California's Last Virgin Coast Faces Development Dilemma

Recent decision sets back plans for hotel on Hearst estate, but the battle is not finished.

Standing atop sweeping dunes and jagged shoreline carved from rock, Cyndi Butterfield breathes in the majesty of mist-kissed moors, forests of eucalyptus, and beaches jammed with throat-honking elephant seals.

"This is the last, virgin stretch of California coast and once it's developed ... that's it," says the Cambria homeowner.

Perhaps a mile away, 20-year-resident Bill Beals surveys the same scene from his pine-ensconced front porch. "People here can't deny development just because it would bring more people to share the beauty with."

Up and down main street, this tiny hamlet of 5,600 is in a froth about the future of what many call the last remnant of "old California." The 75-mile stretch of storied coastline just south of Big Sur is squeezed between runaway development upward from Los Angeles and downward from San Francisco (see map, Page 5).

Now, the descendants of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst - some of the wealthiest landowners in the state - want to place a huge development on part of the 77,000 acres they have owned in this central-coast area for more than 150 years. The battle will determine the fate of one of America's most breathtaking coastlines, and could determine the course of future development.

Indeed, many here feel that once the area is compromised even a little, the development die is cast and a domino effect of construction will foul the coast for good. That feeling is echoed by residents just north of the area who are also afraid that approval of the Hearsts' plans for golf course and hotel will unleash a wave of development that spills into Monterey County and the world-famous Big Sur coastline.

"Environmentalists from California to Washington are very concerned about this fight," says Mark Massura, project director for the Sierra Club, noting that the beauty and diversity are considered a global treasure by leading environmental groups.

Perhaps just as important, he and others add, the mountains, wetlands, and coastline are a fragile and unique ecosystem dependent on a scarce local commodity that would also be threatened by development - fresh water. "We already have more developed lots than water to serve them," says Ken Topping, head of the Cambria Community Services District.

Proposition 20

Actually, California already has a law aimed at corralling runaway development, but it has met with mixed results. Proposition 20, passed in 1972, set up the California Coastal Commission as a steward for the state's seashores and allows counties to make many development decisions themselves - so long as the commission approves of their plan. But many, like Ms. Butterfield of the Coalition to Save Cambria and San Simeon, say the law is not working. "People are ignoring it or subverting it."

Stand by your law

Still, supporters stand by the law. Sara Wan, vice chair of the California Coastal Commission, says that the commission's record has had ups and downs, but adds, "We are far better off with it than without it."

Whatever the case, the law is getting a serious test here in San Luis Obispo County - those ups and downs have townspeople here madder than hornets. In fact, when the county supervisors forwarded a plan to the commission on Jan. 15 that would have allowed the 650-room resort and oceanside golf course, a gathering of 1,000 mostly antidevelopment protesters buzzed around the meeting. At the end of the day, the commission turned the county's plan down.

"It seems unfortunate that eight years of our plans have been resolved in less than two hours of deliberation," says Phillip Battaglia, a lawyer for the Hearst Corp. "We obviously plan to consider all our options."

Yet the controversial development battle is far from over. The commission accepted recommendations that the project go forward with 375 rooms, no golf course, and development concentrated in one area. The county planning commission has six months to come up with a new or modified plan, and it is legally entitled to extensions after that.

Just miles from the proposed development site is William Randolph Hearst's famous castle, which was the inspiration for Xanadu, the palatial estate in Orson Welles's classic movie, "Citizen Kane." The Hearsts gave the hilltop castle to California in 1958 but kept the surrounding 77,000-acre ranch, which has been used as grazing land for cattle. Tourist visits to the castle bring about 1 million visitors a year to the area and local economists estimate that brings $100 million annually into the local economy.

Recently, however, it is the property's natural splendor that has been making headlines. And as county planners fashion a new plan, elections have changed the makeup of both the county supervisors and the coastal commission, leading both sides to believe that local activism may well end up being the key ingredient.

"The antidevelopment forces really were a lot more organized than the rest of us," admits moderate-growth advocate Mr. Beals. But because the land is privately held, most sides feel some development will occur, in a vastly reduced version from original plans, but far more than will make environmentalists happy.

"Given our laws, we have to allow something," says Ms. Wan. Unless a larger movement can be generated to designate the area a national seashore, "I think now it's only a question of proper siting, one that respects the constraints of nature."

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