This county's highest elected body took the unusual step Tuesday of endorsing a deal to preserve the Hearst Ranch, even though the deal isn't done yet.
The Board of Supervisors voted 5 to 0 to support the framework of an agreement between the Hearst Corp. and the American Land Conservancy that would save the 82,000-acre ranch from development and keep much of it in agriculture.
Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, who offered the motion, said this is the best deal the Hearsts have ever offered on their land. "I have fought this corporation for 23 years," she said, noting that at one time the Hearsts intended to build a resort city of 60,000 with its own airport on the property.
The current framework would block any resort at famed Point San Simeon. It would also open 18 miles of beachfront to the public. In return, the Hearsts are requesting permission to build 27 homes in the ranch interior for family heirs. They are also asking for between $100 million and $150 million.
Bianchi admitted negotiations are not finished. But she said it was important for political reasons that the board take a stand now. The money needed to pay off the Hearsts will have to come in large part from state bond measures such as Proposition 50, the water quality initiative passed in November that also provides for coastal wetlands protection. Decision-makers in Sacramento are said to be carving up those funds among projects throughout the state.
"Right now in Sacramento, all sorts of people are lobbying for this money," said Kara Blakeslee, a lead negotiator for the American Land Conservancy.
Even though the Hearst Ranch is recognized worldwide, not only for the furnishings and architecture at Hearst Castle but for the unspoiled beauty of its seascapes, more populous areas of the state have more clout in the corridors of power.
"We have to send a message to Sacramento that we are united behind this project," Blakeslee said.
There may have been a second reason to get the board on record: to help squelch the rumbles of dissent coming from some environmentalists who want to push Hearst harder for concessions.
If that was the case, it seemed to have worked. Most of the environmentalists who showed up Tuesday appeared to agree that after decades of conflict, the Hearsts have offered something too good to turn down. "We feel the proposed framework concept is a win-win for everyone," said Bill Allen of the North Coast Alliance, which has been a longtime participant in the Hearst wars.
Several reminisced that it was almost five years since hundreds of protesters stood in front of the ranch waving signs and denouncing Hearst's then-current proposal to build a hotel-resort complex including golf courses and riding stables.
"I don't think anybody then would have believed we'd be here today," Blakeslee said.
The meeting at times took on the feeling of a celebration, as longtime opponents softened their words and shook hands.
Some remained skeptical, however, noting that the Hearsts have not said where they intend to build the 27 homes. Others were critical of an element of the plan allowing construction of a 100-room hotel in Old San Simeon Village.
"I feel the board's support at this time is premature," said Pat Veesart of San Luis Obispo, a local environmental activist. "It would be wise to see what the plan is" before endorsing it.
"Support now could result in a deal that does not contain agreements to protect against environmental impacts," said Tarren Collins, chair of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, in an e-mail to environmentalists sent in advance of Tuesday's meeting.
Still others were alarmed by reports that the Hearsts might want to retain some of the coast as private beaches.
Roger Lyon, an attorney for Hearst, said that is no longer part of the discussions. The public, he said, will have some form of access to all 18 miles of beachfront. Limitations could include reserving areas for elephant seal breeding. Hundreds of the huge animals haul up on shore each year at the ranch.
After the resort project stalled, Hearst talks were off the table until 18 months ago. That's when Stephen Hearst came to town and started wining and dining business leaders and environmentalists.
Though few gave him a chance to broker a deal, he kept knocking on doors, even those that had been slammed. At the same time, however, in what some saw as the iron fist in the velvet glove, Hearst officials dug into ancient land records that they said showed the ranch was not just one parcel but 271 separate, buildable lots.
When you're holding 271 lots, asking to build on just 27 seemed suddenly generous. In essence, the Hearsts are asking for just 10% of what they could demand if they were to get hard-nosed, Bianchi said.
The Hearsts began negotiating with the Nature Conservancy last year, but broke off talks several weeks ago to work with the American Land Conservancy. Blakeslee, who left the Nature Conservancy to join the American Land Conservancy so she could finish the Hearst deal, said negotiations on the final details are going smoothly.
She said the first time pen will be put to paper will occur when both sides sign what is known as an option. Then the conservancy can begin looking for money to pay for the deal.
Blakeslee said she hopes to complete the deal by spring.