Monterey County General Plan Update

October, 2004 Update to this Page

In May, 2004, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors decided by a 3 to 2 vote to change direction with regard to the Monterey County General Plan Update process. The board decided to stop work on the latest draft (GPU-3) and begin anew. One concern was that GPU-3 was a total rewrite of the 1982 General Plan instead of an "update."

GPU-3 proposed new concepts that would have dramatically impacted land use throughout the county. For example, GPU-3 would have rezoned most of the county to 40 acre minimum parcel size, limited use of existing parcels to a minimum in areas where fire or ambulance service has more than 15 minutes response time, configured affordable housing requirements to strongly discourage affordable housing from being built, restricted use of land containing many commonplace and abundant plant species, precluded private well drilling in areas served by water systems, and more than doubled the minimum parcel size needed to use a septic system in the coastal zone. Numerous policies would have hindered farming in the Salinas Valley.

Responding to public pressure, the Board decided to drop further work on GPU-3, appoint a new team of staff to work on the plan, and directed them to write a plan that is an update of the 1982 plan while considering GPU-3 policies that may be needed to address changes that have occurred since the 1982 plan was written.

The present process consists of planning staff reviewing policies of the 1982 General Plan to see if they have worked and can be retained, or have not worked and should be changed or deleted. After that review, staff will go through GPU-3 to see if there are policies in it that are needed to address changes that have occurred since 1982.

Somewhat paralleling the work of county staff is work by the Refinement Group. After over a year of weekly meetings and more than 5,000 person-hours of work, the Refinement Group recently completed its review of much of GPU-3 and presented their work to the Board of Supervisors. You can read and download the Refinement Group's work from their web site, As of this writing, the Refinement Group has not completed work on the Coastal section of GPU-3. The Refinement Group is also reviewing the 1982 General Plan, to recommend to the county which policies in the 1982 plan it thinks should be retained, changed, or deleted.

As of this writing, the Board of Supervisors have not decided what will happen with area plans such as the Big Sur Coast Land Use Plan.

It appears that much of what happens with the general plan update process will depend upon the outcome of the supervisorial election in November. The 3 to 2 vote on the general plan update process could flip based on results of that election. This because 4th district supervisor Edith Johnsen, who voted to stop work on GPU-3, is retiring. The candidates for her seat seem to have opposing views on what should happen with the plan.

CPOA remains involved in the process, including continuing to participate in the Refinement Group. Your support is appreciated.


The following was originally posted October, 2003


Monterey County has been working on updating its General Plan since late 1999.  For the last couple of years the Board of Supervisors has set a goal of completing the plan by the end of 2003, only to meet resistance from dissatisfied segments of the public.  The third draft has recently been released and it appears that it will remain controversial.

The plan intends that population growth in Monterey County will occur primarily within existing urban areas.  To get that to happen, planners have written a plan designed to make use of rural land so restricted, difficult, and costly that people will opt to live in urban areas.  Some interests in the county like such a plan, others do not.  

Among those who generally support the plan as written are no-growth organizations and conservation groups. Those who think the plan needs changes include farming groups, construction and labor organizations, community organizations, affordable housing advocates, and hospitality organizations.  Some cities are also not pleased with the plan as they have not reached agreement with the County on how and where they are supposed to accommodate the growth the County intends to send their way.  The situation is aggravated by state requirements that county general plans be designed to accommodate a certain amount of new housing to meet the state's future housing needs.

Caught in the crossfire between these competing interests is Big Sur.

The draft General Plan justifies emphasizing city-centered-growth by saying that providing services such as public water, sewers, and storm drains is too expensive per household in areas that have less than urban levels of housing density.  Carmel Valley is cited as an example of an area with too many small parcels to easily accommodate private water supplies, septic systems, and drainage, but not enough housing density to adequately fund public services to eliminate their need.

How Big Sur is Different Than Other Areas in the County

Whatever you think about the need for or wisdom of city-centered-growth, the issue is moot in Big Sur.  Unlike other portions of Monterey County, Big Sur already lacks the capacity for substantial future growth or anything close to Carmel Valley's housing density.  

Some twenty years ago Big Sur was down zoned so the minimum parcel size for almost all of the area is 320 acres.  Only about five new parcels have been created in the 230 square mile Big Sur planning area in the last fifteen years, and the County estimates there is potential for only about twelve more.  There are relatively few unused build able parcels in Big Sur.

Moreover, the County's Big Sur critical view shed policy precludes any development visible from Highway 1 in all but a few exempted areas.  Coastal Commission staff has opined that only four or five unused parcels remain in non-commercial areas exempted from the critical view shed policy.  

As a result, even at total build out of all existing parcels, housing density in the Big Sur planning area will remain at extraordinarily low levels.  With few if any exceptions, density in Big Sur will remain sufficiently low so traditional rural means of dealing with water, sewage, and rain runoff is not an issue.

The justifications for highly restrictive policies designed to ensure city-centered-growth simply do not apply in Big Sur.  Big Sur is not in danger of being caught in a Carmel-Valley-like limbo between urban and rural density.

Rather, the primary concern for the future of Big Sur is whether planning policies intended to restrict growth elsewhere will eventually extinguish our community and change the area forever.

How Big Sur Would be Affected

In 2002, at CPOA's request, Monterey County prepared a report that reveals that about one third of the private land in the Big Sur area has been acquired by various public and quasi-public entities since 1986 (when our last plan was certified).  If conservation easements are included in the calculation only about half of the land that was usable by private landowners in 1986 is usable today.  

This aggressive buyout of the Big Sur community is driven by a number of factors, not the least of which are land use policies that make it so costly and time consuming for people to use their land that they simply give up and sell.  Further fueling the buyout is that some entities have learned to make a substantial business out of buying private land and reselling it to government agencies.  

If, as it appears so far, the General Plan Update further restricts land use in Big Sur and makes it more time consuming and costly, it is reasonable to assume that owners will be even more motivated to sell out to public and quasi-public entities.  If present land acquisition trends continue, it is only a matter of time before the Big Sur community is no more.

Big Sur was pioneered before California's statehood.  The community has evolved into a wonderfully diverse mix of people with radically divergent personal and political philosophies, economic status and livelihoods.  All drawn together with a common appreciation of the wonder of this place.  It is a unique community that deserves to be valued and encouraged, not dismissed and disappeared.

Big Sur is not only a spectacularly beautiful place, but it is one of the few such places that remains part of the real world.  Visitors are not overly managed but are free to discover and explore.  The Big Sur experience is not just the views, but the entirety of what it feels like to be here.  The Big Sur community is often the only voice urging officialdom to keep their hands off, and leave the Big Sur experience as it is.

Unreasonably restrictive polices in the GPU threaten both the continued well being of the Big Sur community and the future experience of millions of people who visit the area each year. 

What Needs to Change

The mind set of policy makers must change before plan policies will change.  Policy makers have long been focused on protecting resources.  The time has come when they must also begin protecting the Big Sur community.  Big Sur is threatened by over regulation, not by over development or destruction of resources.

There are encouraging signs that such a change has begun to take place.  For example, the most recent draft of the General Plan Update recognizes the community in Big Sur as a "Special Coastal Community".  This coastal-act-based designation may be used as the basis for policies designed to end the buyout.  Indeed, GPU-3 includes language directed at ending the buyout by establishing criteria for public acquisition of land in the area.  

Unfortunately, GPU-3 fails to offer alternatives to acquisition for vast areas, or to state that acquisition should be considered only as a last alternative.  CPOA's position is that acquisition should be a last choice if other methods can be used to achieve resource protection.

Also unfortunately, unreasonably restrictive land use policies remain in GPU-3.  Hence the motivation for landowners to sell out continues.  Without addressing this side of the buyout equation the buyout too will likely continue.   

What CPOA is Doing

CPOA has worked with Big Sur's Land Use Advisory Committees to recommend General Plan changes to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.  We will continue this effort.  We also continue to meet with the Refinement Group.

The Refinement Group was formed in late 2003 by the Board of Supervisors for the purpose of resolving controversial policies in the draft General Plan.  The Refinement Group was composed of representatives from about 25 organizations when formed, shortly increased to about 30.  As a result of action by concerned Big Sur citizens, CPOA was among the groups added to the Refinement Group.  

The Refinement Group lost county sponsorship after funding ran out and it had failed to reach consensus.  Nevertheless, after encouragement by individual supervisors and county staff, a majority of the membership continues to meet to develop specific policy changes to recommend to the Board of Supervisors.  You can visit the Refinement Group's web site at

What You Can Do

The latest draft of the General Plan was released in January 2004.  Consider reading it.  It is much like a constitution for Monterey county.  You can download it free from the County's GPU-3 web site (a fast connection is needed for the large files).  You can get free copies on CDROM at county planning offices and from Supervisor Dave Potter's office in the Aguajito courthouse (email, phone (831) 647-7755).  Hard copies are available at county planning offices at a cost of $45.

CPOA has a committee to receive community input on this draft and take it to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors; email us and let us know if you are interested in participating.  Attend county hearings and express your views.

If you are a resident or landowner in Big Sur, join CPOA.  Provide us your email address so we can keep you informed and can contact you when issues require quick action.

If you don't live in Big Sur, but have visited the area and appreciate the real-world experience of being here, we need your help as well.  All too frequently, policy makers justify their actions as being what the public wants.  We often know the public feels differently, but are pressed for a way of demonstrating it.  In years gone by visitors have signed petitions and answered surveys supporting CPOA positions.  The Internet now makes it possible for us to reach you on an ongoing basis, and for you to reach us.

If you support CPOA's position that the Big Sur community is a valuable resource, and that the Big Sur area should remain much as it is, please send us an email stating your support and letting us know if you would like to be kept informed on local issues.  Let us know if you would consider sending letters of support on specific issues as they arise in the future.

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