[FoRK] Property rights don't count if your land is pretty
Joseph S. Barrera III
joe at barrera.org
Sun Apr 18 19:06:16 PDT 2004
Posted on Sun, Apr. 18, 2004
In Big Sur, war waged over land and lifestyle
By VIRGINIA HENNESSEY
Herald Salinas Bureau
In Big Sur, they're calling the process "Pac-Man National Park," the
bite-by-bite acquisition of private land by government agencies and land
The idea of placing what is arguably the most beautiful stretch of
coastline on earth into public hands might seem a good thing to the 4
million people who visit Big Sur each year.
But for many Big Sur residents, it signals the destruction of a
community that existed before California was a state. And, with the
California Coastal Commission and Monterey County making it ever more
difficult to develop private land, they say there is often no option but
to feed it to the Pac-Man machine.
It is a struggle that has been going since well before the video game.
Alan Perlmutter and his wife came to Big Sur in the late 1970s. Mike
Caplin came around the same time. Drawn by the majesty of the area, they
soon found themselves warriors in the battle to "Save Big Sur."
For most who used the phrase back in the '70s, it was a drive to save
Big Sur from developers who would turn it into another San Diego.
For Caplin, Perlmutter and others, it was a battle cry to protect their
private property rights from numerous efforts to turn Big Sur into a
It was a 10-year, bi-coastal battle, first against Sen. Alan Cranston,
then state Sen. Fred Farr and Rep. Leon Panetta and finally Sen. Pete
Wilson, all of whom tried to pass some form of federalization for Big Sur.
"The philosophy was anything that beautiful, you can't live there. It
belongs to the public," said Perlmutter, owner of the Big Sur River Inn.
He remembers traveling to Washington in the late 1970s, sitting in the
office of U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, then considered the national "park
czar." Over a bottle of vodka, he said, Burton told him and other Big
Sur supporters, "If you think you're going to get that (expletive) turf,
you're out of your mind. That (expletive) turf belongs to me."
In the end, the residents won. Washington packed up its park plans and
But those were only battles in an ongoing war, said Caplin, a welder and
president of the Coast Property Owners Association. New assaults are
more subtle, an end run of sorts, he said. Instead of drawing the
boundaries for a national park, then acquiring the land, the government
is regulating properties to the point they can't be developed and the
landowners give up and sell to groups with no interest in developing,
such as the Big Sur Land Trust.
The end game is the same, said Caplin. Since 1986, according to county
statistics, roughly one-third of the remaining private land in Big Sur
has been acquired by public or quasi-public entities.
"If things keep going the way things are going, Big Sur will be a
national park," he said.
Big Sur Coastal Plan sticking|
While not all Big Sur residents think dark forces are at work to
federalize their community, limiting their opportunities for commerce,
most are up in arms over what they see as hyper-restrictive regulations
and overzealous enforcement. The discourse has grown decidely more
heated since last year when the Coastal Commission staff released its
draft update of the Big Sur local coastal plan.
One of the reasons Washington backed off in its efforts to secure Big
Sur from developers was that the community, working with government, had
passed the first Big Sur Coastal Plan, mandated by the California
Coastal Act. The document is the most stringent coastal land use policy
in the country. Among other things, it created "critical viewshed
areas," including the Highway 1 corridor where, it dictated, "if you can
see it, you can't build it."
The plan didn't stop Pete Wilson from pursuing federalization, but it
gave other politicians an argument to block him: The community had
adopted its own anti-development regulations.
And in the nearly 20 years since the plan was certified, it has worked,
according to both locals and Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, who
also represents the area on the Coastal Commission.
"I could drive down the coast today and point out the five things that
are visible from the highway that were not visible then," Perlmutter said.
Now the plan is being updated, and elements of the draft proposal have
"It's enough, already" said Perlmutter.
Potter agrees. At a recent meeting of the Coastal Commission in
Monterey, he said he saw no reason to change the Big Sur Coastal Plan.
"Why we would want to go back and open up the Bible and rewrite it, I'm
not sure," he said.
Among the recommendations in the draft, which has been sent to Monterey
County for inclusion in the general plan update, is a declaration of
"central maritime chaparral" as an environmentally sensitive habitat
area in which no development would be allowed.
Also included is a recommendation that the critical viewshed area, in
which development is severely restricted, include views from public
trails and from the ocean.
The latter was enough to send residents over the edge at a recent
meeting in Big Sur with Coastal Commission staffer Rick Hyman, who wrote
the recommendations. Hyman told the hostile, standing-room-only crowd
the viewshed issue was put on the commission's radar by boaters in San
Luis Obispo County who complained about a development along the coast there.
Big Sur real estate agent Bob Cross called the claim a "blatant lie" and
said he'd apologize only after commission executive director Peter
Douglas named his sources.
There are virtually no boats off the treacherous coast of Big Sur, Cross
said, and the few fishing boats and cruise lines that travel the coast
beyond the three-mile limit set for the Monterey Bay National Marine
Sanctuary "wouldn't know a house if they saw one."
Even if they did, World War II-era Merchant Marine Leland Lewis told the
crowd, it would not be cause for concern.
"The most heartwarming thing for a sailor is to raise a coast and see a
church spire, or to see a house, hopefully with smoke curling from the
chimney." The idea that views from the ocean should be devoid of
structures, he said, is "silly."
Others in the crowd asked Hyman if he and the other "viewshed
vigilantes" next would consider the views experienced by hang gliders.
The issue of the central maritime chaparral was as controversial.
Land-use facilitator Arden Handshy said the county was already
implementing the recommendation, even though no studies have been done
to determine the extent or presence of the habitat in Big Sur.
Even the definition of the habitat is unclear, Caplin said. Apparently,
anywhere wooly leaf manzanita grows in association with almost any other
plant can be called maritime chaparral, he said, yet wooly leaf
manzanita is not a threatened species.
And if the county thinks such a habitat may exist on a parcel, Handshy
said, it will trigger a biological study costing the property owner as
much as $10,000.
Matter of affordability|
Handshy said the process of development on the Big Sur coast has become
almost unbearable. It has also made it possible for him to make a
full-time job out of helping people wade through the permit process.
"The inconsistent interpretations, the ever-changing planners and the
apparent fear that county staff has of lawsuits and Coastal Commission
oversight make it extremely difficult and unpredictable and expensive"
to get through the permit process, Handshy said.
Handshy's experience is what feeds Perlmutter's larger concern. It's not
just a loss of land, he said. It's a loss of community, a "way of life."
As the county and Coastal Commission make it more difficult to develop,
property owners give up and move out, he said. They sell to conservation
groups. As the stock of private land is diminished, the price of that
land rises. Young families who use to fill Captain Cooper School can no
longer afford to live there. Children who were raised there, cannot
afford to return. The population ages and eventually the community dies.
Perlmutter, who raised three children in Big Sur, said the shift is one
of the few things that have really changed in Big Sur in the decades
he's lived there.
Just about the only families moving into the area, he said, are Mexican
immigrants who work in the inns and restaurants.
"It's difficult for them to raise families because of the minimum places
for them to live," he said. Many families are living in over-crowded
employee housing or below-standard trailers in the area.
Potter considers affordable housing the most critical issue in Big Sur
and feels public agencies that acquire private land should be devoting
some of it to provide housing for the hundreds of low-income workers who
keep the region running.
"You've got people living in Soledad driving to Big Sur to work," he said.
However, he's not confident he'll see state agencies offering land for
affordable housing any time soon, since "state parks isn't even willing
to host a recycling bin."
Residents' input vital|
William Leahy, the new executive director of the Big Sur Land Trust,
said his organization is updating its mission and goals and is
determined to work with residents to preserve the landscape and the
Leahy said he's met with community groups and activists.
"They have made clear what their concerns and issues are, that land use
is contributing to a loss of a way of life and that we should be more
attentive to that," he said, "and I appreciate that.
"If the community does not embrace our mission, then our mission will be
One of his goals, he said, is to explore a partnership with residents to
find a solution to the lack of affordable housing.
Zad Leavy, founder of the land trust, said the community's mistrust is
"We have always worked for and with property owners. That has been our
password," he said. "Our mission is to preserve as much of Big Sur as we
can just the way it is, but we can't do it without the help of the
Leavy said the idea that private property could be regulated to the
point that it could not be developed is "just incorrect." And while the
price of property on the Big Sur coast has skyrocketed, it's the same
story everywhere on the California coast.
Gary Patton, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County, said it is
important for conservation groups to remain vigilant to ensure the
resources in Big Sur are not compromised.
"Very small changes can have dramatic effects," he said. "One 7-Eleven
in Big Sur has a different effect than a 7-Eleven in Marina. It's a
Developer or environmentalist|
Lisa and Charlie Kleissner are newcomers to Big Sur. Worse, in the eyes
of some old timers, they're rich newcomers. Charlie Kleissner, an
Austrian native, was a high-tech entrepreneur who cashed out before the
Despite Big Sur's historic connection to the era of peace, love and
hippies, "there is no welcome wagon in Big Sur," Lisa Kleissner quickly
Unlike their previous neighborhood in Los Gatos, where new neighbors
brought marmalade, the Kleissners didn't meet their Big Sur neighbors
until one had a problem with what they were doing on their property.
Nevertheless, the Kleissners have now been embraced by the community,
partly because they've volunteered their services to everything from the
health center to the Garrapata Creek Watershed Committee, and partly
because they've joined the fight against the county and Coastal Commission.
Coincidentally, the Kleissners bought their home in Big Sur after
retiring and founding KL Felicitus Foundation, which works here and
overseas on projects that find common ground between communities and
Charlie Kleissner said he sees in Big Sur a microcosm of what happened
with the environmental movement across the country: you were either an
environmentalist or a developer, with no ground in between.
Preserving the land, he said, is not incompatible with private
ownership. "You can find people who are good stewards of the land."
"I really consider myself a very, very green person," he said, "and I
feel completely raked by this process. When we bought land down here, we
thought we could do great things, like put in some conservation
easements. The next thing I know we're being singled out and put on the
stand as developers."
Perlmutter echoes his feelings.
"The environmentalists with straw hats and Birkenstocks don't own
property here. They think they know better than I, but they don't," he
said. "I have Birkenstocks, too, but I rarely wear them with socks."
Lisa Kleissner also fears that the one-size-fits-all style of land-use
regulation will kill the uniqueness, the funkiness of Big Sur.
"When you overregulate, you end up with houses that all look alike," she
said. "You have to think of Big Sur as a piece of art."
'Willing sellers... willing buyers'|
So what exactly do the people want? They want, they say, public agencies
to work creatively and cooperatively with landowners so they can remain
on their land. They want resources to be protected by private owners at
less cost to the public. And they want acquisition of private land in
Big Sur by public agencies or quasi-public land trusts to be considered
a last resort, "a failure," said Caplin.
That's not likely to happen.
"Frankly, it's something you can't prevent," Potter said of the transfer
of private land to public entities. "You've got willing sellers selling
to willing buyers."
Leon Panetta, who first backed the effort to federalize Big Sur and then
helped block it, said he is sympathetic to the residents' fears,
"particularly when you see how some of the national parks are being run."
The former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton said he feels a
multi-agency approach that includes input from residents will continue
to be the key to preserving both the resources and community. Panetta
founded the Big Sur Multi-Agency Task Force for that purpose and
residents continue to meet as part of that group.
"Their fear is if you hand Big Sur over to some kind of governmental
entity, in the end, under the guise of protecting it, you'll really
impact the culture and lifestyle of the area, which is really part of
what makes Big Sur unique.
"But in the end there is a common goal. Whether you live in Big Sur, or
you're someone who lives outside, the common goal is to protect probably
one of most unique treasures we have."
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 646-4355.
© 2004 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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