Ballot Boxing


To say Ted Hunter feels betrayed by Pebble Beach Company would be an understatement. "I''m damn mad," snorts the 18-year Pebble Beach homeowner.

Hunter''s blood is boiling over a ballot initiative the company is sponsoring to change the Del Monte Forest Land Use Plan and zoning ordinance, both complex documents that determine how land within the forest can be developed. And Hunter has his reasons. For two years in the early ''80s, he served on a committee that painstakingly worked out the details of the current land use plan. But now, if the company''s initiative is passed by Monterey County voters in November, that plan will be instantly altered.

"It''s throwing out the zoning and our land use plan that governs the forest," he says. "This initiative is saying, ''To hell with you guys, we''re going to do it our way, it''s our land.''"

Nevertheless, it looks like the initiative is on the way to the November ballot. Pebble Beach''s development consultant Alan Williams says the company has so far secured some 20,000 signatures, twice what they needed to qualify it for the ballot. The signatures now go to the county Registrar of Voters for verification.

The initiative would pave the way for the company''s plan to build the forest''s eighth golf course, 150-170 new hotel rooms, 60 employee housing units, 24 golf cottages and 38 private homes. The initiative would not approve the project itself--the development would still be subject to environmental review, public hearings and a vote by the county board of supervisors. But it would change the zoning and the land use plan to reflect the project.

At an acrimonious meeting on Monday, July 10, members of the Del Monte Forest Property Owners--the closest thing residents of the unincorporated forest have to a city council--echoed Hunter''s frustrations with the initiative as well as the fact that the company failed to inform property owners, who are concerned about protecting their investment and quality of life, of its intent to circulate the petition.

The process itself is troublesome to many people. Some forest dwellers abhor the idea of their land use plan being changed by an initiative written by company-paid attorneys and voted on by citizens from Aromas to Bradley--people who have no stake, financial or emotional, in the forest.

Moreover, initiatives are generally considered to be a risky way to conduct land-use planning. "It''s a terrible way to make land-use decisions," says San Jose State University political science professor Terry Christensen. "Land-use decisions have so many implications. Those really need to be balanced by professional planners and checked by elected officials."

"We hope this won''t become a precedent for land-use planning in Monterey County," said property owners'' association boardmember Hank Mauz on Monday.

Yet Pebble''s new plan does look attractive, even to those who generally oppose development. The new plan replaces the highly controversial Pebble Beach Lot Plan, developed under previous company ownership, in which a golf course and 316 homes spread throughout the forest were to be built.

Under the new plan, the hotel rooms and housing would be built in already-disturbed areas, causing comparatively less disturbance to the fragile Monterey Pine forest, which is besieged by pitch canker. And 425 acres of Monterey Pine forest habitat would be permanently dedicated as open forest space. Under open forest space designation, nothing but trails could ever be cut through the trees.

In what was coined by one boardmember as a "process versus product" argument, the property owners'' board struggled to come up with an official position on the initiative on Monday. A motion to object to the "method" of using a ballot initiative for land-use planning was narrowly defeated by a 5-6-1 vote. Finally, after two hours of discussion, a motion to support "the direction of Pebble Beach Company as evidenced by the initiative," but not necessarily the initiative itself, passed the board 7-4-1. A third motion to "publicly express outrage" toward the initiative, via press releases and a letter to county Supervisor Dave Potter, failed 1-11.

Power of the Pebble...er...People

Consultant Alan Williams, who made a presentation to the property owners on Monday, says the new owners of Pebble Beach Company chose to go with an initiative in an effort to seek the public''s advice. The 125-member "billionaire''s club" consortium, including the highly visible Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer, and Peter Ueberroth, bought the company last year for $820 million.

"There have been so many owners and so many plans over the years," Williams says. "We want to zone it now so everyone knows this is it. They know all this open space is going to be there forever.

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"We''d rather call the question openly, straightforwardly," he says.

While Williams touts the company''s openness, he also readily admits the initiative is a business decision. In the long run, Pebble Beach stands to reap more revenue--a projected $25 million per year--from the hotel rooms than from one-time sales of residential lots. By writing the land use plan themselves, company owners get to craft the land use plan the way they want it, and voters have to accept it as is or not at all. If the voters reject it, Pebble Beach can resuscitate its original plan.

And, by changing the zoning at the ballot box, the company avoids the possibility of having its golf course/hotel project, if subsequently approved by the county Board of Supervisors, overturned by a voter referendum. Referenda only apply when elected officials change policy, such as zoning, not when they approve individual projects.

In another scenario the supervisors could choose to adopt the initiative as an ordinance before it goes to the ballot, thus opening it up to referendum, but Supervisor Potter says that probably won''t happen. "To do this by ordinance is not what the supervisors are looking for, which is the public''s advice," he says.

Williams says he''s taken aback at the level of controversy already swirling around the initiative. But given the level of mistrust some residents have for the Pebble Beach Company in its various incarnations (forest dwellers lament they were promised years ago that Spanish Bay would be the last commercial development), the level of acrimony should come as no surprise.

And unfortunately for Pebble Beach Company, the small army of professional petitioners stationed outside supermarkets and discount stores, where they''ve been beckoning registered voters to "save Del Monte Forest," have offered the public the first taste of the new company owners'' attempt at openness. Unless pressed, victims report, the clipboard-wielding signature gatherers conveniently skip over the "technical stuff," like the hotel rooms and golf cottages and the golf course.

In the end, if the initiative is rejected by voters in November, the company can still forge ahead with the original 316-home residential development as allowed by the current zoning.

That''s exactly what the Del Monte Forest dwellers don''t want, which, in this high-stakes game, leaves Pebble Beach Company holding all the cards.

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