Developers Again Aim at Pebble Beach
John Harlow in Los Angeles
March 20, 2006
Anyone with even a passing acquaintanceship with golf — and I've rolled a few balls from tee box to cup in my time — knows of Pebble Beach as one of the most storied and picturesque golf venues in the world.
Anyone with a casual knowledge of the California environment knows of the Monterey Peninsula's Del Monte Forest, where Pebble Beach is located, as one of the most beautiful and fragile ecological systems in the country.
So what are the chances that these two interests would clash?
No prize for guessing, because environmental battles over development in the forest have been about as common as shanks into the woods. But the latest proposal by the company, which is owned by a partnership headed by Clint Eastwood, former Los Angeles Olympics Chairman and Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and Arnold Palmer, is one of the most ambitious development proposals on the California coast. It's certainly the biggest in the environmentally sensitive Del Monte Forest since Pebble Beach Co. opened the Inn at Spanish Bay in 1987.
The owners want to build a new golf course (their sixth) in the heart of the forest along with up to 24 linkside guest suites, move an equestrian center to a parcel that the company previously promised to leave permanently undeveloped, and expand two luxury resorts. Doing so would involve uprooting about 18,000 trees, most of them the forest's signature Monterey pine.
How big a deal is this? The California Coastal Commission's public hearing on the plan, held in Monterey on March 9, lasted 12 hours. That reflected mostly local interest, but there's much more at stake. "The forest is a statewide coastal resource," says Mark Massara, an attorney for the Sierra Club. And the way the pressure for development gets balanced with the need to halt incursions into the forest by the Coastal Commission, which has the ultimate administrative jurisdiction, will say a lot about California's environmental future.
One obvious question is why Pebble Beach needs another golf course. Eastwood, Ueberroth, Palmer and their partners bought Pebble Beach Co. from a Japanese corporation for $820 million, cash, in 1999. No one denies that they're entitled to a fair return, but room rates at the company's two major resorts start at $535 a night and top out at $2,275. A day on the links will cost you as much as $450. (All rates are as of April 1.) So it doesn't seem as though the typical Pebble Beach client would object to paying a few extra bucks to make Messrs. Eastwood, Ueberroth and Palmer whole.
Another issue is whether the partners are being truly candid about their intentions. Some of the community's 4,500 residents may favor the new plan because Pebble Beach has sold it as less drastic than what it's entitled to build anyway, and as its last development request ever. "What's really great is that Pebble Beach is talking about it as a final buildout," says Gerald Verhasselt, a longtime resident and an officer of the Del Monte Forest Property Owners Assn., which supports the project.
The company claims that it now has the right to throw up at least 850 new homes within the forest, and possibly more than 1,000. Given that its new plan asks for only 62 homes and resort suites (along with a few units of "employee" housing), it feels justified in bragging that it's cutting back its development ambitions for the good of the forest.
"We're trying to do what's environmentally right," says Alan Williams, head of the development company that designed the project for Pebble Beach.
But the commission staff notes that the plan removes limits on new units at the two luxury lodges, which otherwise are topped out. And it contends that the company's right to build 850 homes is an illusion. Although county zoning standards might theoretically allow construction on such a scale, in the Del Monte Forest, any construction is subject to severe environmental restrictions, and the company doesn't have a prayer of obtaining permits for even a fraction of those units. The staff says that if the Coastal Commission wants to be a stickler, it could limit all residential construction in the forest to about 40 new homes — or even no new homes.
"Once something is identified as environmentally sensitive habitat, you just aren't allowed to develop it," Charles Lester, the commission's deputy director, told me. That classification, he adds, may apply to virtually the entire 600-acre tract covered by the proposal, which is habitat for the endangered native Monterey pine, a rare orchid and other endangered species. The commission arguably could forbid almost any construction.
Plainly aware that their proposal would run into a roadblock at the Coastal Commission, the backers tried an end-run: In 2000 they put it up as a local ballot initiative, which they described as a "forest preservation" measure. Endowed with a $1-million war chest for TV commercials featuring Eastwood, perhaps the region's most popular resident, the 9,000-word measure passed easily. Opponents, who say they raised only $35,000, were hopelessly outgunned.
Although the plan still couldn't go into effect without the Coastal Commission's say-so, the vote did allow the company to claim that it had Monterey residents' support.
Since then, the county board of supervisors has given the plan its enthusiastic approval. The Coastal Commission's hearing followed, with further consideration by the commission scheduled for its regular meeting in June.
There are faint signs that the company may be flexible on some of the plan. Williams says it might be willing to relocate the equestrian center to a less sensitive spot, for instance. But the golf course and guest suites will be harder to give up.
The company hopes that by offering to sequester hundreds of acres of land from development forever it can eke out this final permit. "This is a hell of an opportunity if they work with the company," Williams says.
But the environmentalists talk as though they smell victory in the Monterey breezes.
"The idea that they can cut down 18,000 trees and do all this development in the forest is a flight of fancy," Massara says. "That discussion is over."
You can reach Michael Hiltzik at email@example.com and view his weblog at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.