Pebble's Plans

Michael Hiltzik writes about Pebble Beach development plans in his LA Times "Golden State" column.

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.