Eastwood-led building plan leads to battle over forest

By Ken McLaughlin
Mercury News

It's Clint Eastwood's half-billion-dollar baby -- a sweeping development plan for Monterey Peninsula's fabled Del Monte Forest.

So far the ``baby'' is garnering both jeers and plaudits. In one corner: environmental activists and the California Coastal Commission staff. In the other: the Pebble Beach Co. and Monterey County's elected officials. And both sides are digging in for the long haul.

The Pebble Beach Co., owned by Eastwood, golfer Arnold Palmer, ex-baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and other investors, wants to build a championship 18-hole golf course and driving range in the area's signature Monterey pine forest. The 150-acre development would also include a new equestrian center, 33 luxury homes and 160 hotel rooms and suites.

In exchange, the company is offering to preserve more than 800 acres as permanent open space -- most of it in Pebble Beach, a 5,200-acre gated community that is home to the 17-Mile Drive, seven 18-hole courses and one nine-hole course.

But many environmentalists are saying no to the quid pro quo -- and urging California coastal commissioners to reject the plan when it reaches them later this year.

``They're taking the heart of one of California's last intact coastal forests,'' said Mark Massara, who directs the Sierra's Club's coastal programs. ``To chop down more than 17,000 Monterey pines for golf is akin to cutting down the Amazon forest for hamburger.''

The Pebble Beach Co. says it's being unfairly maligned by what it called environmental extremists who have never seen a golf course or hotel development they liked. Company officials also point out that the plan was overwhelmingly approved by Monterey County voters as Measure A in November 2000. Seventy percent of Pebble Beach residents voted yes.

``Measure A was an excellent vehicle for getting everything out on the table and understood by the people,'' said Carmel developer Alan Williams, the Pebble Beach Co.'s development partner.

But the coastal commission's staff has chastised Monterey County and Pebble Beach Co. officials for heralding the ballot measure and ignoring the Coastal Act, a landmark land-use law adopted by California voters in 1972.

``There's a train wreck coming,'' said Peter Douglas, executive director of the commission. ``We've told the company year after year that the development conflicts with state law. But they won't have it.''

Warning by staff

Specifically, the staff warned the company and the county that the plan threatened wetlands, dunes and dozens of rare and endangered species such as the California red-legged frog. Last month, Deputy Director Charles Lester all but begged the Monterey County Board of Supervisors not to approve the plan because it violates both the county's own local coastal program and the coastal commission's development permit for the Pebble Beach Co.'s Spanish Bay project, approved in 1985.

But the board last week grumbled about the commission staff and OK'd the new plan 5-0, sending it to the coastal commission. The panel is expected to vote on the plan within several months.

Most of the denizens of Pebble Beach's Del Monte Forest are still backing Eastwood, a neighbor.

``The long and short of it is that the Pebble Beach Co. asked the residents for their feelings about the development every step of the way,'' said Jack Kidder, president of the Del Monte Forest Property Owners. In 2003, Kidder said, Eastwood even attended one of the group's meetings to answer questions about the plan.

Most local residents were thrilled when Eastwood, Ueberroth, Palmer and others bought the company in 1999 for $820 million. Its previous owner -- Taiheiyo Club Inc., a Japanese company -- had proposed building another golf course as well as 315 new homes.

``Yes, in most people's hearts we kind of like it the way it is,'' Kidder acknowledged. ``But we'd prefer a resort development to carving up the forest into single-family homes.''

Potential inflated

The coastal commission's staff has accused Measure A backers of inflating the land's development potential, considering that it lies in the restricted coastal zone. And some Pebble Beach residents have joined the chorus of condemnation.

``They've been serving as a branch of Pebble Beach Co. ever since I left that organization,'' Ted Hunter said of the leaders of the property owners' group, which he headed in the late '80s and early '90s.

And Measure A?

``They just snowed the public with Clint Eastwood's glamour,'' Hunter said.

The Pebble Beach Co. spent $1 million to place Measure A on the ballot and advertise it. Two ubiquitous TV commercials featured Eastwood and his wife, Dina Ruiz Eastwood, making pitches in the pine forest.

In 1986, Clint Eastwood proved to be as popular at the ballot box as he is at the box office, easily outgunning the incumbent mayor of Carmel. He served two years.

As a developer, he has a reputation as an environmentalist with a libertarian bent. Most of his previous projects were generally well-received. But he's always tussled with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. The Sierra Club unsuccessfully sued him over the Tehama Golf Club and residential community near the Monterey Airport. One of the key issues: the loss of Monterey pines.

``Once again he's going to be destroying a magnificent pine forest purely for greed,'' said Carmel activist David Dilworth.

Eastwood could not be reached for comment this week. Williams said his friend was off directing Steven Spielberg's ``Flags of Our Fathers,'' the story of the six men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.

During the Measure A campaign, however, Eastwood told the Mercury News the development plan was a no-brainer because it preserved so much of the forest and developed so little of it.

``It would be counterproductive to ruin the place that you call home,'' Eastwood said. ``This beautiful forest will be saved forever.''
Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@mercury news.com or (831) 423-3115.