Sean Parker was in a bind.
It was late May 2013, and a scandal was beginning to brew over his wedding, an opulent affair that was to be held on California’s coast. State regulators were up in arms because the campground where the ceremony was scheduled was intended for public, not private, usage. But an upscale hotel nearby had contracted it to Parker for the party, which was happening in less than a week.
That standoff finally bore its fruit this week: the culmination of an agreement between the state of California and the billionaire tech entrepreneur. The California Coastal Commission, which issued numerous violations to Parker and the hotel for the event at the time, released a slickly designed app that Parker created as part of a settlement with the state that included a $2.5 million payout. The free app, available to anyone with an iPhone, helps people find access to beaches along the entirety of the state’s coast.
When it spilled into public view more than five years ago, the dispute over Parker’s wedding served as a parable about the excesses and arrogance of Silicon Valley.
But we have the benefit of hindsight now and a snazzy new beach app to boot. Perhaps this story is better understood less as a cautionary tale than a fable about the value of cooperation and compromise. This is the story of a public-private partnership that worked, however small and informal, as much as it is a warning about the ease with which obscene wealth can make problems disappear as quickly as they arise.
So let’s take a moment to revel in this one. This might be the only story you read this week where everybody seems to win, not just the rich guy.
Forget the various legal issues for a second — the wedding of Parker, the founder of Napster and a former president of Facebook, to singer-songwriter Alexandra Lenas, was an absolute dream, or so it seemed.
The campground in Big Sur, a remote coastal outpost famed for its stunning vistas and deep sense of solitude, had been transformed into what had been envisioned as an enchanted forest. Over the months of preparation, workers had constructed an artificial pond, a bridge, rock staircases, the faux ruins of a stone castle, and a 20-foot-tall wrought iron gate forged with the couple’s initials. Designer Ken Fulk described it as “Citizen Kane meets Gatsby.” But really, it was more modern mash-up of J.R.R. Tolkien, California’s stunning environment and some tree-worshiping new-age cult.
The crowd of famous, super wealthy, and famous and super wealthy guests — among them Sean Lennon, Sting, Emma Watson, Metallica drummer and anti-Napster crusader Lars Ulrich, current California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and many a tech scion — wore outfits made by the Oscar-winning costume designer from the Lord of the Rings movies.
“Everyone entered through a 20-foot-high gate, with the couple’s initials intertwined in wrought iron, before descending a path lined with imported evergreens. People literally gasped as they emerged into a glade in which planted flowers and hanging garlands conferred a riot of color and a sense of undulation,” the magazine wrote. “Set designers had constructed faux bridges, a ruined stone castle, a 10-foot Celtic cross, and two broken Roman columns that straddled the altar, beneath the largest tree in the grove. A pen of bunnies was nearby for anyone who needed a cuddle.”
The price tag was somewhere between $5 million and $10 million, though Parker would later dispute the higher figure.
It was the perfect fairy tale. Until the following Monday morning.
The California Coastal Commission released a report on June 3 — two days after the wedding — outlining, in no uncertain terms, the numerous violations incurred by the affair.
Parker was named as an offender in the report, along with the hotel, the high-end Ventana Inn and Spa.
The commission said the inn had reneged on agreements about a public campground and parking lot as it sought to build more expensive units and a restaurant in the 1980s. The campground had been closed in 2007 without the permission of the state, and the parking lot had been annexed for the hotel’s guests. That was where Parker’s fete took place.
The substantial construction projects undertaken for the party also did not have the required “coastal development permits,” the commission noted.
The CCC report unleashed a torrent of negative press, as the seemingly over-the-top wedding struck a nerve in a country that was just beginning to feel uneasy about the incredible wealth that was amassing in Silicon Valley. Parker’s nuptials also symbolized another tension: frustration with the arrogance and willingness to disregard rules, norms and regulations that have increasingly come to mark the tech world’s public image.
An “eco-wrecking wedding,” one headline called it. An “Ecological Wedding Disaster” another. And the coup de grace: “Sean Parker’s $10 million destruction of a park epitomizes what’s wrong with Silicon Valley.”
It made no matter that the bulk of the violations appeared to stem from the hotel’s choices.
Parker penned a 9,000-word rebuttal, in which he lambasted the media’s sensationalized coverage of the affair, and he may have had a point: Only one reporter had reached out for his side of the story, he said.
Nonetheless, the damage had been done.
“Sean Parker: Still [a Jerk] 10,000 Words Later,” wrote Gawker.
In truth, the problems caused by the wedding were in the process of being resolved before the Coastal Commission issued its report.
Parker met with the commission in the week leading up to his wedding, and he had made an impression on the officials he met.
The night before the summit, he had apparently read California’s Coastal Act, a landmark piece of 1970s environmental legislation that guarantees public rights to the beach in the state, representatives from the Coastal Commission told The Post this week.
“He was citing things in the Coastal Act that I wasn’t aware of,” said Aaron McLendon, deputy chief of enforcement for California Coastal Commission. “He took the time to, all night, read the Coastal Act, which is large — hundreds of pages — and he understood it and he got it. I think that really helped. I don’t think there are many people that do that prior to meeting us.”
McLendon said the commission had never had any intention to shut down the wedding.
“We were trying to find ways in which we could resolve it as quickly as possible,” he said.
Parker agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle all the violations from the event, though the bulk of the issues stemmed from the hotel’s misuse of the camping area.
For another component, Parker, Lenas and the commission set to brainstorm ideas. The agency said it increasingly seeks out creative solutions to problems in addition to financial settlements.
Some ideas, like one Parker had to buy a campground to be used by schools and other organizations to bring disadvantaged children to the coast, never got off the ground.
So the group started focusing in on one that would blend Parker’s technological acumen with the agency’s coastal access work: an app.
The App ...
... is not your typical piece of state agency-issued software. Called YourCoast, it is a well designed package that appears to squarely achieve its simple purpose: mapping all of the public access points to the coast in the entire state.
Previously, people looking for this type of information were forced to rely on a hodgepodge of resources, including obscure books published regularly by the commission, various blog and digital resources, and good old-fashioned local lore.
Parker’s app organizes the state’s information about 1,563 coastal access points in one easy-to-use map. These locales include beaches but also overlooks, trails, tide-pools and other coastal features. Some are well-known, while others are hidden swaths of public land that would be unlikely to be discovered otherwise.
“It’s just an incredibly practical way to find all the nearest beaches and how to get to them,” Jennifer Savage, the California Policy Manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit focused on coastal access and protection, said in an interview.
Users can zoom in on the map to see beach options in a particular area. Each location pin includes a brief description of the space — whether it’s a kayak launch, a scenic overlook, a path to the beach, for example, and a list of amenities like parking, bathroom and picnic areas, and whether the area is rocky, sandy or friendly for strollers.
“This is the first time that the public has access to information for the whole coast in one place,” Lisa Haage, the commission’s chief of enforcement, said in an interview.
The software’s launch was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, and it has drawn a flurry of coverage since. Savage said she hoped that the app and Parker’s role in it would help raise awareness about the state’s access laws.
“It helps affirm the fact that in California the coast belongs to everyone,” she said.
The commission said it wouldn’t have been able to make the app without Parker’s assistance. Parker supplied the technological know-how and engineering muscle for the 140-person agency, which officials said is stretched thin by the 1,300 miles of coast under its purview.
“They used data that we had collected, and then we worked with our IT folks,” Haage said. “But he provided the actual app developers. That’s why we were excited — it’s not often [in settlements] you get someone to do something that’s so completely in their wheelhouse.”
He also provided funding for two years of maintenance, after which the state will have to take it on itself. And he will be making a video about the commission that is required by contract to go viral, as the final piece of his settlement.
The state has solved other standoffs in a variety of ways — acquiring more coastal property in lieu or addition to a settlement. But its experience with Parker stands in contrast to separate coastal dispute with another tech billionaire. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has fought a bitter battle against the state to maintain the right to close public access to the beach near a large hillside property he bought. Though his case took a blow when the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal to a ruling that he had to keep the path open, his dispute with the Coastal Commission continues. Martins Beach, the one in question near his property, is marked as “currently closed,” on the app.
Haage and McLendon said Parker’s actions represented a way forward for someone like Khosla.
“It shows that if you have a willing partner and an agency that’s willing to be creative you can come up with something really great,” Haage said. “And there’s an advantage to trying to resolve your legal obligations in a creative and collaborative way.”