Conservationists May Acquire Hearst Coastal Property

By: Erica Werner, Associated Press Writer

(AP) During his lifetime, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst built a media empire and an opulent castle. But one thing he left virtually untouched has been the subject of years of debate.

Now a deal nearing completion could preserve for the public one of Hearst’s most impressive legacies: A vast, unspoiled tract of California coastline that’s home to zebras, rare oaks, and other exotic and endangered species.

The Hearst Corp. of New York is close to an agreement to sell development rights at the Hearst Ranch to conservationists, a plan that could permanently preserve the land some 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

“It’s remarkable that we even have this opportunity to buy 18 miles of California coastline that has been virtually untouched,” said Kara Blakeslee of the American Land Conservancy. “Those kinds of opportunities today are extremely rare.”

The deal would create public trails along the entire stretch of coast, and guarantee public access to much of the oceanfront acreage. Hearst would retain the right to build homes on 27 lots and an inn, and some beach areas could remain closed if they’re deemed too environmentally fragile for public use.

Hearst Ranch — best known for the monumental, never-completed Hearst Castle that draws more than 850,000 visitors a year — also is home to 82,000 spectacular acres of beaches and cattle country that evoke the romantic image of Old California.

It is one of the last undeveloped pieces of California’s coast, which is increasingly squeezed by expansion from Los Angeles to the south and the San Francisco Bay area to the north.

The American Land Conservancy is expected to spend in excess of $100 million for Hearst’s development rights, with funding from a mix of public and private sources.

The Hearst Corp. has been considering developing the property for decades, most recently presenting a plan for a luxury golf resort, 650-room hotel, and dude ranch. The proposal provoked a public outcry and was shot down by the regulatory California Coastal Commission in 1998.

Last year, the company took a different tack, entering negotiations with the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund. Those negotiations broke off earlier this month — a confidentiality agreement prevented the parties from saying why — and Hearst turned to the San Francisco-based American Land Conservancy, which has brokered public trust land deals throughout the country.

On the site, threatened red-legged frogs and endangered steelhead trout swim in some of the last free-flowing California coastal streams. Elephant seals loll by the thousands on pristine beaches and several species of oak found nowhere else thrive along with unique kinds of California poppy and other native plants.

The ranch’s vistas take in tide pools, coastal terraces, grasslands, and hardwood forests. It even houses some exotic species that William Randolph Hearst imported decades ago, including zebras, stocky Asian sambar deer, and wild African sheep called aoudads.

“We have announced a framework which we believe addresses most of the larger contentious developmental issues that have been highly controversial in the community for some time,” said Stephen T. Hearst, vice president and general manager of Hearst’s land holdings and the great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst.

Environmentalists said they wanted to see the final details before declaring victory.

“As good as all of this sounds and as much as everyone would like to believe that this is the way it’s actually going to be, it would be foolish for anyone to buy into it until they actually see something with the final language and Hearst’s signatures,” said coastal activist Kat McConnell. “There are a lot of question marks.”

Hearst said the 27 homes would be developed east of coastal Highway 1 and located responsibly, although it’s not clear where or how large they would be. In holding onto the 27 lots, Hearst is abandoning rights to build on 244 others.

The inn Hearst proposes would be within existing Old San Simeon Village, next to San Simeon Point, and could be modeled after plans by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan. Hearst said the inn would be significantly smaller than the 375-room structure recommended by Coastal Commission staff for the spot.

The agreement also would retain the working nature of the ranch, where cattle have grazed since the 1860s. After the deal between Hearst and American Land Conservancy is made final, the conservancy would look for funding sources and finalize other aspects of the agreement.

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