Five years on, Hearst Ranch Conservation Plan is meeting its main goal

Few local residents and area visitors who were asked recently about the Hearst Ranch Conservation Plan, a $95 million agreement covering 82,000 acres, were even aware of it.

Those who did know about the deal say it hasn’t made a big impact on their views or lives — which may be the best evidence that the agreement, which became official five years ago today, has so far achieved its primary goal of keeping the sprawling landscape essentially the same forever.

What changes the agreement does allow won’t happen anytime soon, due to slumping economic conditions, a Hearst family member said.

Environmentalists had battled Hearst Corp. for more than three decades over its plans to develop some of the historic ranch on the North Coast, including a major resort, golf course and homes.

The ranch, in the Hearst family since 1865, surrounds Hearst Castle, which became part of the state parks system in 1958.

Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s great-grandson Stephen Hearst, a Hearst Corp. vice president, conceived the conservation agreement. Formal negotiations with the American Land Conservancy began in 2001. An agreement was reached in 2004, and escrow closed Feb. 18, 2005.

The Hearst Corp. deeded 15 its 18 miles of coastal property, 949 acres, to the state and agreed to a conservation easement restricting development on the remaining 80,000 acres of the ranch.

Hearst Corp. retained rights to put a 100-room inn at Old San Simeon Village and no more than 27 homes in the ranch’s hills and 15 homes for employees east of San Simeon Acres.

Corporation officials say they don’t expect to move forward with those plans any time soon.

“The economic downturn put that process on hold,” Stephen Hearst said. “It’s not a point of conversation right now.”

Hearst Corp. did receive county approval of lot line adjustments between four of its remaining oceanfront parcels, but that decision was appealed to the California Coastal Commission, which has yet to rule.

Andrew Christie, coordinator of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Old San Simeon Village development would be “inconsistent with the county’s Local Coastal Plan (LCP).”

“I have no idea whether the Hearst conservation is working or not,” said Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director. “There is no transparency here.”

He said the commission will “deal with some of these (concerns) when the Hearst Corp. and/or the county comes forward for amendment to the county’s LCP to accommodate the various residential compounds or to develop the resort at San Simeon.”

Under easement terms, representatives of California Rangeland Trust monitor the ranch twice a year. The California Wildlife Conservation Board reviews the audit reports, and Hearst Ranch gets a copy.

“We’ve passed with flying colors,” Hearst said in December.

That doesn’t surprise Shirley Bianchi, a Hearst Ranch neighbor, former county supervisor and former Hearst-development critic who became a supporter of the conservation plan.

“Am I happy with the results?” she asked. “You better believe it. That massive development won’t happen now, so biodiversity on the ranch will continue. … To me, that makes the Hearst deal the poster child for conserving agricultural land, preserving the beauty of the ranch and the extraordinary biodiversity. I don’t care if the public could walk on the ranch or not.”

Those hiking along miles of oceanfront bluffs, though, don’t have to climb over barbed-wire fences and trespass any more, since the land, including the elephant seal colony area, now belongs to State Parks.

“Now people can legally do what they’d been doing for years anyway,” said Nick Franco, superintendent of the parks district that includes Hearst San Simeon State Park.

“They love the wilderness feel of it, that there’s no development on this pristine coastline. … That’s a pretty unique thing in California. … We preserved what is … which is what Parks is supposed to do.”