The California Coastal Commission's recent approval of a new land-use plan was supposed to put an end to a decade of political squabbling about the future of this spectacular coastal region--a solution intended to be as eternal as the redolent chaparral or the raucous duet of sea lions and surf here.
It was 10 days ago that the commission smacked the last requisite rubber stamp on the "Big Sur Coast Land Use Plan," 131 single-spaced pages that spell out what may-- and may not-- be developed along more than 70 miles of California 1 from Carmel to the San Luis Obispo County line.
Limits on Homes, Hotels
The plan sets stringent standards that virtually prohibit any development in the Big Sur "viewshed," essentially anything visible from California 1. There are limits on the number of new homes that can be built in the area (845 in addition to the 600 that exist), on the development of inns and hotels (between 130 and 300 new rooms in addition to the 168 that exist) and even on the number of seats in any new or expanded restaurant (120). No future hotel could have more than 30 rooms.
But as things have turned out, planning for Big Sur's future is not as certain as the jagged coastal mountains which fall so abruptly to the sea. Planning never has been. Big Sur's future, it appears, will remain unsettled for a while longer because two developments have interfered:
- Without any advance notification to local Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), Monterey County officials or local residents, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) introduced early last month a bill that would clamp federal development controls on Big Sur. Wilson said the bill adopts and strengthens provisions of the coastal commission's land-use plan, but many local residents and officials fear Wilson's legislation could result in a system in which the U.S. secretary of agriculture emerges as the de facto emperor of Big Sur.
Some residents charge Wilson and the Republican Party are playing politics with the Big Sur coast, trying for a preemptive strike to thwart election-year criticism that the GOP is the party of developers, mining interests and environmental villains.
Wilson says politics has nothing to do with it; that his motivation comes strictly from a deep commitment to preserving Big Sur. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) has endorsed Wilson's bill, which is similar to one that Cranston and Panetta supported in 1980.
"He (Wilson) maybe figured, 'What the hell, it's only a thousand people (that vote) down there,' " said Bob Bussinger, general manager of the Ventana Inn and restaurant and president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce.
"I am not convinced anymore that handing an area like Big Sur to any federal entity is the way to protect it," Panetta said, acknowledging that his ideas on the subject have changed considerably in six years. "My sense is that Big Sur is unique. The question you have to start off with is 'What makes sense for protecting Big Sur?' Can the local community and the various (county and state) agencies work together, or do you need to inject a whole new entity?"
Wilson's move caught local officials by surprise. "It (the timing) struck me as odd," said Sam Karas, chairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. "I think Wilson rekindled an issue that we thought was settled."
Said Will Shaw, president of the Big Sur Foundation, a private group supporting environmental causes, "I thought it was dumb politically, as good as the bill may be in terms of protecting Big Sur. The way it was done created suspicion and diversion."
Jim Josoff, head of the Friends of the Big Sur Coast, a group of private landowners that has fought additional federal authority in the area, suggested that, under the Wilson plan--which would make Big Sur a national scenic area--California 1 could be overrun with more than 16 million visitors a year, the attendance of the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.
Big Sur currently attracts about 3 million visitors a year--a figure estimated to increase to 4.5 million within 10 years, putting Big Sur on the same level as the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. The land-use plan suggests that traffic signals at the north and south ends of Big Sur may become necessary to regulate access.
May Set a Precedent
- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide what could be one of the most important cases of this century in terms of the division of power in land-use control between the federal government and the states. The case turns on the future of a limestone mine on the back side of Pico Blanco, one of the most beautiful mountains in Big Sur. At issue is the constitutionality of an 1872 federal mining law that currently makes it impossible to enforce state environmental standards on mining operations on federal land.
From the perspective of environmentalists, having the Supreme Court involve itself in Big Sur represents a potentially serious gamble. California is seeking authority over mining operations on federal land, so stricter state standards can be enforced. It is joined by nine other states, including several--Arizona, Utah, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming--identified with the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in which states have sought to diminish federal land-use regulation (in some cases to dilute existing federal strictures).
The Mine and the Forest
The court will not hear arguments in the case until late next fall. But whatever the ruling, observers here believe it could alter the balance of regulatory power, affecting not only Big Sur but every other state where controversy may exist over mining of federal land. A ruling in the state's favor could restrict mining in Big Sur, some environmentalists fear, but expand such operations elsewhere. The Wilson legislation would exempt from its provisions any mining project that already has filed a legal claim--which the Pico Blanco limestone mine has done.
The case involves the Granite Rock Co. of Watsonville, owner of a large portion of Pico Blanco that sits just outside Los Padres National Forest. The company is precluded from mining on its own land by state restrictions, but it is seeking to continue operations begun in 1981 on land inside the forest, next to its own holdings.
All this has clouded the prospect for success of a basic plan that traces its roots to the early 1930s, when Monterey County went to federal court and won the power to ban the erection of a gasoline station advertising sign on California 1.
By the late 1950s, it was clear that something had to be done to avert what seemed at the time inexorable pressures to develop Big Sur, including one plan that called for transforming California 1 into a north-south freeway--a development that would have destroyed the character of Big Sur. By the early 1960s, a joint San Luis Obispo-Monterey County regulatory system had emerged that sought to restrict development of the Big Sur Valley, where Big Sur village is located, and the rural centers of Lucia, Gorda and Pacific Valley.
The Big Sur Dream
In that plan, home sites were restricted to one per five acres on the coastal side of California 1, and one per 10 acres on the inland side. The viewshed was not specifically protected.
By the mid-'70s, it became obvious that still more had to be done, if only to save Big Sur from the millions of people who cherished the Big Sur dream--a little cabin overlooking the ocean.
"This land is more important than to be used for personal dreams," said Laurie Dillon, who moved to Big Sur in the early 1970s. "You can only accommodate about 1,000 personal dreams here. Beyond that, we've lost the coast. It has to be for everybody, forever."
To Dillon and others who do not like even the development that has already occurred, Big Sur already had been transformed from a wild place to a rural one by the end of 1970s.
Margaret Owings, who moved to Big Sur more than 30 years ago with her late husband, the internationally renowned architect Nathanial Owings, essentially agrees. In doing so, however, she is forced to concede that her own home, on a rocky outcropping with a view up and down the coast, would be prohibited under land-use restrictions she advocates.
Looking at the 'Big View'
"We're all just people here at this moment in time," Owings said, sitting in the living room of the A-frame house, her voice accompanied by the din of sea lions on the beach several hundred feet below. "What we want to do (in terms of protecting Big Sur) is not just for a decade. We (need to be able) to go through the next century, too. We're not going to be here, but we've got to look at the big view."
It was this kind of sentiment--widely held among Big Sur residents--that finally got county officials to work on a true master plan for the coast here. Technically, the "local coast plan" conforms with planning requirements for all communities along the California coast--standards set up when the California Coastal Commission was created by referendum in 1972.
The philosophy behind the plan holds essentially that there is already enough development in Big Sur--counting parcels on which rights to build a home in the future already exist. In fact, though the land-use plan permits construction of 845 new houses in Big Sur, only 183 would be on sites that have not already been identified.
Except for hiking trails and beach access routes geared mainly to day visitors, there would be little development of visitor accommodations. No facilities could be built outside the carefully described, existing rural centers, including Big Sur village. Overnight camping facilities probably would be expanded under the plan.
"Big Sur is intended (as it is envisioned by the land-use plan) to be a stunning--but brief--experience," said Karin Strasser Kauffman, the county supervisor who represents Big Sur. "That's our hope and the hope of the residents."
In other words, the plan seeks to make it easy to drive through Big Sur, stopping perhaps for lunch at a restaurant or to enjoy a picnic at one of the primitive turnoffs on California 1, but difficult to stay on. Hotel accommodations will be deliberately scarce and there will be little in the way of shopping facilities. No new shopping development is contemplated.
"We don't object to sharing Big Sur," said Josoff of the Friends of the Big Sur Coast. "We consider ourselves the guardians of the coast. We put out the fires the tourists start and we live with the environment year in and year out."
To protect the viewshed from further development, the plan permits a system in which the right to develop a parcel that may not be developed can be transferred to another piece of land where building is permitted. Under this system, if a landowner is precluded from building on one site, he is permitted an extra building permit elsewhere. The transfer development credit right, as it is called, can be sold so a landowner electing not to build at all can still realize gain from his investment.
Under terms of the new plan, a certain number of parcels cannot be developed--estimates hover at about 100 in all of Big Sur--and will not be salable or buildable, Strasser Kauffman noted, and county officials will probably have to buy out the landowners to compensate them for the loss of development rights.
Bill Post, whose family settled here more than 100 years ago, will see the development potential of 720 acres his family owns reduced to as little as three home sites.
"I have to agree with the idea that there should be some legitimate control," Post said. "But I resent being told that I can only do this or that after we've been here since 1860, for crying out loud."
In general, the new standards limit single-family houses to one dwelling for each 40 to 320 acres, depending on location and other factors. Some of the largest Big Sur landowners are also the biggest losers in the plan. Jim Hill, the 29-year-old owner of the 7,200-acre El Sur Ranch, with more than six miles of ocean frontage in the vicinity of the Point Sur lighthouse, probably has only about 54 legal home sites because so much of the ranch is in the viewshed area.
Hill, who inherited the holdings, also had hoped to build a 100-room hotel near Point Sur--a plan that almost certainly is doomed in its original form.
The El Sur Ranch had once been a single Coastal Commission vote away from approval of a plan that would have guaranteed Hill development rights for his property for 25 years, allowing the hotel and as many as 100 home sites as well.
Without enough money to make the system of compensation rights work, Strasser Kauffman and Karas agreed the county may face enormous problems in enforcing the land-use plan, whose rules and regulations still are being drafted by county officials.
It is on the potentially crucial question of money that Wilson rests his hope for eventual local endorsement of his bill. The legislation would recognize a reality Margaret Owings said has proved too easy for local people to ignore: There already is an enormous federal presence in the area because the federal government owns 75,000 acres of Big Sur included in the Los Padres National Forest. The federal government, she said, cannot be kept out.
Wilson's legislation would accept the terms of the land-use plan as they exist--though under certain circumstances the secretary of agriculture could decide, with the assistance of a bipartisan advisory committee, that the county government was moving to permit unacceptable development. At that point, the Department of Agriculture, which operates national forests, could step in and would be empowered--under carefully defined circumstances--to condemn land.
As the legislation is drafted, however, what is now private land would remain that way, and development rights granted by the new land-use plan would survive intact. In all, federal authority of some kind would extend to 145,000 acres.
The bill would prohibit essentially all lumbering, mining, oil drilling and other development of natural resources in Big Sur--though it specifically exempts existing mining claims and, thereby, grants an exception to the Pico Blanco limestone mine.
Most important, perhaps, Wilson's bill provides for establishment of a private foundation that would raise money to buy out landowners who cannot develop their property.
The bill would give the secretary of agriculture potentially wide powers to step in and condemn privately owned land if the Agriculture Department decided unacceptable changes had been made in the county land-use plan.
Wilson said he didn't notify local residents and officials of the bill he planned to introduce because he had to move quickly to get the bill in the Senate hopper for possible consideration this year. Wilson and his aides said the bill will be reworked to accommodate the concerns of local people.
"I generally would err on the side of the local government if we were talking about land that was to be developed," in terms of imposing federal controls, Wilson said in Washington. "But we're talking about Big Sur, which I regard as a natural treasure.
"I am sensitive to the need to make California a place worth living in, and one of the things we ought to do is have sufficient wisdom to preserve and protect some of the most scenic and sensitive spots, and Big Sur is virtually unique. I think we'd be derelict if we waited any longer.
"The pressures are building in a state whose population is projected to reach 40 million by 2010. Whether the people like it or not, the unpleasant fact is that pressures (to develop) are not going to grow less. They are going to grow more, and that would be true if no one ever whispered the word federal again."