Wildlife Board OKs Hearst Deal

Times Staff Writer

Over strong objections from some environmentalists, a state board on Thursday agreed to provide $34.5 million to help preserve the Hearst Ranch, a major stretch of undeveloped coastline in Central California.

The unanimous vote by the three-member Wildlife Conservation Board is the second of four steps in cementing a controversial deal totaling $95 million that opponents call too generous to owner Hearst Corp. and supporters hail as historic protection for spectacular ocean bluffs and hills surrounding Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

After a 4 1/2 -hour hearing that featured scores of impassioned speakers, the board gave its conditional approval to a deal that would require Hearst to sell more than 1,500 acres of coastal land to the state and give up rights to develop about 400 homes on the 82,000-acre ranch.


“This is probably one of the hugest deals ever done in the state, and you never will get to the point where all agree,” said Jim Kellogg, who heads the wildlife board, which is the land acquisition arm of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Hearst, with a media empire of newspapers, magazines and TV stations, would receive $15 million in state tax credits and $80 million in cash. The company indicated that it would seek a federal tax write-off for a charitable contribution for the difference between what the state pays and the land’s appraised value.

Hearst also would retain the rights to build a 100-room hotel and 27 homes.

The Wildlife Conservation Board authorized use of $34.5 million of the coastal watershed protection bond money approved by voters two years ago. The state Transportation Commission earlier approved spending $23 million in federal transportation funds for the deal. The Coastal Conservancy, a state coastal preservation agency, is scheduled to meet Sept. 15 to consider providing the balance of the funding. Approval from state public works officials also is required.

Thursday’s vote brought a standing ovation and cheers from local supporters -- many of them business owners, ranchers and environmentalists who rode a bus and carpooled from San Luis Obispo County. A beaming Stephen T. Hearst, who heads the family-owned company’s land division, praised the outpouring of support from the ranch’s neighbors and exulted: “On to the Coastal Conservancy.”

The hearing pitted conservationists against one another -- with some urging speedy approval and others asking the state to go back to the bargaining table for a better deal on protecting public access, the environment and the public pocket book.

Those on the losing side claimed partial victory, noting that Kellogg expressed some reservations and the board attached several conditions to the money, including other state approvals. “They do not get the money until they satisfy the conditions,” said Carl Zichella, regional staff director for the Sierra Club.

Stephen Hearst said the company and the state have been discussing each of the issues recently -- including a demand for a more detailed inventory of plants and wildlife -- and were very close to resolving them.

The environmental stakes are as enormous as the ranch itself, which stretches for 18 scenic miles and is home to hundreds of plant and wildlife species, including elk, bear, mountain lions and steelhead trout.

Disputes have erupted over many issues, including whether the state is paying a fair price.

Earlier this month, the state legislative analyst’s office reported that the deal may be based on a faulty appraisal and questioned whether it would adequately protect rare plants and animals.

This nonpartisan fiscal watchdog agency urged that the Wildlife Conservation Board withhold endorsement until a closer examination could be made of the terms. It noted that key documents have been kept confidential, including details of a state-commissioned appraisal that placed a $230-million value on the land and development rights that Hearst would surrender.

However, Wildlife Conservation Board officials emphasized that the voluminous information about the deal has already been released, and Stephen Hearst said the deal has a high degree of “transparency.”

A coalition of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, said there were major flaws in the easement deal that need to be fixed before the project is funded. They said it provides little state oversight of the lands and allows monitoring reports from the state’s easement holder, California Rangeland Trust, to be kept confidential.

In a position paper, the groups criticized the public access under the plan, saying that five of the 18 miles along the ranch would be severely restricted. Two beach areas would be limited to quarterly docent-led tours of 20 people each. San Simeon Point -- the most heavily used area -- would be limited to 100 visitors a day. And public use of the lands, including a coastal trail along California 1, would be limited to daylight hours.

In 1998, the Coastal Commission rejected a Hearst plan to build a resort and golf course on the land.

But Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said the new plan also is a “bad deal for the public” and urged the conservation panel to put off its vote.

In a letter this week to the board, Douglas said the trail along the portion of lands retained by Hearst hugs California 1, rather than meandering along the shoreline. Use is further restricted, he said, by a prohibition against amenities such as parking, restrooms and picnic benches. At the conclusion of the hearing, Kellogg said the arguments of those who live and work near the ranch were most compelling.

“Hearst always exhibited the highest standards of corporate responsibility,” said Dave Crowther, who owns a small neighboring ranch. “Clearly, Hearst negotiated with the public interest in mind.”

Environmentalist Shirley Bianchi, a San Luis Obispo county supervisor who opposed the Hearst development plans for several years and now supports the easement deal, said: “I’ve been around long enough not to be hoodwinked and I know a good deal when I see it.”