Column

How a tiny bird — along with butterflies, and bureaucracy — create a big obstacle for one eco-developer

For decades, two forces — steady and powerful as the tides — have collided on  the California coast.

The desire to build, and the desire to conserve.

The Monterey Bay town of Sand City, population roughly 300, offers the perfect case study.

Developer Ed Ghandour has tried for more than 20 years to get clearance for a 368-unit hotel and condo development on a beachfront sand dune he owns. But the Monterey Bay Shores eco-resort,  as he calls it,  has been blocked by regulatory hurdles and opposition from environmentalists.

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The delays have cost him tens of millions of dollars, and he has scaled his plans back more than once, Ghandour said.   Now he’s done compromising and negotiating with naysayers.

“I am determined to build this project and I anticipate going to grading in the fall,” Ghandour told me. “We are pursuing this aggressively.”

I respect his gumption and understand his frustration, but I also suspect that there may be good reasons the California Coastal Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the threat of a lawsuit all stand in his way.

For weeks now I’ve been telling you the coastal development game is rigged in favor of wealthy developers who hire lawyers and consultants, meet privately with  coastal commissioners, sue if they don’t get their way, and often prevail.

I stand by that, but it’s only fair to let you hear the perspective of someone who owns coastal property and has an urge to build. 

Ghandour agrees that the system is fixed. But as he sees it, it’s developers who are at a disadvantage.

“It’s rigged in a number of ways,” he said.

We had planned to meet at the site, but Ghandour’s wife took ill, so we talked by phone. 

 Environmentalists, Ghandour argued, are the ones with undue influence on Coastal Commission staffers, who review permit applications and make recommendations for or against projects. 

The result, he said, is “staff reports that lack a scientific basis and do not uphold the Coastal Act, but in fact are written to undermine or deny a project.”

Ghandour is not the first developer – or homeowner, for that matter -- who has been exasperated by a cumbersome permit application process that can drag on for years in bureaucratic purgatory or in court. He’s all the more agitated because in his mind, he’s not planning an architectural abomination. He says his creation will be a paragon of green, sustainable design, with living roofs, recycled water and state-of-the-art energy-conservation features. To be fair to him, the coast is littered with projects nowhere near as attractive or eco-minded as what he wants to build.

“Earth, water, air, light, energy, environment and the human experience,” said Ghandour, doing his own PR as he ticked off the considerations built into his blueprints. And he’s going to allow public access to what is currently private property.

Besides all that, he claimed, he’ll be restoring a site damaged by years of sand mining that left a giant pit in the dune. To hear Ghandour tell it, the Coastal Commission and other government agencies ought to be congratulating him.

As Ghandour notes, development is allowed under the Local Coastal Plan approved by the Coastal Commission, and he has prevailed in court on more than one occasion when someone tried to block him from moving forward.

A court agreed with  his assessment that there was no environmentally sensitive habitat on the site, although when it comes to nature, such conditions can and do change. And even the Coastal Commission, after two denials, has given him approval to proceed if he meets certain conditions.

So what stands in Ghandour’s way?

A couple of things, said Dan Carl, Coastal Commission deputy director. First, he said, Ghandour will have to pay roughly $500,000 for road improvements near the site.

But the big obstacle involves a tiny bird.

The western snowy plover nests on the property and is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Ghandour’s resort would result in “the harassment, harm,  injury and mortality of western snowy plovers on and adjacent to the project site,” the Center for Biological Diversity wrote on July 27 in threatening a lawsuit to prevent construction.

The U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service sent an April 1 letter to the Coastal Commission arguing that Ghandour’s project could cause problems for Smith’s blue butterflies and would “likely result in the take of the western snowy plover and … render the area unsuitable for the species.”

The agency said he needed to apply for an  “incidental take permit” and offer a habitat conservation plan.

Ghandour insists  there is no environmentally sensitive habitat on his property.  As for snowy plovers, he said they exist in far greater numbers at nearby beaches. Even so, he said, he’s offered a habitat protection plan and met his obligations. 

The people who are paid to look out for our state’s wildlife disagree.

As I’ve traveled south from Oregon on the 40th anniversary of the Coastal Act that regulates development, I’ve met with botanists, ecologists and coastal stewards,  and I have a greater appreciation of the toll development takes on fragile ecosystems.

I  believe more strongly than ever in erring on the side of protecting what was here before humans dreamed up eco-resorts. And though I get as fed up as the next guy with tangles of red tape, I have trouble accepting that 368 units of hotel  rooms and condos, built next to a marine sanctuary, can deliver a net gain to a sand dune environment or to Californians who won’t be able to afford a room or a condo at Ghandour’s resort. In the end, this may be a good project in a bad location.

Twice now I’ve visited the beach where Ghandour wants to build, each time with Blake Matheson of the Monterey Audubon Society.

On both visits, we saw snowy plovers scurrying about -- little white “snowball” puffs, as Matheson described them.

Ghandour isn’t going to kill off all plovers, Matheson said, just as you can’t wipe out a species “if you shoot a few black rhinos in Kenya.”

“But he doesn’t get to decide,” said Matheson. “The federal government gets to decide. All he has to do is sit down with  the federal government and say, ‘OK, guys, what do you want me to do so I can get my incidental take permit?’” 

No thanks, says Ghandour, insisting he will  be a good steward.

I’d like to believe that he would be. But I say he’s got a little more convincing to do before he brings in the bulldozers and takes away another slice of the vanishing coast.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

steve.lopez@latimes.com | Follow on Twitter: @LATstevelopez

Weigh in at @JerryBrownGov  #SaveYourCoast and (916 445-2841) or email governor@governor.ca.gov.

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