A proposed golf course and housing development amid the imperiled Monterey pines of Pebble Beach's Del Monte Forest has set up a confrontation between Monterey County and the California Coastal Commission.

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved development plans for a golf resort, 33 luxury residences, worker housing, and other projects in March. While the plans have been branded as a balance of environmental protection and economic development, the Coastal Commission - backed by the Sierra Club and other environmental and citizen groups - is concerned about the impact on the pine forest.

At stake are 17,000 Monterey pines and what remains of an already fragmented coastal habitat. Development proponents point out that the plans would clear only a small fraction of the region's pines, and that the project also includes protection of 800 acres elsewhere. However, Coastal Commission staff members and environmentalists contend that the coastal pine habitat is more sensitive, more diverse, and more threatened than pine woodlands farther inland. The coastal pine forest harbors many endangered species, such as the Yadon's piperia and red-legged frogs, not found in the inland forests.

Although the county has recently given the thumbs up, the Coastal Commission has final say in the matter because the project requires a local coastal plan amendment and a change to a 1984 coastal development permit. Plus, at least 10 groups have appealed the county's decision to the state panel. Coastal Commission staff members say that the plans are in violation of the Coastal Act, the current local coastal plan, and the 1984 coastal development permit for a neighboring project. Yet environmentalists and other opponents fear that the coastal commissioners will approve the project anyway because commissioners overrode staff concerns recently while approving development at Bolsa Chica and the Dana Point Headlands in Orange County.

In February of 2000, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer, Peter Ueberroth, and other investors purchased the Pebble Beach Company - owners of four golf courses and several resorts, restaurants, and other tourist draws on the Monterey Peninsula - for $820 million. That November, the group backed a county-wide ballot initiative (Measure A) to alter the zoning in the Del Monte Forest for the group's development plans.

Prior to the election, Eastwood appeared in ad campaigns asking the voters to support the initiative titled, "Del Monte Forest Plan: Forest Preservation and Development Limitations." Voters were told that the initiative would permanently protect several hundred acres of their beloved forests and substantially limit future development. Offering his vote of assurance, Ueberroth claimed, "We are not developers."

The measure passed with nearly two-thirds of the vote, yet the subsequent development plans - despite being consistent with the measure - revealed more aggressive interests than many people anticipated. According to David Dilworth, President of Help Our Peninsula's Forests, few voters understood that Measure A would be opening the door to new development. "Most of the folks I've talked with felt they were voting on a purely forest preservation measure," he said.

While a clever advertising campaign may have contributed to the measure's success, many voters and citizen groups, including the Concerned Citizens of Pebble Beach, were fully aware of Measure A's intent. Although developers did not file their plans with the county until July 2001, "Many of us knew about the plans, and we did our best to inform the voters,” said Ted Hunter, Concerned Citizens president.

The Del Monte Land Use Plan - as approved by the Coastal Commission in 1984 - allows for the subdivision of 41 residential lots into a total of 890 parcels. In campaigning for Measure A, the Pebble Beach Company relied on the impression that they were saving the forest from the construction of almost all of those houses; however, it is unlikely that most of these houses would ever get built. Most of the lots lie on land currently designated by the Coastal Commission as environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA), which places severe restrictions on subdivision potential. Commission staff members say that a proper reading of the Coastal Act allows no more than 41 units.

Thom McCue, senior planner with Monterey County, said that environmental overlays significantly reduce the development potential as well. McCue contended that while it is difficult to know how many units might be allowed, "it would certainly be significantly less than the theoretical potential."

McCue also said that a new 18-hole golf course may be more intrusive on the forest than the homes would be because many residents would likely leave trees on their property standing. The Coastal Commission staff contends that the proposed golf course is impermissible under the Coastal Act because it would harm land protected as ESHA.

The Pebble Beach Company's plan also designates roughly 800 acres of protected open space, 460 of which is in the Del Monte Forest. Environmentalists and the Coastal Commission contend that this land is already protected under the Coastal Act as ESHA. The county planning staff, which has admittedly interpreted the law more narrowly, disagrees. The county's interpretation of the law, consistent with the terms of the 1984 permit, provides for far greater development potential.

Another issue involves the relocation of an old equestrian center to a new site known as Sawmill Gulch. In 1984, the 24 acre-Sawmill Gulch site was set aside in conservation easements as mitigation for the Spanish Bay golf resort development. The site was supposed to be reforested, but the effort failed and it remains largely barren. To create the new equestrian center, the conservation easements would have to be revoked by the county, according to McCue. While environmentalists bemoan the county's interpretation of "in perpetuity,” McCue points out that the number of acres the plan protects is many times greater than those lost at Sawmill Gulch.

Dan Carl, a coastal planner in the Commission's Santa Cruz office, said that in order to allow the new equestrian center, the Commission would need to weaken the existing coastal development permit (CDP) for Spanish Bay. He said that the Commission is not allowed to weaken environmental restrictions on an existing CDP unless new information becomes available. "We don't believe any such information exists," he said.

In an attempt to mitigate the effects of the current project, Pebble Beach Company has proposed dedicating 460 acres of protected land within the Del Monte Forest and pledged protection for about 340 acres of Monterey pines on privately owned land east of Highway 1. While the gesture adds a new layer of protection to these sites, environmentalists such as Rita Dalessio, chair of the Sierra Club's Ventana Chapter, say there is no indication that any real development potential exists at the inland locations. The sites are well into the hills and away from activity, it is not clear there are any water rights, and there are only a handful of legal lots.

As for the 460 acres of the Del Monte forest designated as protected, Dalessio contends that what is left is merely scraps from the developer's plate and worries that, like the Sawmill Gulch, this land is safe only until developers want to build on it.

The big question may be whether the Coastal Commissioners will choose to listen to county officials or their own staff. A decision may be rendered by the early fall.

Mark Massara, attorney for the Sierra Club and director of its Coastal Programs campaign, said that while the commissioners do not always agree with their staff, the commissioners' decisions are vulnerable in court if they differ from the staff recommendation. He cited a case in Davenport, north of Santa Cruz, in which a San Francisco Superior Court judge recently found that commissioners erred by ignoring staff advice, and the judge overruled the Commission's decision to allow a development project.

Dan Carl, Coastal Commission, (831) 427-4863
Thom McCue, Monterey County, (831) 883-7528.
Mark Massara, Sierra Club, (805) 895-0963.
David Dilworth, Help Our Peninsula's Forests, (831) 624-6500.
Ted Hunter, Concerned Citizens of Pebble Beach, (831) 624-3734.