CARMEL, CALIF. — A few miles from scenic Carmel and Pebble Beach sits Rancho San Carlos, the largest single piece of private property on California's spectacular central coast. For almost 200 years, this stunning landscape of grasslands, chaparral, and hillsides of oak, pine, and redwood has been used for little more than grazing cattle and entertaining a succession of wealthy owners.
Now, a partnership of San Francisco developers is ready to build a community of affluent homeowners here, offering at the same time to conserve the bulk of this land as a nature preserve.
The Rancho San Carlos plan has triggered a bitter battle, stretching over years and ranging from the streets to the courtroom. To all appearances a classic struggle between a developer and the defenders of nature, it is more deeply a war among environmentalists over the future course of the movement.
Project supporters, including some prominent conservationists,
praise the plan as a nationally important model of how ecology and development can coexist. Opponents dismiss this as a public-relations sham, a dangerous example of how environmental concerns are used to clothe other aims.
"We're hoping it will be a standard against which other developers who claim to be ecologically sensitive will have their work measured," says Martin Rosen, president of the Trust for Public Land, one of the nation's leading land-preservation groups.
"This is a good example of a recent tendency to characterize projects harmful to the environment as friendly to the environment," counters Joanne Spalding, attorney for the Sierra Club, which is suing to stop the project. "We call that tendency 'greenscamming.' "
The outcome of this battle has important implications for the future of land preservation. In an era of tight budgets and a Republican-controlled Congress reluctant to spend more money on acquiring land for public parks, some conservationists believe a pragmatic accommodation of development is necessary. More militant environmentalists argue that now, more than ever, is the time to hold the line against development.
That battle has even spilled out within organizations such as the Sierra Club, long considered one of the most activist of environmental organizations. Dissidents in the organization won a 2-to-1 victory last week in an internal ballot for a proposition committing the group to support a total ban on commercial logging in national forests.
The Rancho San Carlos project is a microcosm of this broader philosophical contest. The 20,000-acre spread provides habitat for 500 species of plants, as well as eagles, owls, mountain lions, deer, and bobcats. But it is hardly pristine wilderness. Some 150 miles of roads crisscross the land, cattle have roamed here for 150 years, and a graceful, Spanish-style hacienda has been home to wealthy owners for decades.
In 1990, Pacific Union, backed largely by Japanese investors, bought the ranch from a San Francisco family for $70 million. The developer's plan forgoes traditional, suburban-style tract development in favor of a high-end project that would offer multimillion-dollar home sites. The proposal calls for building just 300 homes, along with a lodge, golf course, and other recreational facilities, on a piece of land one and a half times the area of Manhattan.
"They're smart," Mr. Rosen says. "They sensed they would be tied up forever if they went conventional."
The developers recruited ecologist Jeffrey Froke, who worked for years as a sanctuary manager for the Audubon Society, to plan a nature preserve alongside the new community. Dr. Froke, the developers, and a host of consultants devised a plan that would set aside 18,000 acres as a permanent preserve and use the remaining 2,000 acres for development. Froke says extensive studies were done to find the least environmentally sensitive sites for the houses.
The developers approached the Trust for Public Land to help find a way to manage the preserve. About 12,000 acres will be owned by the nonprofit Santa Lucia Conservancy, and 6,000 acres will be privately owned but under the management of the conservancy with strict conservation controls. The Trust has an ongoing role in running this conservancy.
But the Santa Lucia Preserve, as the project is now called, has faced fierce opposition almost from its inception. Local activists from the Sierra Club and other organizations, joined by neighboring landowners, charge that the plan will fragment the landscape and destroy its ecological value. They also argue it will unacceptably burden the area's transportation, water, and other infrastructure.
"They're trying to sell the environment at the expense of the environment," says Bruce Dormody of the local Sierra Club chapter.
Opponents offer rival ideas for the development, which would concentrate construction in one section of the ranch. Pacific Union developer Tom Gray derides this idea of "clustered development" as a proposal to build a suburban tract that would be more damaging to the environment.
When pressed, opponents admit they would prefer no development at all. "Twenty thousand acres of the most beautiful land on earth will be divided up so rich people can have second and third homes," says local Sierra Club activist Don Gruber. "What's the real benefit to society?"
After extensive public debate and hearings, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the plan in February.
Opponents, in turn, mounted a campaign to qualify a ballot initiative that would block the project. They fell shy of the signatures needed, but the battle has now shifted to court. The opponents are asking a judge to restore names thrown out on technical grounds. Simultaneously, the Sierra Club has filed suit to challenge the supervisors' vote on grounds it violates an earlier land plan for the property.