The most ambitious development proposal on the Central Coast in years has triggered a fierce backlash among environmentalists, who say it will spoil an ecological treasure and turn more of the coast into an exclusive playground for the rich.
More than 17,000 trees at Pebble Beach would be uprooted to build a new golf course and expand two luxury resorts under a development plan being led by a group of high-profile investors that includes actor Clint Eastwood.
But Pebble Beach Co. says it has the right to build on its land and is doing so consistent with other recreational uses in the Del Monte Forest near Carmel. Eastwood, former Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, golfer Arnold Palmer and others bought the company for $820 million in 1999 with plans to build.
More than five years after winning voter support for its project, the developer is preparing for a showdown Wednesday with the California Coastal Commission. The panel’s staff is recommending the project be rejected because it would further carve into rare coastal forestland and disrupt habitat for endangered plants and animals.
“This is one of the biggest disputes, one of the most significant issues since I’ve been on the Coastal Commission for 10-plus years,” said Sara Wan, whose panel is charged with protecting the coast. “It ranks up there with the biggest controversies.”
The more than $100-million Pebble Beach plan is also a potential environmental albatross for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Senate Rules Committee and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), whose appointees each control four votes on the 12-member commission.
On Friday, Nunez announced that he was naming three new alternates to the commission and chose Orange County attorney Elizabeth Brem as a substitute for Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla, who is unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting in Santa Rosa due to a family commitment. Padilla has expressed doubts about the Pebble Beach project.
Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission, said the Assembly speaker has no authority to pick alternates, but rather can only ratify those chosen by appointed commissioners. Padilla said he doesn’t know Brem and won’t endorse her appointment, adding that his alternate, David Allgood, will cast a vote.
Nunez, who received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Pebble Beach Co. last year, said through a spokesman that his intention was to fill some vacant positions. Brem could not be reached for comment.
But the speaker’s actions, coming only days before the commission vote, have raised suspicion among environmentalists. “This is outrageous,” said Mark Massara, the Sierra Club’s director of coastal programs. Nunez “is playing politics and trying to stack the deck in favor of the project.”
Bounded by the cities of Pacific Grove and Monterey to the north and Carmel to the south, the Del Monte Forest is known for its rare Monterey pine groves, craggy shoreline and white sand dunes. It costs $8.75 to go on the famous 17 Mile Drive that winds through the postcard setting.
Pebble Beach Co. owns most of the private roads and almost all of the undeveloped land in the forest, which is dotted with $20-million mansions. It also owns the forests’ two posh resorts and four of eight golf courses, including the premier Pebble Beach links, where a single round runs $450.
Striking a delicate balance between development and conservation in this extraordinary coastal region has always marshaled clashing forces.
The latest proposal is particularly contentious because Monterey pine forests are so rare and the new development would remove 15,000 pine trees and hundreds of others. Only five such pine forests are known to exist in the world, including three in California.
The 8-square-mile forest is also home to significant wetlands and critical habitat for rare vegetation and wildlife, including the federally endangered Yadon’s piperia orchid and the threatened California red-legged frog.
At issue are two dozen distinct developments spanning 600 acres, nearly all of it on undeveloped land. The project calls for an 18-hole golf course, an equestrian center, 60 employee guest houses, 33 residential lots and expansion of the Pebble Beach Lodge and the Inn at Spanish Bay, which would include an additional 160 2,000-square-foot overnight suites.
The developer says its project would help the environment because it sets aside more than 400 acres of forestland for permanent preservation and involves far less intrusive development than the hundreds of homes initially proposed. Some of the development’s profits would help pay for maintaining the forest.
“When you own all this land, you’ve got a right to do something with it,” said Alan Williams, president of Carmel Development Co., project manager for Pebble Beach Co. “This wasn’t designed in a void. It’s not something we’re trying to bulldoze. It was designed with an eye to protecting resources.”
Opponents say the area does not need another golf course and that the development proposal represents a further threat to dwindling forestland along the Monterey Peninsula.
“Clint Eastwood plays a hero in his movies; he has an opportunity to be a hero for this forest, but they’re walking off a cliff with this plan,” the Sierra Club’s Massara said. “These are some of the last coastal forests that California has. It’s a legacy for future generations.”
But the developer has won considerable support for its project.
In 2000, Pebble Beach Co. put Measure A, the “Del Monte Forest Plan: Forest Preservation and Development Limitations,” before voters. The initiative, which sought to amend the county’s coastal plan to allow the project, won overwhelmingly after a $1-million television advertising campaign that featured Eastwood strolling through the woods urging voters to “save the forest.”
Last year, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors approved an environmental impact report on the project contingent on the Coastal Commission’s action. Nearly two dozen groups filed appeals to the commission, challenging the Monterey County Coastal Plan amendments mandated by Measure A.
Opponents say Measure A was an end-run around the California Coastal Act, which regulates development in environmentally sensitive areas. But project supporters say the initiative reflects the public’s will.
“Having another golf course is not an onerous thing to the forest,” said Rick Verbanec, president of the 1,500-member Del Monte Forest Property Owners. Pebble Beach Co. is “putting hundreds of acres of forest into conservation easements.”
But the commission’s staff said those preservation efforts don’t go far enough, concluding in a 168-page report to the board that the development project “as a whole cannot be reconciled with the Coastal Act ... the Pebble Beach Co. has no legal entitlement to subdivide Monterey pine forest.”
Deborah L. Rogers, director of the University of California’s Monterey Pines Forest Ecology Cooperative, said that the largest and most intact Monterey pine forest in the world is in the Pebble Beach area targeted for development
“The forest on the Monterey Peninsula has already been reduced by about half, and much of the rest is fragmented,” Rogers said. “In general, the more habitat that’s lost and the more you fragment an intact ecosystem, the more vulnerable that ecosystem is to losing species in the long run.”
At its meeting Wednesday, the commission must decide whether Measure A amendments to the Monterey County Coastal Plan are consistent with state law to clear the way for development.
If the commission endorses the updated plan, the developers must return at a later date to seek building permits. Environmentalists say they will file lawsuits before that happens.
If the panel rejects the plan, the developer must either modify its project or drop it entirely.
The commission’s meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Fountain Grove Inn in Santa Rosa.
A copy of the Coastal Commission agenda and staff report are available at www.coastal.ca.gov/mtgcurr.html.