In Big Sur, war waged over land and lifestyle

Written by Virginia Hennessey; published in Monterey Herald on April 18, 2004

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 trusts.

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 national park.

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 went home.

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 did not 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 enraged residents.

"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.

'Viewshed vigilantes'

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, Worl 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 used 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 community itself.

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 compromised."

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 misplaced.

"We have always worked for and with property owners. That has been our password," he said. "Our mission is ro 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 landowners."

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 different context.

Developer or environmentalist

Lisa and Charly Kleissner are newcomers to Big Sur. Worse, in the eyes of some old timers, they're rich newcomers. Charly Kleissner, an Austrian native, was a high-tech entrepreneur who cashed out before the crash.

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 learned.

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 Felicitas Foundation, which works here and overseas on projects that find common ground between communities and environmental groups.

Charly 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 conservations 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 peroperty 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 cooperativewly 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 resourt, "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 the most unique treasures we have."


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