Coastal planner gets an earful in Big Sur

- 'Ridiculous, silly' idea of protecting views from ocean said to be based on 'blatant lie'

By PAUL MILLER

Published: April 2, 2004

AN ANGRY crowd of Big Sur residents confronted a planner from the California Coastal Commission Tuesday night, demanding he back down from a recommendation that houses built in most of the highly scenic area be screened so they don’t disturb views of the land from boats.

An overflow crowd at a meeting room in Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park also derided a recommendation from coastal planner Rick Hyman that stretches of “maritime chaparral” — a mix of plants present on almost every south-facing hillside in Big Sur — be declared “environmentally sensitive habitat,” making them off-limits to nearly all development.

“The highly restrictive policies we already have make it practically impossible for people to use their land, and now you want to add even more stringent policies,” said Mike Caplin, president of the Coast Property Owners Association. “We can’t build anywhere that can be seen from the highway and now you want to add the ocean? It’s killing our community.”

(Caplin’s organization — on the internet at www.cpoabigsur.org — has emerged as a political force in Big Sur, with its warnings that the human community is in danger of disappearing in the face of ever-increasing land use rules and aggressive acquisition of private land by the government.)

Hyman, whose comments indicated he is solely responsible for many of the proposed changes to Monterey County land use laws presented at a coastal commission meeting in December, agreed that Big Sur is a “great place” and said he had no “ill intentions” toward the people who live there. But he was hard-pressed to defend the idea that protecting a fisherman’s view of the coast outweighed a property owner’s right to look at the sea.

“In the last 15 years, protecting views from the ocean is something that’s come on the coastal commission’s radar screen,” Hyman said.

The “boating community” expressed its appreciation that its views were considered during a recent permit hearing in San Luis Obispo County, Hyman added.

“I heard [coastal commission executive director] Peter Douglas say that at the meeting last month in Monterey, and I think it’s a blatant lie,” said Bob Cross, a Big Sur realtor. He said there are very few boats off the treacherous, sparsely populated Big Sur coast and that he would only apologize to Douglas if he could substantiate the claim that boaters have complained.

“There’s a cargo ship on the horizon about once a week, and a scuba divers’ boat about once a month, and that’s about it,” said Wendy Ryter, whose Otter Cove home overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

Monterey County supervisor and coastal commissioner Dave Potter sided with the Big Sur residents, telling The Pine Cone the proposal to protect views from the ocean didn’t pass the “laugh test,” and that the commission had already decided that the ocean isn’t a public viewing area, especially in a remote place such as Big Sur.

“We’ve said the view from the ocean isn’t protected by the Coastal Act, but staff keeps bringing it up,” Potter said.

“I was in the Merchant Marine in World War II and I’ve spent a lot of time at sea,” said Big Sur resident Leland Lewis, whose somber observations suddenly quieted the room. “The most heartwarming thing for a sailor is to raise a coast and see a church spire or a house, hopefully with smoke curling from a chimney. The idea that the viewshed from the sea should be regulated is just silly.”

“We didn’t say a new home had to be invisible, we said it should be in character with nearby development or, if it’s isolated, it should be screened,” Hyman said.

But his words were not reassuring.

“If it’s screened, that means you can’t see the ocean from your home,” one audience member called out.

Caplin called for an impromptu show of hands on the issue of protecting views from the ocean. Only one person in the room supported the proposed new policy.

A few minutes later, another show of hands on the issue of protecting “maritime chaparral” drew unanimous opposition, despite claims from Hyman that only “central maritime chaparral” in the northern part of Big Sur would be considered off-limits, based on the work of a scientist in Moss Landing.

“The definition is so vague, it can be anywhere you say it is,” Caplin complained.

“If you’re trying to have one biologist in the world be the expert, wisdom would say shoot him tomorrow so he doesn’t come down here,” Cross said.

But another property owner, Arden Handshy, said it was already too late to stop Hyman’s proposal — that central maritime chaparral be declared ESHA — from going into effect.

“The county is already enforcing it, and if you have any maritime chaparral on your property, it triggers a very expensive permit process,” Handshy said.


Not endangered, but rare

Hyman’s position on maritime chaparral echoed his position on the Monterey pine — that subtypes of otherwise plentiful species and unusual combinations of common plants can warrant protection in their various historic ranges.

Everyone agrees the Monterey pine is one of the most plentiful trees in the world, for example, but it should be guarded by state law in its remaining native stands, according to Hyman.

At a meeting Monday evening at The Crossroads shopping center, he explained the policy to a small group of residents from Carmel and Pebble Beach.

“The Monterey pine forest isn’t just the trees. It’s all the plants and animals that go with them,” Hyman said. “The county’s policies have tended to disregard small trees, but research shows they have value, especially when it comes to genetic diversity.”

He acknowledged that there are “loads of Monterey pines” around the world, but said it was the “ever-shrinking native pine forest that is important.”

Bill Conners, a member of the board of directors of the Del Monte Forest Property Owners association, countered that even in native pine forests, “if you’re looking at a tree that was born in the last 60 years, there’s a good chance it’s been cross-pollinated with a landscape tree,” eroding the difference between native stands and tree farms.

“There’s probably nothing that hasn’t been changed and, over time, there are natural changes, too,” Hyman acknowledged. “So you have to make a judgment, and we said for the pine forest it does deserve protection. But we didn’t say every tree.”

He made no mention of a discredited claim, repeatedly made in coastal commission staff reports until the end of February, that 85 percent of pines in Monterey County would die of pitch canker.

Still, the pine’s other unique attributes, and the fact that it lives in five “coastal terraces” on the Monterey Peninsula — each with its own geological and biological features — make it worthy of protection by the coastal commission and Monterey County, Hyman said.

His proposal, if adopted, would probably make it impossible for the Pebble Beach Company to build the new golf course it has proposed at the site of the equestrian center. Rezoning for that golf course was approved by voters in 2000 but still must be OK’d by the coastal commission.

Hyman said his proposals for changes to Monterey County’s coastal land use laws would be submitted to county planners for inclusion in the county’s general plan update process, which has already dragged on for years and which faces an uncertain future because of widely divergent views on what the plan should contain.

“First of all, the county has to finish the general plan. But they may decide not to finish,” Hyman said.