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Competing visions undermine unity of county environmental leaders; Hearst Ranch plan exposes rift
By Nathan Welton
The Tribune
July 18, 2004


Six years ago, the local environmental community united to successfully defeat the Hearst Corp.'s plans to develop a five-star resort on its 82,000-acre ranch near San Simeon.

But the heady times and harmony have in recent years devolved into public infighting, mostly over the same topic.

Disagreement among environmentalists over Hearst was evident last week when details of a new deal to conserve the ranch went before the public.

Leading up to that event was raucous name-calling littering editorial pages -- one recent letter painted North Coast county supervisor Shirley Bianchi "a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hearst Corp." for her support of the current preservation and development plan.

Meanwhile, a former adviser to the Environmental Defense Center has admonished the group for having the temerity to make a public request for documents related to the Hearst deal.

And Sierra Club officials are threatening to kick local board member Tim O'Keefe out of the organization for publicly airing his differences over Hearst.

"There is a lot of dissent," said Bianchi, whose record as a staunch environmentalist helped win her a seat on the board. "The disagreements are really distressing to me because up until about eight years ago, the environmental community in the county was a very cohesive unit."

Some are not surprised by the clashes.

"(These environmentalists) put in so much time, and maybe that's why they like airing their strong opinions," said former local Sierra Club board member Jim Empey, who resigned after a short stint because he wanted to focus on his family and his high school environmental science students. "When you have strong-minded people it's hard for them to come to a consensus on anything."

Disagreements between environmentalists aren't unusual. The national Sierra Club, for example, is currently embroiled in a highly publicized debate over immigration and its effect on the environment.

But the disputes among local environmentalist ranks, if left unaddressed, could hamper the success of future land deals, some activists worry.

According to several environmentalists, land owners and conservation groups might not seek Sierra Club support in future projects.

As long as the perceived fracture within and surrounding the Sierra Club doesn't turn advocates off, the supposed division could be curiously beneficial.

"I'm not sure why they don't want people to know the environmental community isn't in harmony," said Empey. "In the long run it'll be healthy."

He explained that mainstream environmentalism has become mundane, now the province of lawyers instead of activists strapping themselves to trees. But while the arguing and notoriety over the Hearst deal has "hit rock bottom," he simultaneously likened the passion to the Diablo Canyon protests that garnered national attention in 1981.

"Having a disagreement is not wrong in my eyes," he said. "At least people are speaking up and waking up and reading the paper. At least there's something to talk about and something to do."

The beginning

The Hearst Ranch has seen its share of development proposals since William Randolph Hearst began construction in 1919 of an opulent 165-room, 127-acre estate called The Enchanted Hill. The lavish compound became known as Hearst Castle and was donated to California in 1957, eventually maturing into one of the most lucrative links in the state parks chain.

In 1965, Hearst officials proposed the Piedra Blanca Rancho, a 60,000-person, seven-village coastal community complete with a college, a hospital, an airport and two reservoirs. The plan met resistance in its initial stages and was ultimately written out of the county's planning guidelines in 1980.

Still, development proposals continued to appear, and in 1984 the state Coastal Commission approved several aspects of a wide-ranging project. It denied a 250-room complex at San Carpoforo Point, but approved a 650-room resort, an equestrian center and a 27-hole golf course at San Simeon Point, to be built in four phases over 15 years.

County staff recommended deleting the equestrian center and reducing the rooms from 650 to 500, which the outgoing Board of Supervisors approved in 1996.

The Hearst Corp. in turn sued the county, and a pro-development majority of the incoming board effectively reversed the previous decision in June 1997. Then the Coastal Commission readied itself for a January 1998 hearing on the
Hearst Ranch Resort.

With the meeting dubbed the "coastal battle of the decade," hundreds of supporters appeared for the day-long debate. Demonstrators and advocates picketed, set up booths and overflowed from the discussion chamber into the lobby of the Embassy Suites in San Luis Obispo.

Many remember it as one of the most unifying events the regional environmental community had ever seen.

"I think for the San Luis Obispo region it was incredible," said Linda Krop, chief counsel for Santa Barbara's Environmental Defense Center (EDC), a key opponent of the project. "I've never seen that many people at a hearing, and I know the Coastal Commission was incredibly impressed with it. And there weren't squabbles" among the environmental contingent.

At the end of the 12-hour session, commissioners rejected the Hearst plan in a 12-0 vote, but then passed a smaller proposal that trimmed Hearst's resort to 375 rooms at San Simeon Village. The unanimous vote and the strong environmentalist showing, however, effectively silenced the Hearst development.

A new plan

Steve Hearst assumed the helm of the Hearst Land Division and in late 2002 launched a new plan featuring a conservation component.

Negotiations began in August 2001 with the Nature Conservancy. When those talks broke down, Hearst switched in December 2002 to the American Land Conservancy and announced the framework at the same time.

But a segment of the environmental community reserved a deep distrust for Hearst Corp., remembering what it saw as repeated attempts to force its development on the Central Coast.

"I had a long history of fighting that Hearst Corp., and it does make your tummy turn over to be named in a lawsuit by them," Bianchi said, referring to litigation against the county by the company in 1996.

But when Hearst returned on its own accord to the table, she was willing to listen -- albeit with some suspicion.

She wasn't the only one with skepticism.

Perceiving in Bianchi an unwillingness to question the deal, some activists doubted her leadership. Kat McConnell, a former Cambrian who now lives in Santa Barbara, lost a bid against Bianchi for the Second District supervisor seat, and she was the one who penned a letter to the editor calling Bianchi "a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hearst Corp."

As the negotiations unfolded, ALC and Hearst representatives met continually behind closed doors -- a practice common to land deals.

"If you wanted to sell your house and you had to invite your neighbors in to make the conditions of the sale," said Bianchi, "you'd never get it sold."

Due to the price, finality and unique nature of the Hearst deal, the secrecy wasn't acceptable to the Sierra Club and its associates. They advocated for the release of the information over and above the single public document called the "framework," a brief summary bulleted with terse promises.

"When you've got a fleet of attorneys working full time on hammering out this deal, you can bet it'll include a lot more specific do's and don'ts than what they've included on a one-page framework," said Sarah Christie, local chapter board member and legislative director for the state Coastal Commission.

"We all knew what the deal was (in 1997), and we'd seen the North Coast plan," the EDC's Krop said. "But here we've had a year and a half of conjecture, so it's just been festering because we don't know what we're talking about."

Christie explained that some environmental leaders were worried that the "framework" would garner enough momentum to cause people to overlook potential problems with the details.

So some groups united to back the vision of the EDC and Cambria-based Friends of the Ranchland: the so-called "blueprint," a document explaining a new interpretation of what should be in the deal.

"We didn't want to be at the table. We want to influence the deal," said Tarren Collins, the local chapter's chairwoman. "We have a right to talk to representatives and our government officials and tell them what we want to see."

Some denounced the EDC and the Sierra Club as contrarians and found the continual requests for information unpalatable, questioning if the advocacy-based approaches could backfire.

"From a political standpoint the club holds a lot of clout, but there are still a lot of land trusts that are going to do deals, and they'll still court the Sierra Club for support," said the local group's former chief, Gary Felsman, a former chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. He cautioned, though, that if the group continues with its allegedly aggressive, advocacy-based tactics, some local land trusts might not seek the organization's help.

"Why bother?" he asked.

Activists unwilling to waste money on a less-than-perfect deal say they've got lots of reasons to care: This land deal -- one of the biggest in state history -- will cost the public $95 million.

"From the public's perspective and that of elected officials and nonprofits and that of the taxpayers of this state who will be footing the bill, the question has got to be asked: What is the public getting for its money?" said Christie.

Letters show tensions

As tempers flared, some wondered whether the environmental left could tolerate dissent. The climax came as Sierra Club officials began considering removing one local leader from both his post and even the entire organization.

Tim O'Keefe, a board member of the Santa Lucia chapter for about five years, wrote a letter to The Tribune in May chastising the group's leadership for what he said were confrontational tactics that could damage the club's reputation. He introduced himself and signed the note as a board member, but wrote, "My comments here are intended to represent my personal viewpoint alone."

He wasn't alone in being upset with the club's attitude.

"I get the sense that local club members are embarrassed," said Felsman. "I'm one of them, and that's my opinion."
Club members sent a number of e-mails of support to O'Keefe, but board president Collins said her group sides with the chapter's official position.

"I have overwhelming encouragement and support from our members," she said. "They call me and express gratitude beyond belief that we've taken a hard line and that we won't let the corporate machinery and the Hearst Corp. and a few people the newspaper's given a voice to prevail."

In an interview, O'Keefe said he objected specifically to what he described as the group's bullying tone and lack of interest in compromise.

"They've turned a lot of the longtime environmental people off," he said, "and I lay that part right at the doorstep of overzealous environmental activity that shouldn't have happened."

In a private e-mail to O'Keefe, the club's state legislative director Bill Allayaud and regional staff director Carl Zichella accused him of destabilizing the organization's position over the deal, and stressed the group was conducting itself in a highly professional, thorough, truthful and open manner.

A month later, The Tribune published a rebuttal to O'Keefe from Collins, accusing him of trying to undermine the
Sierra Club's policies and reiterating the organization's position. A flurry of other letters, including one from Allayaud and Zichella, soon filled editorial pages of The Tribune and the weekly New Times, and intense, inflammatory name-calling ensued.

Finally, a threatening July 9 letter to O'Keefe from national Sierra Club officials offered him two options: resign from the board and the club entirely, or face an investigation.

But some club officials maintained that O'Keefe had just broken the rules, plain and simple.

"It's a national policy that if someone in a leadership position does something to undermine the club, then their leadership position and also their position in the club can be called into question," said Colby Crotzer, Santa Lucia board member and former Morro Bay city councilman. "It makes no sense for them to undermine the club." Collins and Christie agreed.

But local board remains split on what to do with O'Keefe.

"I don't think he was undermining the club -- I think there's been a need for a more varied range of opinions, more balanced representation of the chapter and not having people be so passionate," said Eliane Guillot, another local board member. "It's great to have passion, it certainly generates participation, but it doesn't mean that everyone has to be on that extreme side of the equation."

More rifts surface

Aside from disagreements regarding O'Keefe, other divisions in the environmental community appear to exist.
In an attempt to secure more information on the Hearst Ranch deal, Santa Barbara's EDC requested from the state in June all copies of documents relating to the plan. A former adviser to the organization, David Anderson, subsequently penned a strongly worded note to the state Coastal Conservancy, a state agency involved in the deal's funding.

He wrote that he couldn't "find any rational basis for the global request for documents," and accused the EDC and its clients of "seeking to hold the proposed Hearst Ranch conservation plan hostage because they could not be part of the negotiations."

Anderson was on vacation last week and couldn't be reached for further comment.

Claims of environmental unity could also be overstated regarding the so-called SLO Coast Alliance, consisting of more than 30 local and statewide environmental groups representing what advocates called some 22,000 supporters. According to Sierra Club and EDC representatives, they've all united on the Hearst deal, calling for public disclosure of details and participation in the talks.

Doug Buckmaster, local club member and president of Friends of the Ranchland (and a key player in the 1998 campaign against the Hearst development), sent a letter to the national Sierra Club espousing environmental unity while, ironically, calling for O'Keefe's removal.

But the assertions aren't completely accurate.

A third of the SLO Coast Alliance consists of organizations outside the county, from Topanga to Sebastopol, and one is an orchestra. Just three people represent 10 of the 18 member organizations based within the county, and not all Alliance groups voted to support or oppose the "framework." Further, at least four of the local environmental endorsements for the "framework" came from Alliance members represented by the very members Sierra Club leaders contend remain undecided. Those four members, however, are all represented by one man, Nipomo resident Bill Denneen.

On the other hand, at least 19 local environmental groups, a senator, a congressman, two county boards of supervisors, the SLO Council of Governments, seven public agencies, four agricultural organizations and six chambers of commerce have all supported the "framework." Included are various environmental groups: PasoWatch, the Morro Coast Audubon Society chapter and the North Coast Alliance.

But some of those 19 groups are land conservancies, said Christie, which are different from hers.

"They're land trusts -- they're very different animals than advocacy organizations," she said. "They come in when you have a willing seller and they have to tread lightly and have to be neutral and be nonconfrontational."

It's just natural

Some argue Bianchi and those supporting the "framework" bought into the Hearst public relations machine, while others contend SLO Coast Alliance leaders were simply unable to overcome years of bitterness toward the corporation. In the end, however, the problems might just be expected.

In the Hearst deal, as with many land acquisitions, a variety of different organizations collided: advocacy groups like the Sierra Club; deal brokers like the ALC; law firms like the EDC; and politicians, concerned citizens and a willing land owner.

Speaking in general terms, local environmental planner Chris Clark said that when advocacy organizations become involved in land acquisitions, problems can arise.

"Oftentimes when they switch roles their attitudes and techniques become counterproductive," he explained.

When so many people with so many opinions vie for the best option, disagreements become inevitable. The trick, said Felsman, is moving forward -- a goal, he said, should be key.

Empey suggested that the Hearst situation was unique in how much passion it stirred and said he's surprised nobody has resigned from club leadership.

"A tour of duty is sometimes what (board membership) is, man," he said. "But I don't think it'll ever be this bitter -- there's no coastline that's as pristine and as emotionally charged as Hearst."

To some degree, the ebb and flow -- even the struggle -- was only natural, according to local environmentalist Terri Dunivant.

"It's not like there's a weakening," she explained. "In any ecosystem there are symbiotic relationships and there are also parasites, but everyone is working for their own survival. You'll have that in any organization.

"I wouldn't call it weak. It just happens in any dynamic system including natural ecosystems and that amorphous thing called the environmental community."
Some groups that endorsed the preservation "framework":
* American Land Conservancy
* Audubon Society, Morro Coast chapter
* Cambria Land Conservancy
* North Coast Alliance
* Paso Watch
Some groups that endorsed a different approach, called the "blueprint":
* The Sierra Club
* The Environmental Defense Center

Key SLO County environmental leaders:
* Tarren Collins and Sarah Christie, Sierra Club Santa Lucia chapter board members, called for full public disclosure of the details regarding the Hearst deal.
* Tim O'Keefe, another board member, publicly called the group's approach confrontational.
* Colby Crotzer, Eliane Guillot, Steve Marx, three other board members with varied opinions.
* Gary Felsman, former local Sierra Club chief, has questioned the group's tactics.
* Shirley Bianchi, a county supervisor with a strong environmental record, has come under attack for supporting the framework.