By Erin Sherbert
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Kat McConnell stands on the point at San Simeon, a sizable spit of land reaching out into the Pacific. She watches the ocean below, her back to a stand of cypress trees much older than she. It's been a gentle day, the wind absent, the surf meek. Several deer are about, judging by the fresh tracks in the woods. A curious cormorant peeks out from a crevice in the bluff, watching its mate ride the air currents. For long moments, not another human being is seen or heard.
This sparsely populated stretch of the California coast has a particular beauty, more subtle than the precipitous grandeur of Big Sur farther north. Fall rains have coaxed green from the rolling hills, which cascade inland like swells of a rising tide. Vistas of open land, sea, or sky unfold in all directions. This rare blend of splendor and solitude, McConnell says, is what induced her and her husband to ditch Los Angeles about five years ago and move to the small coastal town of Cambria several miles south of the point.
The same panorama beckoned William Randolph Hearst earlier in the century, when he chose a hill overlooking San Simeon to build his famed castle, an opulent testament to the late publishing magnate's wealth and power. The castle is barely visible from Highway 1, peering down from its distant, tree-lined perch. But it's been an object of awe since Orson Welles made the movie Citizen Kane, immortalizing not just Hearst's megalomania, but also the obscenely extravagant enclave of privilege Hearst imported to this lonely stretch of unspoiled coast.
Now war has come to Xanadu, and the battleground surrounds McConnell as she stands at the point, her back to the trees.
Although the castle was donated to the state for use as a park after Hearst's death, the New York-based Hearst Corp. still owns San Simeon Point, and most everything around it. Some 77,000 acres of rolling hills and coastline -- including about 20 miles of oceanfront -- comprise the Hearst Ranch, and that's just what is left of the even larger holdings amassed by William Randolph's father in the 1800s.
The ranch has remained largely untouched since Hearst died 46 years ago, save for the cattle grazing and the tourists lining up to ride buses to the castle.
Area ranchers, townsfolk, and environmentalists consider the ranch an anchor for one of the last, vast unspoiled stretches of the state's coastline, a place where elephant seals sun on the rocks, monarch butterflies tarry during their annual migrations, and threatened strains of trout and frogs inhabit the streams.
But Hearst Corp. executives and family heirs think the land is due for some dressing up. On the ocean side of Highway 1, near the bluffs overlooking the sea, they envision a five-star hotel and a golf course worthy of professional tournament play. A quaint little inn will be tucked down by the water, right next to San Simeon Point. Farther inland, on the east side of the highway, they're thinking of putting another hotel, some cabins, stables, and horse trails. There will also have to be restaurants, campgrounds, and souvenir shops, plus housing for the workers who will be needed to staff the place.
Altogether, the "Hearst Ranch Resorts" would consume only a fraction of the company's extensive land holdings. But the idea has spawned the most intense battle in years over the future of California's cherished coastline.
The multibillion-dollar, privately held media company -- which owns television stations, cable channels, magazines, and newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner -- is determined to get into the resort business. And Hearst appears willing to spend what it takes and sue whom it must to get the dirt flying.
Set against the company is a confederation of ranchers, local activists, and environmental groups who argue that the Hearst proposal flies in the face of state laws and regulations designed to protect the coast. If built on the scale Hearst is proposing, they say, the resort will wipe out wildlife habitat, strain already scarce water supplies, and overwhelm the schools, roads, and police and fire services in the rural area.
Perhaps worse, they say, one large project such as Hearst's will act like a dynamite charge -- blowing local land prices sky high in a flurry of speculation. Eventually, they fear, ranchers will be priced off the land and the area will cease to be cattle country. "If Hearst wins, it's going to be a field day for developers," says Mark Massara, a San Francisco attorney who monitors the coast for the national office of the Sierra Club. A Hearst victory, Massara says, would mark a "complete betrayal" of the coastal protections that California voters demanded when they approved Proposition 20 in 1972.
The ballot initiative reflected voters' belief that the California coastline should be managed as a whole, not carved up piecemeal into tourist traps, resorts, and private playgrounds for wealthy landowners. Private property rights of coastal landowners are not absolute, and under California law must be balanced against preservation of a unique public resource.
The California Coastal Commission was created to oversee development along the shoreline. Before it allows construction, the commission is supposed to weigh a developer's wishes against the public's interests. Shoreline must remain open to the public. Sensitive wildlife habitats must be protected. Scenic beauty must be maintained, and farmers and ranchers should not be driven from their land. Coastal regulations specifically require that new projects be built close to existing development, prohibiting developers from "leapfrogging" hotels and buildings out into untouched sections of coastline.