SAN SIMEON, Calif. -- For the better part of a century, the mountains and coastal moors that William Randolph Hearst regarded as the most beautiful countryside on earth have remained almost as wild and empty as when he first saw them. And bought them.
Along with nearby Big Sur, San Simeon is an epic stretch of
sculpted rock, roiling sea and teeming wildlife that makes the central coast of California one of nature's grand stage sets.
Yet this land is also private property, where the publishing magnate built his legendary castle and amassed a 77,000-acre ranch.
The castle was given to the state of California in 1958. But the ranch is now the focus of an ambitious development plan that is testing the resolve of policy-makers to preserve an unusual natural resource while upholding property rights.
Near the historic village of San Simeon, the Hearst Corp. wants to build a sprawling resort community that would include a 27-hole golf course, two hotels, a dude ranch, an arcade of shops and restaurants, and employee housing for up to 1,000 people.
The golf course is the most controversial element. West of California Highway 1, it would range across hundreds of acres of furrowed, salt-sprayed headlands perched over the Pacific.
"This is a classic test of the coastal act," says Lee Otter, the state government's senior planner for the central coast. "The challenge is to preserve what is special -- the views and the sense of openness -- while ensuring that there is reasonable economic use for the landowner."
The area has "golf written all over it," according to one Hearst consultant. Company publicists are billing the project as "the next Pebble Beach." It is a reference to the Carmel resort that set an American standard for spectacular ocean-side golf courses, draws more than 200,000 visitors a year and has helped make the Monterey Peninsula one of the more fashionable addresses on the West Coast.
The Hearst Corp. says the San Simeon development would generate $3 million in tax revenue for San Luis Obispo County. But the proposal has divided public opinion in nearby towns, which have raised environmental and financial objections. And the proposal has become part of a broader test of wills between forces fighting for control of the central coast.
The tension is palpable. Barbed wire and security patrols block traditional trails across miles of open country bought up by builders in recent years.
"If we say 'yes' to everything Hearst wants, how do we say 'no' to all the other developers waiting in line?" asks Shirley Bianchi, a country planning commissioner.
Environmentalists, among them Richard Hawley, a carpenter who heads a local land conservancy, worry about polluted runoff from construction debris and parking lots, fertilizer and chemicals from the proposed golf course, and a pipeline that would divert huge quantities of stream water to hotels and restaurants.
Wildlife biologists are particularly concerned about the fate of local fish that spend part of the year in salt water and part in creeks such as Arroyo de la Cruz, from which Hearst wants to pump water for the resort.
"It would be the end of the steelhead fishery," says Jennifer Nichols, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. "The stream is already dry part of the year because of pumping for the castle and the ranch."
Hearst representatives say they have spent 11 years studying the impact of their proposed development and insist it would be done sensitively.
According to Hearst Corp. lawyer Philip M. Battaglia, monitoring wells have confirmed the presence of abundant water supplies beneath Arroyo de la Cruz; the design of the golf course would follow National Audubon Society guidelines for safe grading and drainage; coastal access would be preserved with the creation of a nature trail around San Simeon Point and new buildings would be hidden by trees and slopes.
Battaglia said the development, as currently planned, would occupy a small fraction of the entire Hearst ranch: "For 140 years, as long as this land has been in the family, the Hearsts have been committed to keeping the vast bulk of it in agriculture. There is no reason to believe that commitment is waning."
The natural splendor of the ranch today, Battaglia says, is due to the stewardship of generations of family members, starting with William Randolph Hearst, who ran the ranch as a wildlife sanctuary. Hearst was so obsessed with preserving the natural bounty of the place, biographers report, that he had food scraps left out for the castle mice.
In the 1960s, however, the Hearst Corp., which is controlled by family members, briefly explored plans to develop a city of 30,000 on the ranch.
When the current proposal for the resort development was sketched out in the 1980s, San Luis Obispo County officials sought to balance the plan with zoning that dedicated the rest of the ranch to agriculture and open space. A few years later, county officials removed the zoning at the behest of the Hearst Corp.