Pitched battle over pines, Big Sur


Published: March 19, 2004

FACED WITH a recommendation from the coastal commission staff that hundreds of acres of native Monterey pines be protected under state law — a measure which, if enacted, would probably make it impossible for his company to build the new golf course it wants in Del Monte Forest — Pebble Beach Company co-owner Peter Ueberroth went to the California Coastal Commission Thursday to ask it to respect the voters’ endorsement of the golf course plan three years ago.

“We got a two-thirds yes vote in the county, and almost a 70 percent yes vote from residents of Del Monte Forest,” Ueberroth said. The result was overwhelming, he said, because voters recognized that eliminating hundreds of homesites in favor of a golf course — a tradeoff incorporated in Measure A on the November 2000 ballot — was a good deal for them and the environment.

“We looked at the plan [for about 350 homes] submitted by our predecessors and decided it wouldn’t work, so we formulated a plan that would be best for our visitors, our residents, our community and the environment,” Ueberroth said.

He and the fellow owners of the P.B. Co., including former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood and golf legend Arnold Palmer, proposed Measure A, Ueberroth said, “because it was the only way to protect the forest from future development and possible future ownership changes.” Undoing Measure A would take another vote of the people, which would be an insurmountable obstacle to new development, he said.

“What the ballot measure did was take several hundred acres zoned for homes and rezone it for open space,” said Mark Stilwell, executive vice president of the P.B. Co. “It reduced residential density from 890 homes to 38.”

“Pebble Beach needs to be preserved for generations to come — for my great-grandchildren and your great-grandchildren to enjoy,” Ueberroth told commissioners at their meeting at the Monterey Hyatt.

His comments came as the coastal commission took a detailed look at proposals for wide-ranging changes in Monterey County zoning laws sought by the commission’s staff.

Kelly Cuffe, a planner in the Santa Cruz office, told commissioners remaining indigenous Monterey pine forest should be classified as Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, triggering special protection under state law, because the pines’ habitat has been reduced from 19,000 acres in Monterey County to about 8,000 acres.

The P.B. plan is for about 100 acres of trees to be cut to make room for the new course, while putting almost 500 acres, presently zoned for homes, into a forest preserve.

Rare plants

But “Monterey pine forest, which is also home to 19 other rare plants, is threatened from residential and golf course development, encroachment of invasive species and fire suppression,” Cuffe said. Subspecies of the pine, which grow on separate “coastal terraces” in Del Monte Forest, need individual protection, she argued. Also, the fungal disease called pine pitch canker has put the pine under “significant stress,” making the ESHA designation warranted.

Her comments were endorsed by local residents Janice O’Brien, Mary Anne Matthews and Joyce Stevens, who strongly urged the commission to safeguard remaining native Monterey pines.

Thousands of trees have already been lost because the pine forest isn’t protected enough under existing law, O’Brien said, including a 1986 coastal commission decision that allowed up to 900 homes in Pebble Beach — a “critical omission” the commission should “act now” to fix, she added.

But coastal commission staffers backed away from claims made at their meeting last month in San Diego that up to 85 percent of pines would be killed by pitch canker.

“We do recognize that there’s evidence it might not be that bad,” said Charles Lester, district director of the commission’s staff on the Central Coast. “The point is there’s significant uncertainty about the future of the species, so it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

“I would really like staff to get us the most recent scientific information on the health of the forest and vet it in a way that gives us some confidence,” said coastal commission chair Mike Reilly. “If that hasn’t been true in the past, let’s make sure it’s true in the future,” he added, apparently referring to statements last week from a host of the state’s top scientists that the coastal commission staff has greatly exaggerated the danger that pitch canker could wipe out the Monterey pine species.

A consultant for the P.B. Co, Mike Zander, was blunt that the “doomsday scenario” offered by the commission’s staff was based on science that was out of date and had not been “objectively assessed.”

“In many areas of [Del Monte] Forest, substantial pitch canker symptoms have not even been found” more than 12 years after the disease first appeared in Monterey County, Zander told the coastal commission.

Jack Kidder, president of the Del Monte Forest Property Owners association, also said his group doesn’t support the classification of all remaining native Monterey pine forest as ESHA.

“We endorsed the P.B. Co. plan because it preserves the largest contiguous pine forest and strictly limits new home development,” Kidder said.

Big Sur objections

The debate over the Monterey pine was interwoven with an equally impassioned debate over the coastal commission’s plans for Big Sur, where increased viewshed protection — including from public trails and from the ocean — has been proposed, along with classification of vast areas of “coastal chaparral” as ESHA. Some residents of the highly scenic area said the rules made them an endangered species.

“Your staff wants to take the existing rules, which are already the most stringent in the nation, and make them more strict,” said Mike Caplin, president of the Coast Property Owners Association. “We are being protected to death and if you want me to, I’ll get on my knees and beg you to direct your staff to rewrite the [proposed new rules for Big Sur] to take into account in a meaningful way the preservation of the Big Sur residential community.”

Coastal commissioner and Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, who was reelected in last week’s primary to another four-year term representing the district that includes Big Sur, seemed to agree with Caplin.

“If I had my way, we would not touch the Big Sur LCP [Local Coastal Program],” Potter said. “It has been a model for the state and for the nation, and why we would want to rewrite it, I don’t know.”

He called Big Sur an “incredible community” and warned it could be “regulated out of existence.”

Coastal planner Lee Otter agreed that land use regulations in effect in Big Sur for 20 years have largely been a success.

“Two-hundred-sixty-nine vacant parcels remain along the Big Sur coast, but only 35 are in what we call the critical viewshed, and the inventory of available lots has actually been reduced over 20 years,” Otter said. “No new subdivisions have been created, and just three new homes are partially visible from Highway 1.”

Some remodels and additions have been too big, Otter added, but the “critical viewshed policy is a success and Monterey County has done a good job of limiting development,” necessitating just a few changes to existing law.

Executive director Peter Douglas defended the idea of adding rules to protect views of the coast from the ocean, an idea decried by some Big Sur residents.

“The boating community is a constituency whose use of ocean space has to be taken into account,” he said. “We’ve heard from them about the value of rural views from the sea.”

After more than two hours of debate about Monterey County’s coastal land use laws, the commission took no action. All the proposals from the coastal commission staff for new regulations will be offered as suggestions for the county’s updated general plan, Lester said. Two public hearings — March 29 in Carmel and March 30 in Big Sur — will provide additional opportunities to voice opinions about the proposals.

“There are items which are controversial, and I’m hoping that through the county’s general plan process, we can work out a great deal of those,” Reilly concluded.

Highway plan approved over homeowners' objections


DESPITE HEATED debate and wrangling that lasted into the early evening, the Coast Highway Management Plan was ratified Monday by its steering committee. The document is supposed to help reopen Highway 1 after storm damage and protect Big Sur scenery, but some Big Sur residents say it goes too far.

Several changes to limit the scope of the CHMP suggested by Coast Property Owners Association President Mike Caplin were not accepted by the rest of the 18-member committee. He declined to sign off on the plan, which was finalized despite his objections.

“This is majority rule today,” said Alan Perlmutter of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, who attended the meeting at Hudson House near Pt. Lobos. If decisions had to be made unanimously, “we would still be on the first item,” he said.

Caplin, whose organization fears the wide-ranging CHMP will bring an added layer of bureaucracy to the Big Sur community, said the best residents can hope for is to have a greater voice in the future.

“My single biggest problem is that the boundaries of the highway corridor aren’t defined, but the majority of the steering committee seems to be fine with that,” he said.

After the document is amended to include changes adopted at the meeting, it will be submitted to the Big Sur Multi-Agency Advisory Council, which will then recommend the make-up of an oversight group to help guarantee the CHMP is implemented.

“We tailored the plan to meet local needs,” maintained Caltrans’ Aileen Loe, adding that she is not aware of any other highway management plan in the country prepared with so much input.

Caltrans initiated the CHMP after storms in 1983 and 1998 caused landslides and months-long closures along sections of Highway 1. The initial goal of the plan — which covers the 75-mile stretch of the world-famous road from San Carpoforo Creek near San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County to the Carmel River — was to get the road open more quickly after future storms.

Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter said the document is advisory and doesn’t impose any new rules on property owners.

But Caplin’s fears were realized Thursday when the coastal commission staff said it wanted to see many of the highway management plan’s recommendations added to the Monterey County Local Coastal Plan.

“The CHMP is not a regulatory document, but that doesn’t mean valuable parts of it should not be included in the county’s LCP,” said Charles Lester, district director of the coastal commission.

Caplin also complained that many of the concerns residents raised in letters sent to Loe were ignored, including objections to the corridor’s vaguely defined boundaries. And Caplin said the language that requires the restoration of the highway’s “scenic quality” could be used to tell landowners they can’t build on their land, or allow the government to purchase and subsequently raze their homes.

“The background reports in the plan talk about how residences and roads to residences detract from the scenery, and we’re saying, ‘No they don’t. They’re evidence of the existence of the community,’” he added.

He also stated during the meeting that the Big Sur community is “struggling for survival” in the face of increasing public-agency buyouts of private property.

“It’s like a chess game down here,” he said. “Every time there’s an acquisition, it’s a move on the chess board, and the people who live here know it and they feel the pressure.”