MENLO PARK, Calif. — It was bad enough that his multimillion-dollar wedding became a symbol of Silicon Valley excess. But then billionaire tech guru Sean Parker was blasted in the headlines as an environmental menace over party preparations that had allegedly damaged Big Sur’s storied redwoods.
The Napster co-founder and former Facebook president wed singer-songwriter Alexandra Lenas on June 1 in a campground owned by the posh Ventana Inn & Spa. To set the scene for their fantasy, the couple trucked in plants and flowers, dug an artificial pond and erected a stone bridge and elevated dance floor amid the old-growth forest.
The one thing they did not do was apply for a permit.
The California Coastal Commission on Friday agreed to a $2.5-million settlement with Parker and Ventana, a payment that will go toward enhancing access to Big Sur’s coastline, trails and forests. After the vote, Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger had harsh words — but not for the 33-year-old and his bride. In fact, Shallenberger said she was grateful to Parker for exposing a public wrong.
It seems that to get commission approval for an expansion more than 30 years ago, Ventana had agreed to keep the nearby low-cost campground open to all visitors. But the inn, where room rates can run as high as $4,000 a night, closed it in 2007 in violation of state law.
“I thank Mr. Parker for having his wedding there, so we discovered all the violations and the six years where the public has not had access,” Shallenberger said.
In their first joint interview on the controversy that has generated online threats, Parker and Lenas said Tuesday that their wedding was magical and environmentally sensitive.
“It’s really sad how little old-growth is left,” Lenas said.
According to Parker, the couple enlisted the Save the Redwoods League for help in finding a suitable locale to tie the knot. (He previously had donated $250,000 to the group.) The league suggested the Ventana campground, Parker said, because it was partially paved and out of service.
“Save the Redwoods League sent their chief scientist down to look at it and provide us with a plan to do this in an eco-sensitive way,” Parker said. “So much of the press accused us of eco-trashing.… We couldn’t have been more conscientious about our approach. We went out of our way to do this the right way.”
Parker and Lenas leased the campground in November and began building an elaborate set for the wedding in March — at a cost of about $4.5 million.
Then, less than three weeks before the big event, the Coastal Commission called Ventana, Parker said. And Ventana called him.
“They said we needed to stop work and couldn’t go on with the wedding,” he said, sitting with Lenas in a Menlo Park location that they requested remain undisclosed. (The couple postponed their Bora Bora honeymoon to deal with the hubbub.) “I had never heard of the Coastal Commission at that point. I hadn’t heard of the Coastal Act of 1976. I wasn’t around in 1976.”
So Parker hired attorney Rick Zbur, chairman of the California League of Conservation Voters, and worked toward the settlement with the commission. Lenas called the days leading up to the wedding “devastating.”
“This was a very agonizing 20-day period,” Parker said. “For most of it, we thought the wedding wouldn’t happen at all.…The Coastal Commission quickly discovered the hotel was not in compliance and that became the focal point.” After that, the couple got clearance from the panel to proceed with their ceremony.
Parker said that he and Lenas — who is in the process of changing her last name — felt as if they were caught in the middle. They had worked with the hotel for months, he said, but the Ventana Inn staff never said any permits were needed. And their contract included a provision that Parker indemnify the hotel for any costs related to the wedding.
“If I hadn’t been a high-profile person with resources,” he said, “I wouldn’t be held up for … something I didn’t do.”
Under the terms of the settlement, Parker will pay $1 million to address the liabilities related to the unpermitted construction.
Lisa Haage, the commission’s chief of enforcement, told the panel Friday that “the environmental damage from the wedding-related construction work was less serious than we had originally feared, in part due to the fact that the large majority of the development was performed on a campground and existing road, not in a virgin forest.”
In addition, Parker will pay “a minimum of $1.5 million” to fund online conservation or public access efforts as a way to mitigate Ventana’s six-year campground closure. One possibility, McLendon said, is a statewide mobile device app akin to the one focused on Malibu’s beaches.
And Ventana Inn has agreed to reopen the campground no later than October 2014.
Jeffrey Haber, an attorney for the inn, on Tuesday defended Ventana’s actions, saying that the campground had been ordered closed by the regional water quality control board and the Monterey County Department of Environmental Health until a malfunctioning septic system could be repaired.
Yes, he acknowledged, “we did not apply for a specific permit to close the campground. But the Coastal Commission staff was aware that the campground had been closed.”
Coverage of the wedding attended by more than 325 guests (Sting, Emma Watson, Sean Lennon and Democratic notables like Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris were said to have been there) has been uniformly snarky.
Guests were dressed in fantasy-themed attire — the couple stressed that it was not Medieval — and dined on venison, salmon, chicken and porchetta.
“Tech titan gives industry bad name,” blasted a headline in the New Zealand Herald about Parker, who was played by Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network,” the blockbuster about Facebook’s early days.
“Tech titan gets pouty over all the bad press,” was the San Francisco Chronicle’s offering, above a story that began: “The billionaire tech entrepreneur just wanted to have a multimillion-dollar wedding in one of the most beautiful and protected ecosystems in the world, and everyone’s being so mean to him.”
But one that most bothered Parker was a piece in the Atlantic’s online edition: “Nothing says, ‘I love the Earth!’ quite like bringing bulldozers into an old-growth forest to create a fake ruined castle,” the Atlantic wrote. “And to build this fantasy world on a spot that should have been open to regular old middle-class people: That makes it even better.”
The Atlantic later published Parker’s lengthy email reply (there was no castle) and a sort-of correction under the headline: “Sean Parker Responds to Redwoods Wedding Criticism, and His Defense Is Actually Pretty Convincing.”