For years, the phrase “Save Big Sur” meant preservation of the timeless forests and streams perched high above the Central California coast.
Now it means the people.
“A lot of people bemoan the loss of community,” said Kirk Gafill, co-owner of the famed Nepenthe restaurant on Highway 1. “That’s code for fear of the future of Big Sur.”
Beset by sky-high real estate prices, rich absentee landowners, restrictions on development and a shrinking, aging population, many residents fear their community is losing its vitality. With the median price of homes in the region nearly tripling in five years to $1.65 million (one hillside home of 1,200 square feet is on the market for $7 million), and the average age of a Big Surite now above 45 years, longtime residents say they are having trouble finding people to man the hoses at the fire brigade or head committees at Captain Cooper Elementary School. Enrollment -- just 74 students -- was so low this fall that the school narrowly averted closure.
According to Census Bureau statistics, Big Sur’s population, at just over 800 people and falling, is lower than it was in the 1880s, when there was no highway and the only jobs available consisted of scraping for gold and knocking down trees.
Today, much of the private property has been put off limits to development. According to Monterey County figures, 84% of the 255,000 acres included in what is called the Big Sur Planning Area is restricted. Just 45,000 acres along the coast remain in private hands, and some of them are owned by land trusts that also prohibit development.
Most of the land in public hands was included in the Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness long before concerns arose over the public-private mix. Historic planning documents envisioned that 60% of the land along the Big Sur coast would remain in public hands, but today it’s almost 70%, not including land-trust property.
“When I look out over Big Sur now, I don’t just see beauty.... I see my community being dismantled, one parcel at a time,” said Mike Caplin, a welder who represents a group called the Coastal Property Owners Assn.
Not everyone thinks things are as bad as Caplin’s group does. Still, anxiety over the future of the Big Sur community is widespread enough that two citizens committees issued a report last year calling on the county to oppose new parks that would bring more tourists to the area, saying they would contribute to crowding and snarl traffic on California 1. The panels also said the community should have veto power over any new purchases of private property by land trusts.
Environmentalists dismiss these ideas out of hand.
“Statements like ‘The Big Sur community is going to be exterminated’ -- this is not true,” said Zad Leavy, 73, founder and counsel for the Big Sur Land Trust. “There isn’t enough money to buy them out in Big Sur.”
Arguments that Big Sur could be preserved out of existence “don’t seem logical to me,” said Gary Patton, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County. To Patton, the property owners’ complaints are simply a backlash against the hard-won environmental gains that have kept Big Sur’s spectacular landscape intact for the millions of people who visit each year. “Current laws are quite protective,” Patton said. “People up there resent that.”
Land-use experts say the forces at work in Big Sur are no different, except in scale, from what’s happening up and down the California coast. Competition for land has inflated housing prices out of reach. Even if no more land is bought up by the government and various land trusts, middle-income people “are going to be driven out one way or the other,” said Bill Fulton, a land-policy researcher.
Maybe so, but Monterey County officials are taking seriously the landowner complaints. A new plan for the future of Big Sur and the county, released recently, makes preservation of the Big Sur community a priority. Among its policies, the document would relax restrictions on nontraditional homes, such as those made of hay bales and other unusual materials, in hopes of restoring some of Big Sur’s legendary “funkiness.” The plan also would ease housing-density provisions to allow the construction of clusters of low-cost workforce housing, up to a total of 300 units. In an unusual policy that would apply only to low-income housing in Big Sur, residents would be required to be employed solely in Big Sur.
“This proposal recognizes the need for critical workforce housing, and it goes a long way toward providing it,” said Lynn Burgess, a county planner.
The 20-year planning document also says any future land-trust purchases should preserve any residences on the property to prevent the loss of any more homes in Big Sur.
“The purchase of private land by public agencies has increased to the point that it is something of real concern to the community down there,” said Monterey County Supervisor David Potter, a seven-year member of the Coastal Commission and among the most reliably liberal votes on the board. “We really cannot afford to ... lose the community component.”
Whether the new recommendations will be adopted is unclear. The county is only one of the agencies with a voice in land-use issues in Big Sur and Monterey County. But everyone involved agrees the stakes are high. So far, the county has spent two years and $4 million on the planning effort. Public meetings have been fraught with so much conflict that a citizens committee created to find compromises between pro- and anti-development lobbies broke up after it couldn’t even agree on the meaning of “consensus.”
Despite its emphasis on saving the Big Sur community, the new plan does not put limits on tourism, nor will it give the community a veto over new land acquisitions.
“We can’t legally prohibit the acquisition of property from a willing seller to a willing buyer,” Potter said.
Caplin and his folks may be even less pleased by a proposal under consideration by the Coastal Commission, another major agency with power over land-use planning in Big Sur. Among other things, it would prohibit buildings that could interfere with the views of boaters passing by in the ocean. “Some people in the community are not going to be happy about that,” Potter said.
Big Sur is not a single place, but a cluster of rural community centers -- Big Sur Valley, Lucia, Pacific Valley and Gorda -- strung along the coast highway. Its world-famous parks, campsites and inns draw 4 million visitors a year.
Driving along Highway 1, still the only road through the thicket of redwood and sugar pine, it’s easy to see why preservationists put out a call two decades ago to save Big Sur from the bulldozers. Its forest canopy and the 50 streams that rush down to the sea look much as they did when Henry Miller lived here in the 1950s.
Leavy, the Big Sur Land Trust founder, proudly takes some credit for that. The trust, he said, has helped preserve 30,000 acres in and around Big Sur. “We’ve made a big difference,” he said.
If you want to know what Big Sur might have become, activists say, look down the road at Pebble Beach, with its manicured and tamed housing developments and golf courses.
In Big Sur, “the coastal drama and vistas have been preserved. Public access has increased. The flora and fauna have been addressed,” Potter said. “Now, the character of the community needs to be addressed.”
Businesses, especially those that opened only in recent years and paid top dollar for their properties, are being squeezed by the hard economics that have hit many resort operators since 9/11.
Stan Russell, a 47-year-old Web designer, came to Big Sur from Los Angeles six years ago. He thought he knew what he was getting into. “I was determined to tough it out,” he said. Soon, his business was going well. A dozen resorts signed on as clients. But after losing his first apartment, the best he could find was a one-bedroom, $1,400-a-month place with holes in the wall. Russell finally moved to Santa Cruz, and now handles his Big Sur business from there. In his spare time, he answers the phones at the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce -- from Santa Cruz.
One issue that almost inevitably comes up in any discussion of the challenges facing Big Sur is absentee homeowners. Actors and businesspeople like Ted Turner fly in to spend a few days in paradise. Holed up in trophy houses behind high iron gates, it goes without saying that they do not volunteer as soccer coaches.
In the Coastlands development, where real estate agent Bob Cross lives, “we used to have nine absentees out of 30 homes. Now we have only nine that live here full time.”
All this has had an inevitable impact on the culture of the community. Longtime residents say that although the landscape is virtually unchanged, the place has lost a lot of the funky informality that drew thousands of seekers in their VW vans 30 years ago. “For people who remember [Big Sur] from the ‘70s, it doesn’t have the same feel,” said Jim Colangelo, a top Monterey County administrator.
The starry-eyed seekers have been replaced by a harder core of semi-permanent drifters in the hills, according to county officials.
“People live in trailers and wigwams and tents and yards,” said Gafill, the Nepenthe co-owner, whose grandfather built the restaurant next to the cabin he bought from Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, naming it for a Greek term for “surcease from sorrow.” “Then you can see Tuscan manors with electric gates. It’s all over the place.”