Coastal commission staff: Most P.B. land cannot be developed

By KELLY NIX

Published: March 10, 2006

THE PINE forest of the Monterey Peninsula has dodged the threat of pitch canker but is still in “great peril,” according to the staff of the California Coastal Commission, and should be off-limits to most development — including a golf course proposed by the Pebble Beach Company.

Speaking to a packed house at the Monterey Hyatt Thursday, senior coastal commission biologist John Dixon said the loss of native Monterey pine forest habitat is a “serious and unrelenting threat” to the survival of the tree and several other species.

“In my opinion,” Dixon said. “The [area slated for the golf course] could be the poster child for the existence of environmentally sensitive habitat [ESHA] in the coastal zone.”

But Pebble Beach Co. co-owner Peter Ueberroth told commissioners his company’s plan should be approved because it includes unprecedented protection for the most vital parts of the pine forest. If it’s turned down, he said, the forest would be susceptible to even greater development projects decades from now.

“I believe in my heart there will be more Monterey pines in the next 20-year period if this plan goes through than if it doesn’t,” Ueberroth said.

Commissioners, including Monterey County 5th District Supervisor Dave Potter, made no decision whether to let a P.B. Co.-sponsored ballot measure approved by Monterey County voters five years ago take effect. Instead, they spent most of the day fielding concerns about the proposal. A crowd of about 300 spilled out into the hallways outside the meeting.

The P.B. Co.’s proposed development, officially dubbed “The Del Monte Forest Plan: Forest Preservation and Development Limitations,” includes an 18-hole golf course, driving range, equestrian center, 160 hotel rooms, underground parking at the Lodge and Spanish Bay, 60 new employee residences, 34 residential lots and road and infrastructure improvements.

The company has said the initiative encompasses all of its remaining undeveloped land in the Forest, limiting the amount of homes that can be built there. Existing zoning would allow up to 900 homes on the same land.

On Wednesday, commissioners took a bus tour through Del Monte Forest to see firsthand the roughly 600 acres in two dozen locations that would be affected by the proposed development. Several protesters also followed the tour, displaying signs at each of the stops.

What is ESHA?

During a lengthy presentation, Dixon and other coastal commission staff members argued that Monterey pines are “rare and seriously endangered,” and that essentially all their native range must therefore be considered ESHA. The commission itself has never endorsed this idea.
And they have a good reason not to, according to Salinas attorney Anthony Lombardo, who represents the P.B. Co.

“Monterey pine is the most populous tree on the planet,” he said. “The pine isn’t in danger of going extinct in California or anywhere else. The Monterey pine is not rare and endangered and coexists quite well with human activity, and it can’t be ESHA.”

Dixon, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists contend that besides the Monterey pine, numerous other animal and plant species, such as Yadon’s piperia and the California red-legged frog will be in danger if the development goes through.

But Lombardo showed slides indicating Yadon’s piperia actually thrives in seemingly harsh areas outside Del Monte Forest, including at the Monterey Peninsula Airport.

“This is a very hearty plant,” he said.

County’s approval ‘illegal’

Peter Douglas, the coastal commission’s executive director, denounced the county for approving the P.B. Co. development plan last year without giving the commission the chance to weigh in on the ballot measure.

In fact, the county’s approval of the project was illegal because “it was using a standard that had no legal effect.”

Also, he said standards for ESHA in the existing Del Monte Forest Local Coastal Program are not relevant to approval of the P.B. Co.’s plan today.

“Our position has always been you have to take the resource as it exists on the ground at the time we have the project before us,” Douglas said. “What is on the ground today is what has to be taken into account in terms of ESHA.”

‘Very biased’ report?

In a brief statement, Clint Eastwood, who is also a co-owner of the P.B. Co., said people have commented to him that the “New York phone book”-sized coastal commission staff report was “very biased against the Del Monte Forest program.”

But that was not a big problem, he said, as long as the company’s proposal got a fair shake.

“We never wanted anything more from any of the various agencies we have been through, other than a fair hearing,” Eastwood said. “We are quite confident we will get a fair hearing here.”

“This is best for long term, the real long term,” Ueberroth said.

Despite assurances, Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club’s California Coastal Program, told The Pine Cone his organization believes the Monterey pine forest will be harmed by the P.B. Co.’s plans. “Measure A will result in less Monterey pine forest and fewer trees, both upon construction and in future decades,” he said.

Seated next to each other before the meeting began, Rolf Trautsch, a Pacific Grove investment advisor, and John Honeywell, a Carmel stockbroker, had a civil but firm debate about Pebble Beach Company’s plans.

“I’m basically here so I can do what I can to preserve what’s left of the Monterey forest,” Honeywell said. “And try to protect the habitat from further encroachment by developers who have strictly their own financial benefit in mind instead of the interests of the citizens of Monterey County.”

Trautsch, on the other hand, said critics of the project, like Honeywell, are losing sight of its overall benefit to local residents. “I’m concerned about the lack of understanding by so many people about the issue,” he said. “I hope they approve it. Because this issue is not so much about trees, but about the continued future economic growth of the Monterey Peninsula.”

About 120 members of the public signed up to address commissioners at Thursday’s meeting about the development.

In June, the coastal commission will revisit the topic and could make a ruling on Measure A.

If it insists on changes, those changes will have to go back to the voters of Monterey County before they can take effect, Douglas said.