June 12, 2007

T H E H E R A L D ' S V I E W

More modest plan needed for Pebble

Deep within the Pebble Beach Co.'s development plan are some fine ideas. Expanding existing operations at the Lodge at Pebble Beach and the Inn at Spanish Bay make good sense from an economic standpoint and even an environmental perspective. They are low-impact ways to keep the company's resort operations on solid financial footing. But the full plan remains just as short-sighted and unsupportable as it was a year ago when the company pulled it off the Coastal Commission's agenda amid waves of criticism from environmental groups and the commission staff.

Though many expected significant changes before the plan resurfaced, it still calls for cutting down as many as 15,000 Monterey pines to make way for another golf course. It still proposes taking a giant bite out of the seriously endangered Monterey pine forest, second only to the bay as the Peninsula's defining feature.

Encroaching on wetlands

The golf course and other elements of the ambitious development plan would still encroach on protected wetlands, coastal dunes and a rare species of orchid.

The proposal returning to the commission this week still involves development of Del Monte Forest property designated as "environmentally sensitive habitat area."

Though Pebble Beach Co. representatives Alan Williams and Tony Lombardo hope to make a case to the contrary, development of such an area would violate the California Coastal Act. In short, it would be illegal.

The company says it has proposed ample mitigation measures, primarily involving protection of forest areas elsewhere, including on Monterey's Jacks Peak. But the commission's technical staff concludes that much of the acreage proposed for set-aside is already protected or is outside the coastal zone. Protecting inland forest is great, but allowing someone to develop oceanfront property in exchange for protecting land elsewhere undermines the intent of the act.

Pebble Beach representatives continue to argue that the plan reflects the will of the people because it was approved by Monterey County voters in the form of the "Del Monte Forest Preservation and Development Limitation Initiative," better known as Measure A, on the November 2000 ballot. Company officials say voters gave them the right to develop the golf course and other new facilities in exchange for the company giving up the right to develop some 800 lots in the Del Monte Forest.

There are several flaws in that argument.

The ballot measure was a textbook example of how initiatives can be manipulated. Monterey County voters overwhelmingly 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.

The text of Measure A said it would "increase open space in the Del Monte Forest." It said "environmentally sensitive habitat areas" would remain "undeveloped." It made no mention of cutting down 15,000 pines.

Plan not sanctioned

Measure A, not to be confused with last week's Measure A about the county general plan, sought to create the impression that the Pebble Beach Co. had development rights to more than 800 residential lots. Though they had been penciled into an earlier plan, the lots had never been subdivided and the Coastal Commission had never sanctioned that plan.

Love the commission or hate it, the truth is that if you want to develop coastal property in California, your development rights don't exist until the commission says they do.

What gives pause to the Sierra Club and other project opponents is that while the law and the plan have not changed in the past year, the makeup of the 12-member commission has shifted somewhat. A developer became chairman in January and one of the commission's most outspoken environmentalists, Meg Caldwell, was removed in February by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those and other changes seem to be what gives Pebble Beach Co. hope that Measure A might win support this week, enabling the company to return later with final development details.

But no matter whether the components are considered together or separately, it's time for this show to end. It's time for the whole proposal to be rejected so the company can start taking steps toward a more modest but also important expansion. While not approaching the scope of the larger plan, the Spanish Bay and Lodge proposals would be welcome additions to the local tourism industry.

At Spanish Bay, the company wants to add two three-story buildings providing 86 hotel units, a 45,000-square-foot addition to the main building, underground parking with 443 spaces, and new tennis, basketball and office facilities.

At the Lodge at Pebble Beach, 20 guest units would be created in a two-story structure between the Morse Building and the links. A new complex including 43 guest units in two-story buildings would be built atop a 154-space underground parking garage.The Coastal Commission staff says those plans contain no obvious disqualifiers. Even the Sierra Club, the leading detractor of the larger plan, says it may be able to get behind such an expansion.

Like any other business, Pebble Beach Co. needs to grow to survive and, over time, to change in order to thrive.

Enough time and energy have been spent on the Measure A plan. Pebble Beach residents and the larger community would be better served by an expansion that leaves the trees where they are.