Hearst Ranch Retort
Why the Coastal Commission had such an easy time voting against the Hearst Resort.
Thursday, January 22, 1998
The Hearst Ranch Resort proposal was billed as the toughest decision the California Coastal Commission would have to make this year. Instead, it was a slam dunk.
All 12 commissioners voted to reject the plan. In two hours of debate among the commissioners last week, there was not one word of support for the deal San Luis Obispo County supervisors had made with Hearst Corp. for the golf resort near San Simeon Point.
Commissioner David Potter, who is chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, introduced the motion rejecting the proposal saying, "I have a lot of respect for the Hearst family, but I was shocked" by the Hearst Corporation proposal.
Potter''s declaration that ,"I recognize property rights, but I recognize community rights as well" reverberated throughout the Coastal Commission. So what turned this pitched battle into a rout? Project proponents, opponents, and the commissioners themselves point to three areas that turned the tide.
One of them was definitely public input. Coastal commissioners regularly face vocal debate over decisions they have to make, but commissioners said last week that they had never seen such an outpouring as with the Hearst proposal. "I''ve never had this much public pressure," says Potter.
Officials estimated the crowd size during last Thursday''s meeting at 1,000. But since those who wanted to attend overfilled the grand ballroom at the Embassy Suites hotel, and observers on both sides came in and out of the overfill rooms throughout the 12-hour hearing, it will never be known how many people showed up or, for that matter, how many stayed home to watch the live cablecast.
To keep things moving, applause is banned at Coastal Commission meetings, but audience members showed their support by waving their hands. The vast majority of speakers and hand wavers opposed the Hearst proposal. The commissioners also could not have helped but notice the opposition during a bus tour of San Simeon Point. Sign-carrying Hearst opponents lined the bus route in the rain.
The level of emotion was particularly striking in a community so small that the commission had never held a hearing here in 25 years of monthly meetings. During the hearing, the speakers were both substantive and emotional. Rabbit-carrying 10-year-old Rebecca Wells made her plea for the homeless animals using William Randolph Hearst''s own words to fight against the Hearst Resort. "I love this ranch. It''s wonderful. I love the sea and I love the mountains, and hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks," she quoted Hearst as writing to his mother in the early part of the 1900s.
Other speakers detailed at length what they saw as violations of the Coastal Act, which commissioners are sworn to uphold. The North Coast Alliance, an umbrella group for 40 organizations opposed to the project, sent up 17 speakers to the dais to discuss technical problems with the North Coast Area Plan. So many speakers were signed up to address the commission that it threatened to derail the process. Even though the panel stopped allowing people to sign up to speak at noon, some 250 names remained on the speakers list at 5pm. Opponents, convinced that they had the votes to defeat the plan, then asked their speakers to refrain from addressing the commission in order to get a vote while in San Luis Obispo.
But even before the discussion, opponents had picked up some vital support from California Coastal Commission staff. Two weeks before the meeting, the staffmembers had written a stinging indictment of the coastal program.
"Overall, [the proposal] is not consistent with the development, agriculture, recreation, visual resource, environmentally sensitive habitat, public access, hazards, and archeological policies found in chapter three of the Coastal Act," the commission''s staff report read.
The staff findings recommended more than 130 modifications to the county''s plan, including recommendations for downsizing the number of hotel rooms proposed by Hearst by more than half, and advocating the removal of the corporation''s planned golf course.
While commissions have been known to go against the recommendations of their staffs, the Coastal Commission members were absolutely glowing about the staff findings. One commissioner recommended that the report be passed out in high school English classes as an example of clarity in writing.
But in the end, it was the location of the proposed resort that commissioners found most objectionable, even though the Hearst plan pulled development back from San Simeon Point.
Commissioner David Armanasco, a Monterey native, compared San Simeon Point to Point Lobos, calling the two points gateways to Big Sur, one from the north and one from the south. "I could never imagine approving anything like this across from Point Lobos," he said.
The fact that the resort would not be contiguous to existing development also weighed heavily on many of the commissioners. "Leapfrog development will inevitably lead to infill," said commissioner Sara Wan.
Others commissioners felt that, despite eight years of planning, Hearst officials had failed to provide even basic information about the availability of water for the project. "I wouldn''t even remodel and put in a shower with that kind of information," said commissioner Pedro Nava.
Now that the plan has been rejected by the California Coastal Commission, San Luis Obispo county has six months to submit a new one. Many opponents suspect that county supervisors there will ask for a one-year extension.
While that will delay the project, it could help the resort''s chances. That''s because eight of the commissioners are appointed by the state Senate Rules Committee and the speaker of the Assembly. Elections in November could give the Republicans a narrow majority in both houses. If so, new appointees could give the commission a more pro-development slant, as it had two years ago when the Republicans were in charge.
A compromise proposal could garner support from existing commissioners like Santa Barbara County Supervisor Tim Staffel, who opposed the current plan but disagreed with staff''s suggestion that no golf course would be appropriate in the coastal zone.
But the "wait and see what the elections bring" plan could backfire if the balance of power should change on the county Board of Supervisors. But the 3-2 pro-Hearst majority is expected to stay or even increase after the November elections.
Either way, the Hearst Ranch Resort is likely to come back for public debate. Despite Hearst Corp. spokesman Phil Battaglia''s prehearing statement-"We won''t ask for any more, but we won''t accept any less"-he later said the company would not back away from the project.
Richard Jackoway is managing editor of New Times.