California's 'Crown Jewel' May Finally Be Open to the Public ; State Hopes to Turn Hearst Ranch, on Edge of Big Sur, into Conservation Area, Symbolizing a Growing Trend in Land Deals

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After 25 years of debate, one of the last, stretches of breathtaking California coastline - the southern end of Big Sur's ragged beaches, where the scenic highway dips and rises - may be finally closing in on its future.

With details unveiled last week and a brief comment period open before state agencies act, one longtime California conservationist calls the tentative plan "the deal of the century. A leading national environmental group spokesman calls it a "bald-faced, end- run development plan masquerading as a conservation deal."

Either way, national land trust experts say it is an example of the increasing trend by local and state governments to make complicated compromises that may irk purists but protect far more land than fund-strapped public entities and conservation groups can afford.

At issue: public access to 18 miles of coastline at the southern end of California's rugged, Big Sur coastline and limited development on 82,000 acres of adjacent ranchland characterized by both sides as "the Crown Jewel of California's Central Coast."

"This is one of the biggest deals in the history of American land conservation because of the size of the land in question, its unsurpassed beauty and the importance of the habitat," says Rick Hawley, executive director of Greenspace Cambria Land Trust, a local environmental organization.

As revealed last week, the tentative plan would transfer 1,500 acres of coastal land to the state and guarantee public access to the shoreline by 18 miles of trail and other access points. It would also give permanent protection to the 82,000 acre ranch - an area the size of San Francisco city and county - through conservation easements.

But it would also allow the ranch owners, the Hearst Corporation, to build a 100-unit resort in the seaside community of Old San Simeon Village and 27 homes on five-acre sites east of Highway 1 (also known as Pacific Coast Highway) which runs the length of California.

"This is the best - and last - conservation deal of this century," says Liz Scott-Graham, a conservationist in San Luis Obispo who has worked on conservation easements in California for 15 years. She notes that the Hearsts had been pushing for much bigger developments going back to the 1970s.

"The public is getting a better deal than most could ever imagine," says Ms. Scott-Graham. She notes the land has been appraised by the state at $230 million. "Hearst is giving up all kinds of rights in perpetuity but being allowed limited development that is far less than they have been pushing for over three decades."

By local estimates in San Luis Obispo, two-thirds of the public supported the plan at the first public hearing last week. …