Motorists driving along Highway 1 toward Big Sur are invariably moved by the spectacular beauty of the coastline, where green mountains tumble toward the wild Pacific and elephant seals bark in the distance.
“I live in fear daily, thinking ‘My God, how long can this last?”’ says resident Pat Veesart.
Not much longer, some say, if the Hearst Corp. builds a 638-acre resort along one of the last undeveloped stretches of coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The California Coastal Commission is set to vote Thursday on proposed changes to a local land-use plan that would allow the development near the town of San Simeon. The $100 million resort would include 650 guest units, an equestrian center, hiking trails and an 18-hole golf course.
The San Simeon region remains largely untouched save for Hearst Castle, the 165-room, hilltop mansion built in the 1920s by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. The castle was turned over to the state in 1957 and draws a million visitors a year.
The resort issue pits environmentalists and family ranchers against a $5 billion New York-based media conglomerate that carries a name long synonymous with Old California.
“I grew up in Southern California and saw what happened with rampant development, which basically destroyed a beautiful coastline in California,” said Geof Land of the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo. “Now we have a chance to protect the central coast from that kind of development, and the Hearst project doesn’t respect that. They’re out to maximize the value of their land.”
The commission’s own staff opposes the development.
Hearst lawyers say the development will create up to 1,000 jobs and $13 million a year in tax revenue for San Luis Obispo County, a region in need of economic salvation. They point out that the project will consume only 1 percent of the 77,000 acres the company owns at the southern gateway to the Big Sur coast.
“I think we’ve shown a lot of restraint in what we’re asking to develop,” said Philip Battaglia, a Hearst lawyer.
Yet residents fear the project will open the door to development throughout the region and destroy the reason many come to live and visit: escape from the urban hubs to the north and south.
“What the commission decides will send a strong signal that the coastline is for sale to the highest bidder, or that the Coastal Commission is standing up for coastal protection,” Land said.
Hearst maintains their fears are unwarranted.
“We will never ask for more,” Battaglia said. “All the rest will be left for agricultural operations. A lot of people are afraid of what will happen, but if you use that argument, we wouldn’t have any development anywhere.”
William Randolph Hearst’s father, mining magnate George Hearst, bought the land in 1865 for ranching.
Since then, and since the days when William Randolph Hearst ran the San Francisco Examiner, the privately held Hearst Corp. has grown into a company with newspapers, television stations, a publishing company, magazines, and ranching operations in the San Simeon area.
The Coastal Commission’s analysts determined last month that the resort development would violate the 1976 Coastal Act, designed to protect the state’s 1,100-mile coastline.
The area’s scant fresh water supply, its threatened species and its unobstructed vistas all argue against such a big development, the analysts said.
“This entire sweep of unspoiled landscape can be viewed by the public in a continuously unfolding panorama along Highway 1,” their report said. “Even a relatively small amount of visible modern development would be intrusive and would significantly degrade the sense of an essentially innocent landscape.”
Instead, the commission staffers recommended that Hearst be allowed to build 375 hotel units at old San Simeon village, which serves visitors to the castle.
Ranchers fear even that limited project would mean the beginning of the end, that land prices would become so steep their family operations would no longer be able to afford the taxes.
“If they don’t start saving our industry, we’re all in trouble,” said Betty Fiscalini, whose family has raised cattle on 3,000 acres near the Hearst Ranch for 125 years. “We’re the ones feeding the country. It’s one decision at a time that starts the dominoes falling.”
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