Trust to Buy Key Big Sur Property


Acting to preserve one of the most photogenic spots on the California coast, a national land conservation group has sealed a deal to acquire a swath of oceanfront threatened by development at the north entrance to Big Sur.

The Trust for Public Land is set to announce today that it has reached an agreement to buy the 1,226-acre Bixby Ocean Ranch, a 2 1/2-mile stretch of ocean bluff-tops and coves straddled by a historic and often-photographed arch bridge on California 1.

Although a final appraisal remains to be completed, the tentative purchase price has been set at $26.25 million for the property, which had been marked for development into nine multimillion-dollar seaside estates.


The land, a dozen miles south of Carmel, was owned for years by Allen Funt, the late host of “Candid Camera.” In the late 1990s, Funt’s estate sold the property to a development company, Woodside Partners, which secured preliminary approval from Monterey County for eventual construction of the homes.

Acquisition by the trust would halt development and open a key piece of the Big Sur coast to the public.

While much of Big Sur is virtually inaccessible because of the rugged topography, Bixby Ocean Ranch is more gently terraced and is crisscrossed by horse trails that meander right up to bluff edges overlooking the Pacific. In addition, the property has two accessible beaches, a rarity in Big Sur.

The deal dwarfs a purchase announced by President Clinton last fall that added 784 acres to the national forest at the southern end of Big Sur at a cost of $4.5 million.

“We see a lot of beautiful properties on the coast, but this is pretty awesome,” said Dick Wayman, a spokesman for the state Coastal Conservancy, which will vote today on a plan to provide $5 million in state funds for the deal. “This is an unspoiled spot that won’t remain that way if it’s left on the public market.”

The federal government, which would assume ownership of the land as part of Los Padres National Forest, has already allocated $9.5 million toward the purchase. An anonymous donor has also given the land trust $2.5 million, and the Packard Foundation has agreed to provide a low-interest loan to help cement the deal.

But those gifts have left the trust about $10 million short of the anticipated final purchase price. The nonprofit trust expects to raise the additional cash with private donations but also hopes to get more funding from the state and federal governments.

In recent weeks, developer Brian Sweeney and Woodside Partners have come under fire from some local leaders who believe the firm is unfairly profiting from the sale. Woodside Partners stands to make nearly triple the original $9 million spent to buy the land.

But one local real estate broker said Sweeney should be commended because he could have reaped upward of $50 million if the subdivided land had been sold for development.

“He could have doubled what he’s getting,” said Bill Probasco, a Monterey real estate broker. “But he felt the better use was open space.”

Debra Geiler, a project manager with the trust, said the Bixby ranch acquisition will combine with other guarded property to the south to form an unblemished 14-mile stretch of protected coastline, most of it fronting the California Sea Otter Refuge.

“It’s absolutely extraordinary,” she said. “It’s a beloved area and the most photographed stretch along the Big Sur coast.”

The area, which is visited by 4 million tourists each year, is famous for an arching highway bridge at the edge of a frothy cove featured in numerous advertisements and posters.

“In terms of its visual impact, it’s important,” said Prentiss Williams, a Coastal Conservancy planner. “The Bixby Bridge is a landmark. It’s on every postcard, every brochure. For a lot of people, that marks the entrance to Big Sur.”

The first phase of the deal, sale of 380 acres along the ocean, is set to be finalized March 1. The larger, inland portion of the property--846 acres of meadows, creeks and redwood groves climbing up the ridgeline--would be acquired later this year for $15.75 million.

“Even if they aren’t able to raise the money for Phase 2, we still will have acquired a pretty good chunk and the segment that has the coastal bluffs, the scenic areas, the public access to beaches and the bluff tops,” Williams said. “And I have a lot of faith in [the trust’s] ability to raise the money that’s still needed.”