The Return Of The Spoilers
A new environmental terrorism in Big Sur.
Thursday, January 25, 2001
I represent our nation''s most beautiful coastline, the Big Sur coast of California. This magnificent region is only accessible by California State Highway 1, which the federal government has designated as an All American Scenic Highway. Below the road, Congress has designated the ocean as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Much of Big Sur is within the Los Padres National Forest. The remaining land is dotted with state parks and natural reserves, with large portions remaining in private ownership. Much public investment has been made in trying to preserve the wilderness look that attracts millions of visitors each year.
This year something went wrong. A new business of land speculation has begun. It works like this: Speculators purchase the most scenic properties from estate sales, research to find historical lots in the most scenic viewsheds, then threaten to develop the property unless they are bought out. This is a new kind of environmental terrorism in that no laws are broken. But it does break the land trust bank accounts and deplete government acquisition accounts. This type of land churning for greed is totally inappropriate in areas set aside for viewshed protection.
Take, for example, the historical Brazil Ranch midway between Bixby Bridge and Little Sur River. Perhaps one of the most dramatic spots on the Big Sur coast, Bra- zil Ranch contains nesting golden eagles in the broken redwoods that are said to have been the inspiration for poet Robinson Jeffers'' famous ode "Beaks of Eagles."
The ranch was acquired in the 1970s by television personality Allen Funt of "Candid Camera" fame. He also purchased the home on the north side of Bixby Bridge. Mr. Funt on many occasions expressed his desire that the entire property remain intact and unspoiled. His estate sold the entire ranch for $10 million to a land speculator who spun off the residence and 20 acres and sold it for $7.5 million. The new owner then applied to Monterey County for nine different parcels with lot line adjustments to make marketable residential building sites for large "trophy" homes. However, this new owner has agreed not to develop these megamansions if someone will buy the property from him. Asking price: $25 million.
Since the local land-use policy requires protection of critical viewsheds--which is why Highway 1 was designated "scenic"--this new push for monster homes and their access roads directly conflicts with local policy. Speculators pressure acquisition by land trusts, or else "for sale" signs go up. Dot-com fortunes make speculators'' prices seem reasonable. Despite the lofty goals and policies of the Big Sur Coast land-use plan, Monterey County has no funds for acquisition and thus cannot preclude residential development of the ranch. Therefore, state and federal governments are asked to make the purchase with a gun at their heads: Pay the asking price or it will be developed.
Is this our future? If so, the developers will win. There just are not enough public resources to continually purchase properties at these prices. Or should we hold the local government more accountable, consistent with its viewshed protection goals? Once the county has asked state and federal governments to designate a local road as a "scenic highway," then it should not grant certification of compliance allowing nonexistent lots to suddenly appear next to it. Perhaps if there is less certainty in the outcome, land prices will not be so high. Perhaps there ought to be a prohibition against using charitable foundations to purchase scenic property merely to drive up land prices.
As a land owner, I support the private marketing of land. As a public servant I abhor the practice of churning money from one viewshed sale to another, at great expense to the public. You can help stop this new type of land speculation by asking Monterey County not to approve certificates of compliance in publicly declared scenic viewsheds. The buck stops with local government. In the meantime, support acquisition of critical viewshed lots from willing sellers before the price becomes prohibitive. Time is of the essence to be a part of the solution for preservation, or accept losing the Big Sur coast to private development. The key to maintaining the look and feel of Big Sur is preservation.
Rep. Sam Farr serves the 17th Congressional District.