California's 'crown jewel' may finally be open to the public

State hopes to turn Hearst Ranch, on edge of Big Sur, into conservation area, symbolizing a growing trend in land deals.

After 25 years of debate, one of the last, stretches of breathtaking California coastline - the southern end of Big Sur's ragged beaches, where the scenic highway dips and rises - may be finally closing in on its future.

With details unveiled last week and a brief comment period open before state agencies act, one longtime California conservationist calls the tentative plan "the deal of the century. A leading national environmental group spokesman calls it a "bald-faced, end-run development plan masquerading as a conservation deal."

Either way, national land trust experts say it is an example of the increasing trend by local and state governments to make complicated compromises that may irk purists but protect far more land than fund-strapped public entities and conservation groups can afford.

At issue: public access to 18 miles of coastline at the southern end of California's rugged, Big Sur coastline and limited development on 82,000 acres of adjacent ranchland characterized by both sides as "the Crown Jewel of California's Central Coast."

"This is one of the biggest deals in the history of American land conservation because of the size of the land in question, its unsurpassed beauty and the importance of the habitat," says Rick Hawley, executive director of Greenspace Cambria Land Trust, a local environmental organization.

As revealed last week, the tentative plan would transfer 1,500 acres of coastal land to the state and guarantee public access to the shoreline by 18 miles of trail and other access points. It would also give permanent protection to the 82,000 acre ranch - an area the size of San Francisco city and county - through conservation easements.

But it would also allow the ranch owners, the Hearst Corporation, to build a 100-unit resort in the seaside community of Old San Simeon Village and 27 homes on five-acre sites east of Highway 1 (also known as Pacific Coast Highway) which runs the length of California.

"This is the best - and last - conservation deal of this century," says Liz Scott-Graham, a conservationist in San Luis Obispo who has worked on conservation easements in California for 15 years. She notes that the Hearsts had been pushing for much bigger developments going back to the 1970s.

"The public is getting a better deal than most could ever imagine," says Ms. Scott-Graham. She notes the land has been appraised by the state at $230 million. "Hearst is giving up all kinds of rights in perpetuity but being allowed limited development that is far less than they have been pushing for over three decades."

By local estimates in San Luis Obispo, two-thirds of the public supported the plan at the first public hearing last week. But environmentalists in particular still feel their concerns have not been addressed.

"The reality of this plan is a laundry list of dramatic inadequacies and failings that in the long run will compromise both public access and habitat protection while enriching Hearst and permitting uses such as vineyards, mining, and oil and gas development," says Mark Massara, coastal program director of the Sierra Club.

Mr. Massara worries that allowing for the construction of 27 homes on the ranchland's rolling hills will bring in utility and electric lines that could jeopardize habitat. He says the public is already entitled to public access to the 18 miles of beaches. Mr. Hawley of Greenspace has similar concerns over the precise writing and interpretation of the easements, including how and where the Hearsts are allowed to own and operate the houses.

"I can't find anything in the plan that answers how they are going to protect habitat," says Hawley. "I also hear people asking if this is going to be a play land for the gazillionaires."

But Scott-Graham and lawyers for the Hearsts say detractors have to read the agreements carefully.

"This is probably the most closely scrutinized and publicly transparent conservation action ever done," says attorney Roger Lyon. He sends concerned citizens and residents to several websites containing 600 pages that detail the plan.

The compromise has been fashioned after years of consultation with the other partners in the deal, the state Coastal Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Board, State Parks, and Caltrans. Joining them are the Hearst Corporation, American Land Conservancy, California Rangeland Trust, and local elected officials.

The high number both of players and details is emblematic of the new environment for thousands of easement agreements coast to coast, according to national observers. Two other large plans that have made national headlines are in northern Maine and the Adirondack mountains. The California public has until Aug. 12 to comment before the state resources agency weighs in on whether to approve funds.

Steve Hearst, great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst and vice president of the Hearst Corporation, says he is confident that the plan will be approved as is.

"Since 1998, we have looked a conservation as a solution rather than development," says Mr. Hearst. "In doing so we talked with local, state, and federal legislators and met face to face with the top five conservation organizations in the country. It all came down to this as the direction supported by the majority of folks."

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