Poring over piles of maps and deeds in a bland government office, Larry Kelly might easily be mistaken for Dilbert's quintessential cubicle man.
But the 54-year-old senior county planner is no common drone laboring listlessly behind his partition. Through a quirk of circumstances, key decisions about the future of the spectacular, 83,000-acre Hearst Ranch are being made not by some elected politician or blue ribbon committee but by this self-effacing, bespectacled government worker.
The documents piled on Kelly's desk represent the Hearst Corp.'s application for 279 "certificates of compliance," which could open the door to development of the ranch or, at the least, dramatically boost its sale value. Either way, they are critical to the future disposition of one of the last open swaths of California's 1,100-mile coastline.
Following paper trails as far back as 150 years, Kelly is trying to confirm Hearst assertions that much of the ranch once was subdivided into buildable parcels.
After a month, Kelly is about halfway through his research. Most of the applications, he said, will probably be approved. "About 95% [of the parcels] were created by the federal government," he said, suggesting their authenticity.
Even if all are approved, that won't settle the question of what to do with the sprawling seaside ranch. But it will give the Hearst empire a powerful card to play as it negotiates a possible sale of the property with conservation organizations.
All of which has put this 23-year county employee in the middle of one of the most hotly contested land-use debates in the United States. Kelly knows environmentalists and lobbyists are looking over his shoulder. Members of the press have trooped into his office to peer into the fat binders of old deeds, some based on measurements taken by men on horseback stringing ropes along boundaries.
"It's kind of nerve-racking," Kelly said of the attention. "This is much more political" than most of his work.
What's at stake is one of California's more mythic monuments to human accomplishment. Mining millionaire George Hearst began assembling the oak-dotted Central California tablelands from local homesteaders in the 19th century. His son William built his own Taj Mahal on a hill in San Simeon.
Today, the ranch looks much as it did when publishing baron William Randolph Hearst lived there. Cattle graze alongside the deer, zebra and aoudad that he imported in the 1930s for his amusement.
For years, the Hearst Corp. has tried unsuccessfully to build a hotel and golf resort on San Simeon Point beside the ocean. Hearst officials now say they are willing to permanently conserve most of the ranch in exchange for a cash buyout. They are negotiating with two conservation groups that could raise the hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funds that it probably will take to purchase Hearst's rights.
At the same time, Hearst has applied for the certificates of compliance Kelly is reviewing. What scares environmentalists is that the arcane documents have been used elsewhere to get around controls on development.
Stephen T. Hearst, the great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst, denies the company has some stealth strategy at work. He said he merely wants to find out what his land is worth and the certificates will help him do that.
Kelly was chosen to handle the Hearst applications because he has become something of an expert in this area of land-use law. "Here's a person with substantial skills," said Vic Holanda, director of planning for San Luis Obispo County.
Those skills were developed at the University of Oklahoma, where Kelly earned a master's degree in planning. He might still be in some quiet Midwestern community were it not for the energy crisis of the 1970s. Kelly's extended family sat down and asked themselves, "How will we survive if the world falls apart?" he recalled.
Unlike most people at the time, his family did something to salve their anxieties. His father-in-law, actor G.D. Spradlin, went hunting for a place where the family could live comfortably while using the least amount of energy. Like many people searching for paradise, they chose the Central Coast, purchasing a 680-acre ranch.
In the ensuing years, Kelly and his family created an energy-efficient retreat. They raise cattle and draw their water from a spring.
Though Kelly first started dealing with certificates of compliance years ago, they are now being used more frequently as a way around development controls in coastal zones where there are restrictions on growth.
The way the strategy works is that a landowner researches old records for evidence that the property once contained a well site, an old homesteader's cabin--anything to show it once was carved into smaller lots. The older the documents the better, preferably older than 1893, when the Subdivision Map Act passed, giving local communities power to control development.
"Step one is you find a parcel, any way, any how, outside the procedures of the map act," said Alan Seltzer, chief assistant county counsel for Santa Barbara County.
Then the property owner requests a certificate of compliance for each parcel and leverages that into a threat to develop the land.
Las Vegas businessman Brian Sweeney earned a $20-million profit earlier this year after purchasing the picturesque ranch on Bixby Creek in Big Sur. After uncovering nine old parcels on the ranch, local officials say, he threatened to build mansions until, eventually, he was bought out.
A local congressman, Sam Farr, said Sweeney's tactic amounted to a new form of "environmental terrorism" because it artificially drove up the price that government or environmental groups would have to pay to preserve the property.
The Bixby ranch's nine parcels cost $26 million. Hearst Ranch should bring substantially more because it is nearly 70 times larger.
Kelly said he is treating the Hearst applications no differently than all the others he has reviewed in his career. As to how the Hearsts intend to use the certificates, that's not his concern.
His boss, Pat Beck, said, "We're just looking at the hard facts."