Who owns the view?

As population increases and second-home purchases grow, many scenic areas are equally valuable to developers and valued by preservationists.

Gary Johnson is so rarely behind his desk, he can be difficult to track down. The chief resource planner for the Blue Ridge Parkway spends most days wending his way through Virginia and North Carolina. His daily activities take him along one of the nation's most scenic roads - rural farmland and forested slopes streaming past his car window.

Mr. Johnson spends countless hours inventorying the parkway's "viewshed" - the area visible from a particular vantage point - and plotting to protect its most prized vistas. After all, the impressive views along the road are what bring millions of visitors to the Parkway each year.

But what can the National Park Service (NPS) do about protecting the famous panorama from scenery-spoiling development that occurs on private property as far as 20 miles away?

It's an increasingly common problem around the US as population and the numbers of second homes both climb.

And it brings up the thorny question: Can anyone own the view?

Land buyers and developers who are attracted to the same spectacular scenery as visitors to an area ask: Who has the right to tell us what we can do with private property?

Environmentalists and many local residents counter that the view belongs to everyone, and no one should be allowed to spoil it for future generations.

Meg Maguire of Scenic America, an organization dedicated to preserving natural beauty, worries that as urban growth envelops rural areas, the distinction between city and country is being lost: "Everything is looking like everywhere, and everywhere is nowhere."

Others are concerned that the cherished right to do as they please on their own land may be in jeopardy.

The term viewshed is best known from the writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-century father of landscape architecture who designed retreats such as New York's Central Park. But according to Niall Kirkwood, chairman of Harvard University's landscape architecture department, the term dates to the Egyptian battlefield, where strategy was determined by whom you could see and who could see you.

This year, viewsheds appeared for the first time on Scenic America's annual list of Last Chance Landscapes - places in danger of disappearing but with potential to be saved. Two of the areas on the list, California's Gaviota Coast and the Blue Ridge Parkway, illustrate the conflicts - and some potential solutions.

Between the mountains and ocean

North on Highway 101 out of Santa Barbara, Calif., the road narrows to two lanes and the trees melt into a blur of rippling grasses. Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the gripping blue of the Pacific Ocean, the freeway gently follows the curves of the coastline.

Here, only a spattering of homes, the occasional backhoe, or the dot of an oil rig on the horizon breaks the panorama of mountains, ocean, and the Channel Islands. These 76 miles - known as the Gaviota Coast - make up the longest span of undeveloped coastline left in southern California.

But beneath the idyllic surface simmers a battle between champions of public land and outside developers. Caught in the middle are private owners who want their spreads protected, but don't want to be told how to do it. At stake: close to 100,000 acres - a rural checkerboard of cattle ranches, avocado and lemon orchards, and open space.

At one point in the past century, the Hollister family owned virtually the entire Gaviota Coast. Today, J.J. Hollister III still cares passionately about the rural coast where he grew up, patches of which his family still holds. Mr. Hollister talks of a place "vibrant with historical quality" and hopes the "agricultural overlay" will remain intact. "I think there's a tremendous value in open space, watershed, and view," he says.

Yet he was one of many old-timers who fought a recent push to integrate the coastline into the National Park System. The reason? He is as worried about public feet trampling the pristine ecology as he is about developers' bulldozers.

Bernice ("Bernie") Stableford, a longtime avocado grower and cattle rancher in the region, also opposed the area's being designated a National Seashore, but for a different reason. "It is very well protected," she says flatly. "The viewshed is not going anywhere."

Many of Mrs. Stableford's neighbors feel that the threat of sprawl is overblown. Between existing restrictions and locals who, Stableford says, will "fight as hard as anybody to keep the city limits where they are," she believes the fear of development is a case of "the sky is falling."

The real threat, some landowners in the region say, is from heavy recreational traffic, with its accompanying litter and risk of fire. Had the Gaviota Coast been designated a National Seashore (the NPS decided against it earlier this year), its pristine hills would have been marked by public access trails and roads.

Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, is disappointed that the Gaviota Coast will remain mostly in private hands. "The only tangible enjoyment that most people get is being able to look at [the scenery] as they drive up the highway or go to the beaches. Instead of seeing a bunch of Malibu mansions they're seeing oak trees and cattle and undeveloped land."

But that undeveloped land is being swallowed up.

Seventy-eight acres have already been turned into a beachfront resort near Santa Barbara. Some see the resort as revitalizing a sleepy spot just outside the city. To others, it's an ominous warning of sprawl to come.

Another 485 acres, tapped for a luxury residential development, is undergoing the approval process.

Stableford is unconcerned. She believes that the rules the developers have agreed to follow - including planting trees so the houses can't be seen - will ensure that the view won't be spoiled.

Others aren't as optimistic. Among them is Mr. Feeney, who says the development is "going to be a wart on the Gaviota Coast."

But there are eager second-home buyers ready to snap up a residence in such a beautiful area. In 2000Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt bought a 11-1/2-acre coastal parcel here for about $4 million, although they have not built on it.

Purchases such as theirs sometimes spark a cycle of soaring land prices, increased propertytaxes, and a resulting decline of agriculture, which can lead to more land gobbled up by developers.

Rural for how long?

Across the country, nearly 22 million people yearly pass through the Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins in Virginia and runs through North Carolina. Ninety-five percent say they come for the scenery. They come to traverse a 469-mile-long road that skims treetops and dips into valleys sprinkled with old farmsteads and split-rail fences.

The parkway's viewshed is designed to move between overview and detail - from grand panoramic vistas to sharply focused close-ups. But some wonder how long that popular view will exist.

The federal government controls at least 200 feet on either side of the Parkway - yet many of its best views lie beyond that boundary.

Working with developers since 1996, the parkway's planning team has tried to influence development along the road without appearing "heavy-handed" or "pushy."

They have worked with developers on six large projects and consulted on a number of smaller ones.

One of the first developers they met with was Steve Musselwhite, who lives next to the parkway. In return for permission to run a sewer line under NPS land, Mr. Musselwhite agreed to reduce from 150 to 100 the number of homes he would build on his 40-acre tract. They'll be clustered to maximize open space, and he'll plant trees and a wildflower meadow to help shelter the houses from view.

Although negotiating was an arduous process that took two years of negotiations, both parties agree it was worth it.

"We got a better product as a result of the cooperation," says Musselwhite.

Johnson notes the fact that a dialogue took place at all as a sign of success.

Preserving views can be a slippery slope. The modern landscape is manipulated all the time. Even the Blue Ridge Parkway cuts vegetation and overgrowth to frame scenic views and clear outlooks.

Among developers, preservationists, and private landowners, the consensus seems to be that development will continue. The challenge, then, is to figure out how best to do it.

Revitalizing already developed areas is key, says Professor Kirkwood, the landscape architect, who specializes in reclaiming industrial landscapes. Originally from Scotland, he contrasts the "American predilection for starting from scratch" with the European habit of building upon the past to create a palimpsest.

Many on both sides of the issue would agree with a statement on the website of Scenic America: "Growth may be inevitable, but ugliness is not."

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