For the better part of a century, the mountains and coastal moors that William Randolph Hearst regarded as the most beautiful countryside on earth has remained almost as wild and empty as when he first saw them.
Along with neighboring Big Sur, this is one of those epic stretches of sculpted rock, roiling sea and teeming wildlife that makes the California coast one of nature’s grand stage sets.
Yet this land is also private property. It is where the publishing magnate built his legendary castle and amassed a 77,000-acre ranch.
The castle was given to the state in 1958. But the ranch is now the focus of an ambitious development plan that is testing the resolve of policymakers to preserve a wondrous natural resource while upholding property rights.
“This is a classic test of the coastal act,” said Lee Otter, the California Coastal Commission’s senior planner for the central coast. “The challenge is to preserve what is special--the views and the sense of openness--while ensuring that there is reasonable economic use for the landowner.”
Near the historic village of San Simeon, the Hearst Corp. wants to build a sprawling resort community that would include a 27-hole golf course, two hotels, a dude ranch, an arcade of shops and restaurants and employee housing for up to 1,000 people.
Public access to the castle would not be affected.
The golf course is the most controversial element of the development. West of California 1, it would range across hundreds of acres of furrowed, salt-sprayed headlands perched over the Pacific.
The area has “golf written all over it,” according to one Hearst consultant. Company publicists are billing the project as “the next Pebble Beach.” It is a reference to the renowned Carmel resort that set an American standard for spectacular oceanside golf courses, draws more than 200,000 visitors a year and has helped make the Monterey Peninsula one of the more fashionable addresses on the West Coast.
The Hearst Corp. says the San Simeon development would generate $3 million in tax revenue for San Luis Obispo County and create an annual payroll of $13 million.
Nevertheless, the proposal has inflamed and divided public sentiment in nearby towns that have raised environmental and financial objections. Just down the road in Cambria, nearly 1,000 of the 6,000 residents have signed a petition opposing the seaside location of the golf course.
County Planning Commissioner Shirley Bianchi argues that the increased costs of municipal services would run the county a net deficit for 20 years.
The Hearst fight is part of a broader test of wills between forces fighting for control of the central coast.
The tension is palpable. Barbed wire and security patrols block traditional trails across miles of open country bought up by builders in recent years.
In Cambria, other pending developments could transform 1,000 acres or more of ranchland into suburbs and double the size of the town.
“If we say ‘yes’ to everything Hearst wants, how do we say ‘no’ to all the other developers waiting in line?” Bianchi asked.
For now, there are few signs of civilization along the 12 meandering miles of California 1 from the southern tip of Big Sur to San Simeon Point, where the Hearst Corp. wants to build.
The only buildings are a lighthouse, a general store and the weathered remains of a few 19th century warehouses built by William Randolph Hearst’s father.
But there is no lack of living things in the vicinity.
The Hearst property abuts the southern end of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1992 to protect an extraordinary array of marine life. The coves, marshes, tide pools and creek mouths on the San Simeon coast host a wealth of rare and endangered mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants that wildlife experts say would not survive the typical pressures of commercial development.
The area is home to sea otters, brown pelicans, steelhead trout, black abalone, red legged frogs, southwestern pond turtles and tidewater goby (a small endangered fish). These days, the most conspicuous inhabitants are the elephant seals that began colonizing the beaches a couple years ago and today can be found by the scores spraddled along the shore.
On San Simeon Point, trees planted by William Randolph Hearst have become nesting sites for thousands of monarch butterflies. Clustered along the point are rare plants such as the endangered cobweb thistle, whose petals fold up at night, providing shelter from the wind for bumblebees.
“In the midst of all this, we’re gonna have thousands of people tramping across the bluffs, dunes and wetlands,” said Richard Hawley, a carpenter who heads up a local land conservancy.
Hawley and other environmentalists worry about polluted runoff from construction debris and parking lots, fertilizer and chemicals from the golf course and a pipeline that would divert huge quantities of stream water to hotels and restaurants.
Wildlife biologists are particularly concerned about the fate of local fish that spend part of the year in salt water and part in creeks such as Arroyo de la Cruz, from which the Hearst Corp. wants to pump water for the resort.
“It would be the end of the steelhead fishery,” said Jennifer Nichols, a biologist with the California Department of Game and Fish. “The stream is already dry part of the year because of pumping for the castle and the ranch.”
Steelhead trout populations have been declining steadily along the central and southern California coast, Nichols said. As a result, she said, the National Marine Fisheries Service is considering putting the fish on the endangered species list.
Hearst representatives maintain they have spent 11 years studying the impact of their proposed development and insist it would be done sensitively.
According to Hearst Corp. lawyer Philip M. Battaglia, monitoring wells have confirmed the presence of abundant water supplies beneath Arroyo de la Cruz; the design of the golf course would follow National Audubon Society guidelines for safe grading and drainage; coastal access would be preserved with the creation of a nature trail around San Simeon Point and new buildings would be hidden by trees and slopes.
Battaglia, who has represented the Hearst Corp. for 20 years, said the development, as currently planned, would occupy a small fraction of the entire Hearst ranch.
“For 140 years, as long as this land has been in the family, the Hearsts have been committed to keeping the vast bulk of it in agriculture,” he said.
“There is no reason to believe that commitment is waning.”
The natural splendor of the ranch today, Battaglia said, owes to the stewardship of generations of family members, starting with William Randolph Hearst, who ran the ranch as a wildlife sanctuary. Hearst was so obsessed with preserving the natural bountifulness of the place, biographers report, that he had food scraps left out for the castle mice.
In the 1960s, however, the Hearst Corp., which is controlled by family members, briefly explored plans to develop a city of 30,000 people on the ranch.
When the current proposal for the resort development was sketched out in the 1980s, San Luis Obispo County officials sought to balance the plan with zoning that dedicated the rest of the ranch to agriculture and open space. A few years later, county officials removed the zoning at the behest of the Hearst Corp.
The Hearst commitment to agriculture notwithstanding, Battaglia said, the corporation is adamantly opposed to zoning that would prohibit other uses.
Ultimately, how much development can occur on the land will be up to the San Luis Obispo County supervisors and the California Coastal Commission, where a new Republican majority has vowed not to interfere with the rights of property owners to build on their land.
Approval of all four phases of the resort complex could take years.
In the meantime, one lawsuit has already been filed, by the Sierra Club, challenging a recent decision by the coastal commission to close beach access to the public at the northern end of the proposed golf course.
A few weeks ago, the county Planning Commission tentatively approved the first phase of the resort amid the forest of Monterey pines, eucalyptus and cyprus overlooking the wave-carved crags and arches of San Simeon Point.
But in making their final decision, the planners will have to factor in the unsettled nature of the local geology. Experts have cited a complex fault system near San Simeon Point that they say is capable of producing tsunamis and a magnitude 7 earthquake.
Earlier this year, the county’s geological consultant advised: “I would recommend no human occupancy structures be built on San Simeon Point.”