Monterey land-use attorney Aengus Jeffers chuckles at the facts: The State Coastal Conservancy recently attempted to subdivide property for residential development in Big Sur.

“It’s like, pinch me,” he says. “It’s like, bizarro world.”

Break it down in the context of an obscure county program, though, and it makes sense.

The conservancy is selling a three-parcel, 100-acre chunk of undeveloped land at the Victorine Ranch, where Carmel Highlands meets Big Sur. According to the Coastal Conservancy description, the property stretches from coastal bluffs on the east side of Highway 1, over a mountain ridge and into a redwood canyon, with views of Soberanes Point and the Big Sur coast. Victorine’s neighbor to the south is Garrapata State Park; to the north, nearly 300 acres of county open space.

The history traces back to the county’s transfer of development credit (TDC) program, approved as part of the 1986 Big Sur Coast Land Use Plan. Under the program, landowners who put scenic easements on properties visible from Highway 1 get two TDC credits for development somewhere else in Big Sur (subject to land-use laws and County Planning Commission approval). That’s based on the idea an oceanview home is worth twice an inland one.

“If it can be seen from Highway 1, even for a fraction of a second, you can’t build it,” Jeffers says. “[The TDC program] implements that policy, but it does it in a way that offers some fairness to the landowners.”

To prove the TDC concept, the conservancy bought a property on Kasler Point, west of Highway 1, along with the Victorine parcels in the late 1980s. It then erased the right to build at Kasler Point, creating two development credits the agency intended to leverage into two additional Victorine lots.

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“It was to be a model project to show how TDCs would work, so the view from Highway 1 would be protected,” Coastal Conservancy Project Manager Christopher Kroll says.

But the conservancy never managed to work out a subdivision deal at Victorine Ranch, so it sold the rights to its two TDCs independently at an auction last fall for $50,000 and $75,000.

The agency attempted to auction off its three Victorine parcels too, but it didn’t receive the minimum bids. The parcels are now listed collectively for $4.5 million, with three buildable lots.

“The restrictions the county and the Coastal Commission put on [new homes] does create some nervousness for some people,” says John Saar, broker associate with Sotheby’s International Realty. “I like to get them comfortable with it, because they can be built.”

According to County Planning Department records, eight “donor” sites have been leveraged into 16 TDCs – nine of which have been used – since the program started in 1988.

As for the Coastal Conservancy’s auctioned TDCs: Jeffers says he personally won one of them and flipped it a few months later, and a client won the other. (Jeffers won’t name the two people who now hold the claims.)

For now, they’re just promises on paper. The actual TDCs won’t formally transfer until the County Planning Commission approves the “receiver” sites. “It’s an arcane distinction,” Jeffers says. “I’m kind of proud of it.”

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