After decades of environmental battles, Pebble Beach, one of the world's most elite golf meccas, may finally be ready for a development that nearly everyone can live with.
Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the other owners of the Pebble Beach Co. are back with a new plan, five years after whiffing on a proposal for the oceanfront landscape rich with opulent mansions and a history of celebrities including Bing Crosby and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 2007, the California Coastal Commission shot down the company's last bid to build a new 18-hole golf course, luxury homes and hotel rooms -- a project that would have sacrificed 18,000 trees.
The new plan, billed as the final development ever to be proposed for Pebble Beach, includes no new golf courses. Instead, developers would construct a new 100-room hotel and restaurant at an old quarry site near Spyglass Hill Golf Course. They would add 140 rooms at the famous Lodge at Pebble Beach and Inn at Spanish Bay, along with up to 90 new homes, and would permanently protect 635 acres of rare Monterey pines.
The Coastal Commission is set to vote on it Wednesday. Environmentalists are not drawing their swords, and for now, it appears one of the most contentious development battles on the California coast may be heading for a permanent truce.
"People who are property owners and people who are environmentalists can find common ground," said Ueberroth,
After the brutal battle five years ago, which ended with an 8-4 rejection by the Coastal Commission after an 11-hour meeting, Ueberroth set up a series of meetings with Peter Douglas, the commission's former executive director.
Douglas, who died last month of cancer, was an ardent defender of the coast, a hero to environmentalists and a relentless antagonist of developers. But he also was a student at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach in the late 1950s, and someone who knew the history and natural features of the Monterey Peninsula intimately.
"Living there and walking through the night to the ocean's edge just changed my life," Douglas said in an interview with this newspaper in November. "It was the beating of the ocean on the shore, that perpetual motion that really inspired me to a lifelong philosophy of humility and awe and respect for nature."
Douglas and Ueberroth, two of the most influential people in California, began a series of discussions. They hiked along the beaches and forests of Pebble Beach. And in 2009, they signed an agreement spelling out the terms of the development that the Pebble Beach Co. is pursuing. Expanding the existing hotels was OK. So was building a few dozen more homes to add to the roughly 3,000 already there. But a new golf course in a sensitive area known for its endangered orchids, frogs and trees was out of the question.
"I was able to talk about his views and his vision and ours, and in the end I think I found myself more on his side of the argument than I was on ours," Ueberroth said. "And that's on the merits. We had a commonality of loving the ocean, of growing up in the area.
"I got to know Peter very well over the years. He was right, and we were wrong. God bless him."
Environmentalists have been fighting battles over the fate of the undeveloped land in the Pebble Beach area for 50 years.
The Sierra Club's local Ventana chapter was founded by legendary photographer Ansel Adams in 1963 after he became concerned about the area's Del Monte Forest being carved into homesites. The club now says it would like to see a few of the 90 new lots clustered in different areas.
"It's much better than the 2007 plan," said Rita Dalessio, the chapter's conservation leader. "We've got laws that allow development in precious areas. What they are doing is generally OK."
Some environmentalists remain uncomfortable that about 4,000 trees will be cut down for the homes. And they have other issues, including that the company be required to build low-income housing required under county rules on the site, rather than providing cash to build it elsewhere.
"The new plan is a vast improvement over what was originally proposed and ultimately rejected," said Amy White, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County. "That doesn't mean there aren't ways to make it better."
Few places in California have the colorful history of Pebble Beach.
A former Mexican land grant, the area was purchased in 1880 by a company controlled by California's "Big Four" railroad barons -- Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis P. Huntington. They built the famed 17 Mile Drive in 1891, creating a route for tourists in horse-drawn wagons to see the coast. Today, motorists pay $9.75 per car to drive the same route, over stunning rocky beaches and past enormous mansions.
In recent years Pebble Beach has been home to Eastwood, comedian George Lopez, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Charles Schwab.
From the 1940s until his death in 1977, Crosby held the annual "Clambake" golf tournament at Pebble Beach, pairing amateurs like Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon and Bob Hope with professionals like Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. Taylor filmed "National Velvet" at Pebble Beach. Alfred Hitchcock filmed "Vertigo" there, near Cypress Point.
In 1999, Ueberroth, Palmer, Eastwood and Dick Ferris, former CEO of United Airlines, bought the company for $820 million from Japanese businessmen. Ueberroth's group was bankrolled by the GE Pension Fund and 132 private investors who put up between $2 million and $10 million each.
Now, Ueberroth said, they will never sell it. And if the Coastal Commission, and then Monterey County, approves the latest plan, they will be finished with development forever.
"It is well-cared for and will continue to be well-cared for," he said. "We want everybody's great-grandchildren to be able to experience something that their great-great grandparents experienced, and have it be the same."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045.