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Snowy plovers and massive condos — opposing forces we'll meet on our coastal road trip

Imagine this:

A stunning, untouched beach, marked by crashing blue surf and a broad shoulder of dunes that are home to native plants and wildlife.

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Now imagine this:

A massive condo-and-hotel monstrosity carved into the wall of sand, permanently scarring the landscape and, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, destroying the habitat of birds protected under the Endangered Species Act.

I’m going to start my travels at the Oregon border and drive all the way to Mexico.


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The location is Sand City, Calif., just north of Monterey, and the long-contested development is inching toward reality. The developer and the staff of the California Coastal Commission are haggling over conditions that must be met before construction begins.

"There!" said Blake Matheson, president of the Monterey Audubon Society, who gave me a tour of the site last week. "You see that snowball moving toward the surf? That's a snowy plover."

Blake Matheson, president of the Monterey Audubon Society, at the site of a proposed development in Sand City, Calif.
Blake Matheson, president of the Monterey Audubon Society, at the site of a proposed development in Sand City, Calif. (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

We saw several more plovers on our walk. The developer of the property has argued that his "eco" resort will restore damaged habitat rather than negatively impact it. But Matheson isn't buying that.

"All I can do is listen to what the biologists say," Matheson told me. And what they say is that all that construction and the development it creates will disrupt the plovers' breeding habits.

"The birds," Matheson said, "are not going to nest on the roof of the hotel."

That development, and another hotel proposed for the same beach, are reason enough to insist on strict interpretation and enforcement of the California Coastal Act, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

I'll head back to Monterey later this summer to see if the bulldozers have begun rousting the birds. But as noted in my Sunday column, I'm going to start my travels at the Oregon border and drive all the way to Mexico, sizing up the Coastal Commission's successes, failures and ongoing challenges, meeting with crusaders and characters along the way.

Based on the response to that column, I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner.

Californians, unsurprisingly, are crazy about their coast and passionate about preserving what hasn't already been plundered.

The birds are not going to nest on the roof of the hotel.


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I've received love letters to beaches.

Poems.

Invitations to tour imperiled open spaces.

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Offers to meet with the pioneers who started the coastal preservation movement.

A reading list of books extolling the magnificence of California's 1,100-mile shoreline.

Tirades against Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been silent on the running controversies involving coastal commissioners – including his own appointees.

"On your coastal journey can you invite Jerry to meet you at some great spot!??" wrote Joyce from San Diego. "His myopia is so disappointing."

Actually, Joyce, I already pitched that very thing to Gov. Brown. I offered through a spokesman to meet the governor any time and anywhere, but preferably on a beach. He was, after all, the governor who, in 1976, signed the Coastal Act into being.

But by his inaction now, plenty of coastal stewards wonder if Brown is more interested in coastal development than coastal preservation.

Break the silence, I say. Let us know where you stand.

A woman named Elizabeth Bishop certainly let me know where I stand with her. She read my Sunday column and sent me a withering put-down, asking if I was familiar with the word "humility."

"Clearly not," she said, answering the question for me and suggesting my only purpose is to get a paid vacation and pretend that I'm important.

You are so full of yourself.


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That wasn't my first motivation, Elizabeth, but it's not the worst idea ever.

"You are so full of yourself," she went on.

But wait, Elizabeth, I'm just trying...

"Disgusting," she continued.

Holding people accountable is all I'm trying to…

"Be humble," she said.

With California's coast, I am humbled. It's a gift, and it has to be robustly defended, protected, preserved for generations to come, and open to everyone regardless of income.

"I'm 70 years old and I still delight in sticking my toes in the sand and listening to the children beside me squeal as they do the same," wrote Shirley LaCanfora of Torrance, who has been sinking her feet into the sand at Redondo Beach since she was 4.

"My parents would often drive us, my brother and I, to the Esplanade just to sit and watch the sun go down. It was free … and it was wonderful. It does so much for the spirit to be able to take in the beauty of the ocean's horizon. It should be available for all to see."

But sometimes the views aren't so spectacular. Frances O'Neill  Zimmerman wants me to see "the ugly oversize condos" cluttering the shore near her home in La Jolla.

Steve Stanage of Corona has invited me to pub crawl up the coast by trawler and I can't say no to that, even if he did invite my colleague Chris Erskine first.

I'm going to start my travels way up north in mid-July, dropping in on Jennifer Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper. She's going to give me a tour of some coastal preservation victories and update me on the politics of Gov. Brown's upcoming replacement of Coastal Commissioner Martha McClure, a Del Norte County supervisor who was voted out of office this month in part because she lost the support of local environmentalists.

I’m still open to suggestions, so don’t hesitate to write. Or to tweet with the hashtag #saveyourcoast – maybe throwing in a nudge to @JerryBrownGov.


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Tom Osborne, who is writing a book about former Coastal Commission director Peter Douglas, had a good tip for me: Go see James Mills in Coronado. In 1972, Mills was state Senate president pro tem and led 100 cyclists on a ride from San Francisco to San Diego to whip up support for Proposition 20, which was approved by voters and led to the creation of the Coastal Commission and eventually the Coastal Act.

I called Mills, who remembered local supporters turning out each evening during the coastal bike tour and serving spaghetti dinners to load up the cyclists on carbs.

Mills, now 89, says he still has the bike, and he'd be happy to show it to me.

Before summer is out, I told him, I'll be paying a visit.

I'm still open to suggestions, so don't hesitate to write. Or to tweet with the hashtag #saveyourcoast – maybe throwing in a nudge to @JerryBrownGov – if you want to help spread the word about this California resource or my lack of humility.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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