Private lands spur a public fight - Struggle for turf mounts as state growth surges
(Note: This tangled web should prove to all that it is not about 'saving,' 'protecting,' 'preserving,' or 'managing' anything floral or faunal, but rather about Controlling It ALL. In other words, how to put a padlock on the development market, the resources market, the water market, etc. It is an obscene monopoly, criminal and hostile in intent. And to think -- they still have the nerve to call themselves 'non profits.' Perhaps obscene is too pale a word...)
March 21, 2004
By Jim Wasserman
Associated Press
The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Pescadero, California - Tourists Mark and Dawn Kemp of Denver never thought such rural quiet was possible on a Pacific coastline just 20 miles from the hustle of Silicon Valley.

"I can't believe that we aren't seeing hotels and commercial growth scooping all this up," said Mark Kemp.

The two visitors, marveling at miles of uncluttered oceanfront, didn't know about a small, powerful network of nonprofit land trusts, government agencies and foundations that have bought thousands of acres of California's coastline since 2000 to stop growth.

As experts predict the population of California will grow to nearly 50 million within a generation, the state is in the midst of an unparalleled drive to steer its 1,100-mile coast clear of more development. Borrowing from a movement that created more than 250 miles of oceanfront state parks during the past century and tapping portions of $11.1 billion in new state bonds, California preserved nearly 53,000 acres of coast last year, reports the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that seeded such projects with $168 million and leveraged $133 million more.

Among the buys were some of the state's biggest and most politically charged deals: $140 million for 193 acres of Ballona Wetlands near Los Angeles International Airport; $135 million for the 2,800-acre Ahmanson Ranch on the Los Angeles-Ventura County line; and $100 million for 16,500 acres of Cargill Salt Pond wetlands on San Francisco Bay.

This year, land trusts have targeted the 128-square-mile oceanfront Hearst Ranch surrounding Hearst Castle in San Luis Obispo County. There, the San Francisco-based American Land Conservancy has promised the Hearst Corporation $80 million in state bond money for preserving its open space for future generations.

"That's the context within which we're doing this work," said Sam Schuchat, director of the state's Oakland-based Coastal Conservancy. "I want to make sure my daughter has the same opportunity to enjoy the outdoors that I have."

Yet behind the lofty intentions are complex negotiations, land speculation, use of state bonds to bail out troubled projects of campaign contributors and charges of overpaying for land with public money.

All helped hasten the downfall last year of recalled Governor Gray Davis, who had received campaign funds from owners of the Ahmanson, Ballona and Cargill properties.

The buying spree has also irritated coast farmers who feel they're being pushed off their land for the cause of empty space.

Indeed, for land trusts, it turns out that buying pieces of earth's most expensive and desirable real estate to prevent development typically requires the same fleets of Capitol lobbyists, political savvy and big league money that developers employ.

"The way you do it is buy it," said Audrey Rust, the $220,000-a-year chief of Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which keeps a Menlo Park office amid California's biggest venture capital firms, and aims to preserve two-thirds of San Mateo County's 55-mile coastline. "That's the way you do it in the United States."

California's new binge of coastal land buying comes as the nation's 1970s environmental movement has matured into a rich, formidable force to rival developers who have seen their power ebb amid bruising development fights and polls showing widespread support for open space.

In a phenomenon some have dubbed "Big Green," groups including the Arlington, Virginia, based Nature Conservancy and San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land and American Land Conservancy and numerous local land trusts have translated 1970s idealism into hard-nosed business to compete with developers and millionaires seeking "trophy houses."

Collectively, nonprofit trusts raised $27 million to pass Propositions 12, 40 and 50 in 2000 and 2002. The three measures authorized $11.1 billion to buy land for open-space preservation, to restore wetlands and wildlife habitat and to create new urban parks.

Among them, the Peninsula Trust raised $1.1 million for the three campaigns, according to state records, and reaped $41.5 million in return. Rust's group has also coaxed $100 million from private foundations of high tech moguls David Packard and Gordon Moore for its $200 million, 20,000-acre campaign called the nation's largest land conservation effort by a local trust.

In 2000, the Peninsula Trust paid a San Francisco businesswoman $3 million for three acres near the 1872 Pigeon Point lighthouse south of Half Moon Bay. Then it tore down her nearly finished motel, restoring both the oceanfront views and those of 7,000 acres of largely empty Peninsula Trust land east of Highway 1.

"We set out to get enough money to make an impact," said Rust, 59, who grew up romping on a Connecticut coastline with her grandfather and waxes about the "expansiveness" that human beings feel at a continent's edge.

Today, the trust's impact can be seen in homes and hotels that will never exist along the rural San Mateo Coast, on places such as the 4,262-acre Rancho Corral de Tierra, bought for $29 million and the 1,700-acre Bolsa Point Ranches optioned for $29 million. All instead will be managed by a variety of government agencies.

Still, the Peninsula Trust's success has stirred resentment from county farmers, said San Mateo County Farm Bureau Director Jack Olsen.

"What we see happening is POST gets grant money and acquires property and then, within a short time, the property has migrated out of agriculture," Olsen said.

"They like to use agriculture as a poster child for what they want to do and what they want to save, but there seems to be a hidden agenda to remove agricultural production from the ground."

Elsewhere on the coast, the Trust for Public Land and Packard Foundation paid Manhattan Beach land speculator Brian Sweeney $43 million in 1998 for the 7,000-acre Coast Dairies farm, north of Santa Cruz, when he threatened to develop it.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, once accused Sweeney of "environmental terrorism" for buying land, threatening to develop it, then selling to preservationists for a profit. Sweeney, who owns 2,000 acres in the Santa Monica mountains, contributed nearly $100,000 in 2002 to the California Conservation Campaign, which promoted Propositions 40 and 50.

In Monterey County, the Nature Conservancy and Big Sur Land Trust paid cellular phone mogul Craig McCaw $37 million for his 9,000-acre Palo Corona Ranch near Big Sur in 2002.

In Santa Barbara County, the Trust for Public Land is trying to raise $20 million for the 135-acre Ellwood Mesa in Goleta, where owners Comstock Homes and Santa Barbara Development Partners proposed 131 homes.

Conservationists bent on preserving the county's Gaviota Coast are also eyeing a 200-acre property where the California Coastal Commission rejected Orange County developer Hadi Makarechian's proposed Dos Pueblos Golf Course.

Makarechian's Capital Pacific Holdings contributed $100,000 last year to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign and has sued the state for $35 million. But Schuchat said it's doubtful there will be money for the 200 acres in this round of bond funding.

Yet there will likely be another round. Land trust officials, buoyed by the "renaissance" of state money for land buys, are tentatively discussing a new bond measure, possibly in 2006 or 2008, to buy still more.

"We haven't come anywhere close to buying all the land we need, that's been identified by local government and state and federal agencies," said Reed Holderman, vice president and regional director of the Trust for Public Land.