Coastal panel rejects Monterey golf project
They didn't make his day. Members of the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday denied Clint Eastwood and a cast of celebrity investors in the Pebble Beach Co. permission to cut down more than 15,000 Monterey pine trees to make way for another golf course — the ninth — in the Monterey Peninsula's Del Monte Forest.
The commission's 8-4 decision came after years of politicking that pushed through a local ballot measure in favor of the development, sought key supporters in the state capital and worked on lining up a majority of votes on the powerful commission, which was established 30 years ago to protect the coast from excessive development.
Pebble Beach Co.'s owners, including Eastwood, Arnold Palmer and U.S. Olympic Committee board Chairman Peter Ueberroth, had personally lobbied commissioners since they and their investors bought the company from Japanese owners in 1999 for $820 million.
But in the end, commissioners were unsettled by the proposal, which would have removed trees, filled wetlands and altered fragile coastal habitat that is safeguarded by the state's coastal protection law.
"In my 20 years of attending the Coastal Commission's meetings, this is the most egregious example of development trying to circumvent the Coastal Act," said Commissioner Sara Wan of Malibu. "It amounts to wholesale destruction of the environment, [and] destroys the essence of the Monterey pine forest."
She was joined by a majority of commissioners who felt constrained by the take-it-or-leave-it proposal that, if approved, would have limited their ability to tinker with the company's elaborate development plans. Those plans would have allowed the developers to cut down about 18,000 trees, most of them the region's signature Monterey pines, and build the 18-hole golf course, a driving range and an equestrian center, as well as 60 apartments for employees and 160 luxury hotel rooms at the Inn at Spanish Bay and the Lodge at Pebble Beach.
"Obviously we are saddened and disappointed that the commission didn't see the benefits of developing a small portion of the forest and putting the remainder in permanent protection," said Anthony Lombardo, an attorney representing Pebble Beach Co. "We are going to step back and look at our options."
Those could include suing the commission or trying to figure out other ways to allay its concerns about further development of one of the state's most treasured places.
Ueberroth and other company officials asserted that some development is needed to help Pebble Beach's 130 investors — including Tiger Woods — make a reasonable return, pay for upkeep on the peninsula's famed 17-Mile Drive and meet other expenses.
Building another golf course, adding hotel rooms and only three dozen homes was a better option, he said, than prior plans that Ueberroth said would have caused greater fragmentation of the lush Del Monte Forest with the development of hundreds of new homes.
Although it would have eliminated a portion of the forest, the company pledged to set aside more than 400 acres of undeveloped coastal land.
Pebble Beach Co. owns about 30% of the 5,270-acre Del Monte Forest, a gated community that is open to members of the public willing to pay $9 to take the 17-Mile Drive, which snakes through the forest and along the craggy coastline.
The peninsula is a mecca for golfers, who pay $475 to play the storied Pebble Beach Golf Links, fashioned in 1919 with many of the holes perched atop rocky cliffs over looking the Pacific Ocean surging below. Pebble Beach also owns three other 18-hole courses and one nine-hole course.
Although the area still abounds in towering trees, much of the forest has already been fragmented by development, including about 3,000 homes, as well as three other private golf courses.
The proposed course would not have bordered the ocean, because there is insufficient property to develop.
Instead, according to a 200-page Coastal Commission analysis, the course would have been carved out of 150 acres of native Monterey pine forest that remain between other existing golf courses. And it would have eliminated about 20% of endangered orchids, called the Yadon's piperia, as well as wetlands and other habitat used by wildlife. Some, such as the California red-legged frog made famous by Mark Twain's story about jumping frog contests, are already threatened with extinction.
Biologists and local environmentalists are particularly concerned about preserving remaining native Monterey pines, because most of them have been infected by pine pitch canker, a type of fungus. They don't know which trees will withstand the disease and want to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible to maximize the forest's chances of survival.
All of these factors led to the Coastal Commission staff's determination that the area to be developed is "environmentally sensitive habitat," which must be protected under the California Coastal Act — a determination vigorously disputed by Pebble Beach Co. and Monterey County planners.
Wednesday's decision was a rather technical one, approving an amendment to a local coastal plan, which is a blueprint for regional development. Adoption of the regional plan would also have amounted to de facto approval of the Pebble Beach Co. development, which troubled commissioners because it offered them no flexibility.
The language of the amendment was drawn up by Pebble Beach Co. lawyers and adopted in 2000 by local voters in a ballot measure called "The Del Monte Forest and Preservation Initiative."
But the initiative said any changes must be approved by the voters, unless the whole measure was invalidated by court order. That left the commission only two options: approve the project in its entirety or reject it.
The ballot measure was a gamble for Pebble Beach Co., because it didn't disclose that the development would result in the loss of so many trees — a fact that has only come to light more recently. Some in the community felt duped, among them the hometown newspaper, the Monterey County Herald, which had initially run an editorial in favor of the project.
Earlier this week, the Herald editorialized against the plan, saying the ballot measure was a textbook example of how initiatives can be manipulated. "Monterey County voters overwhelming supported the measure, but that's because they believed, after an expensive ad campaign pushing a 'save the forest' theme, that it would lead to less development in the forest, not more…. It made no mention of cutting down 15,000 pines."
Pebble Beach Co. attorney Lombardo said he had little sympathy for voters who were more swayed by television ads featuring popular local resident Eastwood, than by reading the fine print.
"Clearly, it's possible that people didn't read the campaign materials and ballot arguments," he said. "But that was their own fault, not Clint Eastwood's."
Neither Eastwood nor Ueberroth attended Wednesday's commission meeting.
But in required public disclosures, many of the commissioners said they had been lobbied by one of the two men and repeatedly by their representatives.