment of the development rights on the west side [of Highway 1]. I just wish we didn’t lose the public access.”

The next stop for the deal is a meeting this month of the state Public Works Board, which must agree to accept the 949 acres for Parks and Recreation. Approval is expected to be routine.

Contacts:
Linda Krop, Environmental Defense Center, (805) 963-1622.
Nita Vail, California Rangeland Trust, (916) 444-2096.
Coastal Conservancy: www.coastalconservancy.ca.gov

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