Pitched battle over pines, Big Sur

Published March 2004 in The Carmel Pine Cone - written by Paul Miller

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, eight 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.


Coast Property Owners Association, P.O. Box 59, Big Sur, CA 93920
© 2004 by Coast Property Owners Association