A few days after Facebook billionaire Sean Parker’s June 1 wedding to Alexandra Lenas, beeping machinery drowns out birdsong at the forested campground he rented at Big Sur’s Ventana Inn & Spa. U-Hauls and portable toilets sit on the soil among pieces of plywood, crushed gravel and stone masonry.
It’s hard to see just what’s going on in there; the road into the campground is blocked by a gate and private security.
But in the national uproar over Parker’s wedding – which reportedly involved the construction of a Game of Thrones-esque fantasy land in the protected coastal redwoods, in violation of the California Coastal Act – not much press has been given to one of the state’s most significant findings: This space is supposed to be open to the public.
The 100-site campground, meant to facilitate lower-cost public access to the high-demand redwoods, was a condition of Ventana’s 1982 permit to expand, according to the Coastal Commission’s June 14 staff report.
Then shit happened, literally. In fall 2007, the Monterey County Health Department ordered the campground closed and put an occupancy cap on the inn after discovering human waste leaking next to a bathhouse and running into Post Creek.
But Ventana, according to the Coastal Commission, never got the permit amendment it needed to close the campground to the public. Nor did it get permits for the construction of Parker’s medieval wedding set six years later.
“Mr. Parker, in essence, leased an ongoing Coastal Act violation when he leased the campground,” commission spokeswoman Sarah Christie says.
Ventana managers did not return the Weekly’s multiple calls. But Roger VanHorn, the county’s senior environmental health specialist, says neither the health department nor the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which had cooperated in the sewage inspection, realized the inn had to notify the Coastal Commission to close the campground back in 2007.
He says Ventana has invested millions in a new wastewater treatment plant, able to treat up to 30,000 gallons per day. That plant is now online, he says, and the county is evaluating the last of the inn’s treated-wastewater dispersal fields.
“The system they put in is ultra-modern,” he says. “Once it comes online, they’re going to have a better facility there than they ever had before.”
Yet the campground was made available for a private event in the meantime. The contract between Ventana’s parent company and Neraida LLC, the corporation Parker created to handle the wedding, gives Parker’s crew exclusive use of the campground from March to July.
Under a settlement dated June 3, Parker agrees to pay $2.5 million toward conservation and coastal-access projects. Christie says $1 million of that is a penalty for the unpermitted wedding construction; Parker paid the other $1.5 million on the inn’s behalf for Ventana’s unpermitted closure of the public campground.
In a separate settlement, the inn agrees to restore public parking, improve public trails, install trailhead signs, create a public-access guide to its amenities, upgrade the campground and reopen it to the public, “if at all possible,” by Oct. 15.
VanHorn says the inn can’t meet that target date until the county green-lights the wastewater dispersal fields, which won’t likely happen until next spring.
The Coastal Commission will vote on the two settlements Friday, June 14. The Parker team is not allowed to dismantle the wedding set until commission staff signs off on a removal plan.
The commission took some public heat for failing to halt the wedding after the violations came to light. But Christie notes the commission immediately issued a cease-and-desist order, only allowing the wedding to proceed because the damage had been done by the time the inspectors arrived.
She says the commission couldn’t do much to stop it, anyway. “The coast is not as protected as people assume it is because we are so understaffed,” she says, noting the commission’s backlog of 1,876 violations. “The staff is completely dedicated, but the system is dysfunctional.”
For example, 21 state agencies are empowered to issue fines directly, but the Coastal Commission is not one of them. Instead, the commission can take violators to court and ask a judge to impose a fine – something Christie says has only happened four times in the last 10 years. “Who wouldn’t go to Vegas with those odds?” she asks.
A bill that recently passed the Assembly, San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins’ AB 976, would grant the commission that administrative-penalty authority. It now heads to the Senate.
Another bill, Santa Cruz Dem Mark Stone’s AB 203, would have required coastal development permit applicants to clean up prior violations first – a step that could have prevented Parker’s wedding. It passed out of the Appropriations Committee, but it was moved to the inactive file because the bill , opposed by big business and big ag, lacked the votes to pass on the Assembly floor.