Hearst Crown Jewel May Stay Unspoiled

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004

SAN SIMEON, Calif. -- As the morning fog lifts across Highway 1, the splendor of one of the last untamed stretches of California's coast comes into view.

There are no sprawling golf resorts in sight, only a few elephant seals frolicking on rocky beaches. No jumble of surf shops or seaside condos, only green pastures, rare wildlife and the sound of ocean waves roaring to the shore.

The two-lane scenic highway winds for miles through the heart of the Hearst Ranch site, a natural wonder of the West Coast. Unlike so much else of California's ever more crowded coastline, it has not been overtaken by development.

And now, it probably never will be.

After decades of debate, California and the Hearst family, which has owned the land since the 1860s, have reached agreement on preserving nearly all of it. The conservation deal is one of the most significant in the state's history.

It is also a sign of the extraordinary steps that the state and environmental groups are taking to try to save what little is left unspoiled along the coast.

As part of the plan, California intends to give the Hearst Corp. $80 million in cash and $15 million in tax breaks for title to 13 miles of beachfront, and for guarantees that 80,000 acres of ocean bluffs and rolling grasslands in the shadow of the famed hilltop castle that the late media mogul William Randolph Hearst built in the 1920s will never be developed.

In exchange for giving up rights to build as many as 400 homes on the ranch, Hearst could erect a 100-room hotel in San Simeon Village. It already has a few commercial structures, as well as 27 homes on five-acre lots and 600 acres of vineyards and orchards in valleys east of Highway 1, which runs along the coast.

That's a far cry from what the fate of the ranch once appeared likely to be. In the 1960s, there were plans to build a city for 65,000 people. Seven years ago, Hearst proposed creating a 650-room resort, convention center and golf course alongside the ocean.

"What we're paying for that magnificent landscape is a heck of a deal for the state," said California Resources Secretary Michael Chrisman. "That's the crown jewel of the coast, and we finally know it's going to stay that way."

But the long struggle over the Hearst Ranch may not be over. Some environmental groups in California, including the Sierra Club, are objecting to details of the deal and could derail it.

The state's complicated agreement with Hearst over the prized coastal property, detailed in more than 500 pages of documents made public this summer, is dividing conservationists in ways that few issues do.

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